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WCRF/AICR
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AICR e.Newsletter
August 2006
Diet and Cancer News

Whole Grains: The Whole Story 

There’s no easy way to break this to you: your mother was wrong.

Oh, she got most things right. Eat your veggies, wash behind your ears, don’t put that in your mouth because you don’t know where it’s been: sound advice, all of it, and it's served you well.

But when it came to white vs. wheat, she missed the mark.

You probably grew up on white flour and white rice and ate white bread so spongy and moist you could squish a slice of it into a ball and whip it at your little brother. And it would stick.

It was, you might say, a wonder.

What’s less wonderful, of course, is growing up to realize that distinctive texture comes with a nutritional cost. 

White breads come from white flour, and what gets it white in the first place is a process of milling and bleaching that leaves most of the vitamins, minerals and especially fiber on the factory floor.   Then, breadmakers go to the trouble of adding certain vitamins and minerals back in to the refined flour, because the FDA requires them to. 

When you see the words “enriched” or “fortified,” you know that some of the lost nutrients have been artificially added.  But not every vitamin and mineral taken out by refining gets put back in. 

Kernels of Truth

All grains, from the familiar (wheat, oats, rye, corn) to the less well-known (barley, bulgur, millet, quinoa) start out as kernels.  The bran is the outermost layer of the kernel and it’s where most of the fiber is found.  The germ is at the kernel’s center, and it’s where a lot of the good stuff resides vitamins, minerals, fatty acids.  In between is the endosperm, which contains a few vitamins and minerals and most of the starch.

And starch is really what you’re getting when you eat white bread, or white rice, or anything made from refined flour.  Sure, it makes things light and fluffy. That’s why it became so popular in the first place, and a symbol of wealth and prestige.

In fact, nobles throughout history enjoyed their soft and airy (if nutritionally lacking) breads and cakes, while the working classes traditionally ate breads made from unrefined flour that were heartier . .. not to mention heart-healthier.

Whole grain products are darker, chewier and more flavorful, because all three layers of the kernel are ground together to make the flour.  They provide the kernel’s full complement of protein, antioxidants, fatty acids and a host of phytochemicals.  Most importantly, perhaps, the fiber content of whole grains can be as much as four times that of refined grains. 

Why Seek Them Out?

The evidence connecting consumption of whole grains to reduced risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes comes chiefly from population studies and laboratory work. Only recently have researchers begun to identify specific ways a diet high in whole grains promotes health.

In February 2006, for example, a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a high whole-grain intake had an observable, across-the-board effect on a variety of physiological indicators (or markers) associated with both diabetes and cardiovascular disease.   

The evidence for whole grains specifically lowering cancer risk is less strong, although a large 2003 European study with over half a million participants found that high consumption of fiber (from fruits, vegetables and whole grains) reduced risk for colon cancer by 25 percent.

Recently, a Cornell University researcher discovered that whole grains are packed with more antioxidants than was previously expected.  These potent health-promoting substances bind directly to the two layers (the germ and the bran) that are discarded in the refining process. 

Separate the Wheat from the Chaff: Do’s and Don’ts

  • Don’t judge a loaf by its color.  Even very dark pumpernickels, ryes and wheat breads might have been made with refined grains and simply colored to appear heartier. 
  • Don’t think that the number of grains (five, six, seven, twelve or even the vague catch-all “multi-”) says anything about whether those grains have been refined or not.  
  • Don’t rely solely on the package’s health claims.  A “Whole Grain Stamp” or other form of identification can be helpful, but there’s still some disagreement among food manufacturers and the FDA on how to categorize whole-grain products. 
  • Do head straight for the ingredients list.  Look at the first ingredient that’s what to go by.  On breads, pastas, rice and cereal, look for the words “whole” or “100 % whole” before the name of the grain. 
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