Given the benefits of eating whole grain foods in a good diet, that’s a fine question. There’s a long list of reasons why this doesn’t happen, starting with ignorance and confusion. Do you have school-age children? If you do, when was the last time they were taught nutrition in the classroom? And, given that children are likely to mirror their parents’ behavior in the long-term, how balanced is your diet right now?
In too many instances, Americans are woefully, painfully ignorant of what constitutes a healthy diet. They simply aren’t taught what they should and shouldn’t be eating. If you’re going to try to blame underfunded school systems entirely for this lapse, you can’t—not when the scientific community didn’t recognize the merits of whole grains for so many years. The U.S. government’s own 1992 “food pyramid” dietary recommendations mentioned nothing about whole grains at all, simply recommending six to eleven servings daily from the “bread, rice, cereal, and pasta” group. It wasn’t until 2005, when a revised pyramid was published, that whole grains became a daily necessity in the eyes of the USDA. Even so, people are often skeptical about following scientific suggestions for diet.
But this is hardly surprising considering that new reports about what’s “good” and “bad” in human nutrition seem to come out every week—and those reports often contradict one another. Furthermore, nutrition simply isn’t a priority for most people in the U.S. No society with so many overweight citizens and successful fast food chains can claim that nutrition is a preeminent consideration. And Americans depend too heavily on medical and technological “fixes”—something that’s increasingly easy to do given the advancements in both fields over time. With the recognition that diet and lifestyle changes don’t help everybody, it’s much easier to take a pill for high cholesterol levels than it is to maintain a healthier diet and lifestyle.
One reason why Americans don’t eat more whole-grain foods. Photo by Adriana Cal | IST.
America’s White Bread Mentality
The saying about old habits dying hard was never truer than it is concerning diet. Bob Quinn, of the Kamut Association of North America (KANA), believes that Americans are “hung over on the white bread mentality of yesteryear,” adding that, in the past, the food industry way was “refine and replenish”—in other words, remove much of the good of whole grains to make a more refined product, then add some nutrients back in. Todd Kluger, of Roman Meal, points out that many people think whole grain products have to taste bad or bitter.
Until fairly recently, “whole grain” anything usually meant whole wheat, and whole wheat products were made from hard red wheat. The bran of hard red wheat can be bitter, and that bitterness would transfer itself to whatever product was made from the whole wheat. Nowadays, however, producers of whole grain products often use soft white wheat. Although the difference in nutrition between hard red wheat and soft white wheat is minimal, soft white wheat doesn’t have the bitter taste profile associated with hard red wheat bran.
It used to be the case, too, that whole grains and whole grain flour were difficult to store for any length of time. The germ, the oily part of any grain, turned rancid relatively quickly, and even a slight degree of rancidity will produce “off” aromas and a bad taste. Over time, however, processing techniques and packaging have improved to the point where it’s possible to store whole grains and whole grain flour for a longer time period with no rancidity and no ill effects on taste or aroma. And Dennis Gilliam, of Bob’s Red Mill, explains that there are many who associate healthy hot cereals with the boiled-to-death glop that might have been placed in front of them when they were young by a parent or grandparent.
Kamut, pronounced ka-moo, is a trademarked name for a non-hybridized hard spring wheat. It is an ancient relative of modern durum wheat (semolina) that develops a very large kernel. It has a rich, buttery flavor, chewy texture, 30% more protein than wheat and is richer in magnesium, vitamin E and zinc. Kamut contains gluten, but many wheat sensitive people eat it without reaction. This organic Kamut is available from PurcellMountainFarms.com.
Hot Cereal’s Bad Rap
There is some perception in this country that hot cereals take too much time to prepare. Mr. Kluger, however, believes it’s more likely that people don’t want to have to measure anything to make breakfast, they don’t want to have to pay attention to it while it cooks (cooked hot cereals require frequent stirring, or at least a few stirs in the microwave), and they especially don’t want to have to clean up afterward. But microwaving, which is a perfectly good method for cooking hot cereals, cuts down on the number of steps required and can, in some cases, reduce cooking time. It’s also easy to make whole grain cereal a day or three ahead, divide it into individual servings, and store it in the fridge. Come morning, a quick reheat in the microwave ensures a healthy, hot breakfast.
Bob’s Red Mill has a recipe for portable oatmeal that can be prepared in a thermos and taken to work; hot cereals can also be prepared overnight in a crock pot. It’s also possible to add some hot cereals to boiling water, stir, return to the boil, turn off the heat, cover the pot, get ready for work, then come back to a perfectly-cooked hot breakfast. As Dennis Gilliam remarks, it’s simply a matter of getting down your timing (before he grew a beard, he says, he’d use this preparation method for steel cut oats, which would absorb the boiling water while he shaved). Americans tend to think they’re getting enough whole grains, too, even when they’re not, and that brings up the next point: confusion.
This doesn’t refer to the confusion mentioned earlier, in which scientific studies about what’s good and what’s bad for people contradict one another, though that’s bad enough. This is about confusion over what’s really whole grain and what isn’t. While writing this article, I happened to be in the bakery section of a high-end supermarket, and picked up a loaf of store-baked bread called “Whole Grain.” Guess what? It wasn’t. The first ingredient was white flour, or, as the market referred to it, “enriched bromated flour,” meaning that the loaf was predominantly a white flour bread.
A half-cup of oatmeal is almost a full day’s quotient of whole grains. Shown: Holly’s Oatmeal, a NIBBLE Top Pick Of The Week.
Whole Grain: Is It Or Isn’t It?
How did you do in the quiz at the beginning of this article? If you’re like most Americans, you probably didn’t do too well. Part of this is ignorance, but part of it is advertising jargon.
Food companies, wanting to jump on the whole grain bandwagon, have begun labeling their products as “multigrain,” “stone ground,” “100% wheat,” “7 grain,” “bran,” “wheat germ” and the like. But these labels are meant to confuse you, because most products so labeled are simply not whole grain. A whole grain product will wave its flag as “whole grain.” If there is no such declaration, you can check by looking at the ingredients list.
If the first ingredient is not recognizably a whole grain, you’re not looking at a predominantly whole grain product.
Bread with an ingredients list that begins with “100% whole wheat flour” is (at least predominantly) whole grain bread.
The cereal with an ingredient list that begins with a whole grain (such as steel cut oats) or, better still, is comprised entirely of whole grains, is the type to select to incorporate more whole grains into your diet.
You’re thinking this is too much like work—you’d have to know what is and isn’t whole grain before even hitting the grocery store, or carry the whole grains list on page one of this article around with you. Isn’t there any easier way to choose whole grain foods? Sometimes, there is.
The Whole Grains Council, a collaborative effort between scientists, chefs and cookbook authors, has come up with the Whole Grain Stamp, a black-and-gold, stamp-like symbol to be displayed on the packaging of whole grain foods. There are two different stamps, shown below.
If a product has a 100% Stamp, then all of its grain ingredients are whole grains, and the product contains at least 16g (a full serving) of whole grains per labeled serving.
If a product has the Basic Stamp, it contains at least 8g (a half serving) of whole grains, but may also contain some refined grains.
Each Stamp also bears a number, telling you how many grams of whole grain ingredients are in a serving of the product.
While this system is a good start, it’s purely voluntary. There’s a list of products that bear the stamp on the Whole Grains Council website, but a manufacturer may make a whole grain product and opt not to place the Stamp on it. Maybe there’s no room on the label, or the company has a three-year supply of labels and doesn’t want to incur the expense to reprint. So it’s always a good idea to know your grains.