Smart Shopping, Part 2: Navigating Grains

By Cassidy Hall
Area Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences
Johnston County Cooperative Extension

Grains are America’s favorite food group. Grains are also one of my favorite things to talk about with consumers because there are so many options available to us that grains can be confusing. Are grains good for us? Why do so many fad diets cut out grains? What about gluten? All of these are excellent consumer questions.

Any time you go to the grocery store, there seem to be 52 different grain options including whole grain, honey wheat, and enriched white bread, plus whole grain pasta, veggie pasta, low-carb wraps, sugary flavors of oatmeal, white rice, brown rice, jasmine rice, and even whole grain pop-tarts- sheesh! Shopping for grains can be exhausting if you aren’t sure what you are looking for. Let’s start by debunking America’s long-held belief that “bread makes you fat.” According to the Journal of Clinical Nutrition, eating refined grains was shown to increase belly fat, however, consuming at least three servings of whole grains actually decreased belly fat. You might be thinking, “Great! But what is a refined grain and what is a whole grain?”

Every grain, whether it is wheat, barley, rye, rice, corn, or any other type of grain, starts out as a “whole grain.” Wheat for example, grows in a field and the wheat seed (a.k.a. “kernel”) contains three edible parts. Each wheat kernel contains a bran, an endosperm, and a germ. The bran layer contains fiber, B vitamins, and antioxidants. The endosperm is the largest layer and is the plant’s food supply containing starchy carbohydrates, proteins, and a small bit of vitamins and minerals. When you eat “refined,” “enriched,” or “white” grains such as white bread, pasta, and white rice, you are only eating the endosperm. Finally, there is the germ. The germ contains B-vitamins, proteins, and vitamins and minerals. The American Dietary Guidelines recommend at least half of the grains we eat should be whole grains.

So what is the big deal with whole grains? Why does it matter? Whole grains are certainly less processed that enriched grains. The extra processing removes the fiber and key nutrients. Fiber is what I call “the forgotten nutrient.” When you eat white bread, white pasta, white rice, or any grain that has been more processed or “refined,” you are getting all starch and no fiber. Fiber is key in maintaining a healthy weight as it helps to keep you fuller for longer, aid in blood pressure management, aid in blood sugar management, and help keep the digestive tract healthy.  In fact, Americans need between 25g and 35g of fiber each day. Whole grains are an excellent source of fiber, in addition to fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds.

Examples of whole grains include 100% whole grain or 100% whole wheat bread, 100% whole wheat or whole grain pasta, brown rice, oatmeal, as well as quinoa and popcorn. When choosing your whole grains, look for “100% whole” on the label. Beware if a label just says “wheat,” and even if the bread is brown, that does not mean it is a whole grain. It must say 100% whole grain or 100% whole wheat. Typically, whole grain breads, pastas, and brown rice are the same cost as its white, enriched counterpart- there goes the argument that “eating healthy is more expensive.” When it comes to pastas, I suggest always looking for the whole grain and NOT veggie pasta. That’s right, I said it. When you compare a box of “veggie pasta” to whole grain pasta, the “veggie” pasta is made of vegetable starches, contains little to no fiber, and is more expensive. When I am shopping, I typically see the whole grain pasta for $1.00-$1.40 and veggie pastas are usually around $3-$4. I certainly don’t want to pay more for less nutrition.  The same goes for those “veggie” wraps compared to whole grain wraps and tortillas.

You should also be critical if a label says “made with whole grain” or “mulit-grain.” When foods are “made with whole grain,” they are made with the whole grains but the product is not 100% whole grain and may not even be half whole grains. Multi-grain means that multiple grains were used- possibly a combination of wheat, barley, and rye. The issue is that even when multiple grains were used, they may or may not have been multiple whole grains. Always check your ingredients list to be sure the first three ingredients of a multi-grain food are whole grains. You can check the fiber content, too!

What about gluten? This is a question I am asked often. Gluten is a natural protein found in wheat, rye, triticale, and barley. It has always been around, but misinformation about gluten has created anxiety about consuming gluten when only 1% of the entire population actually has Celiac disease. Gluten should NOT steer you away from choosing healthy grains. In efforts to draw the eye of consumers, the “gluten-free” stamp has now made its way to foods such as sweet potatoes, milk, and yogurt that would have never contained gluten anyway.

Be a label reader to help save you money, and avoid marketing schemes, at the grocery store. If you are interested in learning more, please check out this link to learn about our 6-week cooking and nutrition series. Pre-registration is required. The series begins Thursday, September 26th at 5:30pm at the Johnston Agriculture Center.

Read Part 1: Smart Shopping: Healthy Eating on a Budget, Part 1