February 17, 2010

Whole Grains: What's the Problem, People?

I'm old enough to remember when "brown bread" was something exotic and vaguely threatening that only the hippie family down the street was brave enough to eat. As a kid, I assumed there was only one "normal" kind of flour: white. Same thing with rice. And the only variety we got as far as grains were bowls of Cheerios, Cornflakes, or Raisin Bran. But most often, we got our grains in the form of Wonderbread, Oreos, and Poptarts.

Fast-forward a few decades: scientists have learned a lot more about nutrition, and we've all been urged a few hundred thousand times to eat more whole grains because they are so damn good for us. Like many of you, I got with the program. Now I try to save refined grains for treats, not fill up on them as a staple.

So why are most people in this country still eating like I did as a third-grader back in 1968? And an even more important question: Why are the desires of all these ignorant third-graders still controlling what the rest of us can get at restaurants and grocery stores?

OK, so those aren't really questions--they're complaints. I don't actually care why a huge majority of the population keeps shunning whole grains. Probably because it takes a lot less effort to eat familiar white fluffy foods than to acquire a taste for healthier, earthier fare. And I know perfectly well why the preferences of the unhealthy masses dominate the food and restaurant industry: Welcome to capitalism, Crabby! It's also the reason we have Big Macs, Barbie Dolls, and The Real Housewives of New Jersey.

But I'm not sure what's worse: the general unavailability of whole grain options (unless you want to make things from scratch all the time, ick) or all the Fake-Healthy Not Really Whole Grain products out there. Most people are fine with these choices, because they are not equipped with enough grouchy skepticism to read a food label and then curse the lying sonsabitches who are trying to fake everyone out. Normal people just find a product they like that says "multi-grain" or "now made with whole grain," and they say to themselves: Awesome, I'm all set!

Of course these folks don't realize that a healthy-sounding ingredient like "organic wheat flour" still means "white flour," and that the crap they're eating is 98% refined flour and sugar, with maybe a pinch of bran or a single rolled oat thrown in there somewhere.

And if people want to eat mostly white flour and a few of these fake options too, knock yourselves out! But it would be nice if there were more options for us stubborn whole grain folks too. I'd love to have brown rice available at a Thai restaurant, or the option of a real whole grain roll at a bakery, or more choices at the supermarket when it comes to breads, pastas, crackers, etc. (And Whole Foods? You guys are the worst when it comes to your bakery. Where the hell is the healthy stuff? Last time I looked, it was virtually all desserts packed with refined flour, butter, and sugar. What's so "whole" about that?)

So Why Are Whole Grains a Healthier Choice?

According to the "world's healthiest food" people, there are a ton of great reasons to eat whole grains. (Note: These folks tend to be an optimistic bunch, but they do at least cite a bunch of studies).

Some of the research they've pulled together suggests that eating whole wheat or other whole grains can help with: weight management, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, inflammatory conditions, gallstones, gastrointestinal issues, heart disease, childhood asthma, breast cancer, dropsy, plague, possession by the devil, and vapors. (OK, so I was just messing with you on those last four. Well... who knows? Anyone driven out the devil with a bowl of oatmeal lately?)

But Some Folks Refrain from the Grain

Even if it's a whole grain and not refined one, there are some people who would just as soon give it a miss. If you have celiac disease, for instance, and must go gluten-free, then that lovely blueberry bran muffin that I have my eye on is gonna be Very Bad News for you. There are serious health consequences for people with this condition if they eat wheat, rye, barley, or anything contaminated with gluten. However, there are apparently some good gluten-free whole grain alternatives, like brown rice, wild rice, amaranth, millet, buckwheat, sorghum, quinoa, and even popcorn. (Oats don't naturally contain gluten, but they can be tricky because there's a high risk of contamination).

There are other folks besides celiacs who don't think grains are a great idea, whole or not. Some low-carbers avoid them as much as possible, and Primal folks like Mark at Mark's Daily Apple argue that we'd be better off ditching grains entirely. But most mainstream nutrition experts have a different message: ditch the refined grains; but it's ok to eat whole grains instead.

Looking for Convenient Whole Grain Products?

Good luck! Actually I'd love to hear your suggestions. I'm a terrible dietary example, because I haven't been nearly adventurous enough about exploring outside my familiar trinity of whole wheat, oats, and brown rice. On my to-do list: try quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, and other more interesting choices. (But then I've been saying that for years).

Our bread-maker broke a few years ago, and I'm too lazy to make my own bread, so I either try to find a local bakery that that features a whole wheat bread (and then I worry that they're lying to me) or I scour the supermarket shelves for the healthiest looking brands and I carefully inspect the ingredients list. Alvarado Bakery seems like a good West Coast option; I'm a little more perplexed by East Coast brands. Anyone have some good suggestions?

I have a rice cooker, and love the fancy-pants brown & wild rice mixes, but often I don't think about rice until it's too close to dinner time. Fortunately, the microwaveable already-prepared brown rices have gotten a lot better--Trader Joe's has a couple of good options. (Note: if they have them, the frozen pouches beat the kind in a cup).

As to pasta, have you notice that the whole wheat kind doesn't suck anymore? At least not some of the better brands.  I tried it years ago, thought it tasted like boiled brown paper bags, and said no thanks.  But in the last year or so there seem to be more tasty whole grain options.

What about Cooking or Baking from Scratch?

Excellent idea, then you can use any kind of grain you want! So that's what organized, healthy, non-lazy people do and I totally recommend you do that. Someday, maybe I will too. Actually, on the rare occasions when I bake I use winter wheat, which tastes pretty close to white but is actually a whole grain. And Charlotte at The Great Fitness Experiment  alerted me to another white-tasting alternative, some sort of magic "ultragrain" flour that sounds intriguing. For a whole grain brownie recipe, Tracey's Culinary Adventures has a tempting one--though it's still got a boatload of butter and sugar so it's not exactly a health food.

And for a whole slew of healthy whole grain ideas, Kayln, who blogs at Kaylyn's Kitchen, did a series at Blogher on cooking with whole grains. There are posts on brown rice, quinoa, and bulgur featuring lots of recipes and leading to all kinds of awesume healthy cooking blogs.

[Note: this post is being edited and reposted in July of 2011 to test something technical with the blog. My apologies if any folks with feed readers get this accidentally and think it's a new post.  On the other hand, if you got this far without realizing it was old... how pissed off should you really be?
What do you folks do about the whole refined vs whole grains issue? Any good tips or suggestions?


  1. as always Im kinda tipless when it comes to the food preparation.
    Im a huge bulgar and quinoa fan though.
    and have FINALLY gotten through to my amazing yet very...believing when it comes to food labels parents that too frequently BROWN BREAD is merely white bread with a spray tan.

    baby steps...

    travel safely. Im a reluctant DRIVER :) so I get what youre feeling but adore the flights for some quiet reading time!

  2. I don't think I have any good(er) tips than you have. I eat oats and whole grains throughout the day.I won't eat white anything, rice, bread or pasta. All those things can cause the blood sugar to freak out and I have enough crap to freak out about.

    Plus there are some great bakeries here as long as I were to actually allow myself to walk into one. Maybe for my birthday...I'll gather the courage to walk into one and buy me a big loaf of some kind of whole grain bread with candles and some frosting.

  3. I don't have a problem with whole grains!

    Driving through Santa Cruz on a California vacation, I stopped at a bakery and bought s wonderful dark bread. Now Santa Cruz is the place I most want to live if I ever move to the west coast!

  4. I do the plus past too (but don't eat past often either). I love oats (but now freaked out that you said its easily contaminated. didn't know, but will check it out). I do like brown rice...nice texture :)
    I have yet to find a bread that's whole grain but doesn't make me cringe (or gag..just saying) to eat. I'd have to get back to you on this one.

  5. I guess I get to be semi-hard-core here-- I eat Ezekiel bread, and not a whole lot of that. I was always a whole-grain girl-- my mamma brought me up that way-- but too much whole wheat toast or crunchy healthy grainy cereals are still fattening, alas.

  6. When it comes to store-bought breads, I prefer whole wheat. White just tastes funny. And I’d much rather eat brown rice over white. I love quinoa, bulgur, and oats, too. That said, when I’m in a bakery I’m overwhelmed by the white bread…it smells awesome and tastes great. I wish there were more bakeries that sold whole wheat loaves, but most stick with white still. And it’s so much better than the white Wonder bread the grocery store has.

  7. We stopped using white flour and refined rice a long time ago. It is really not that difficult. I started baking my own bread using http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/08/dining/081mrex.html - now this recipe calls for white flour, I use whole grain and it works just fine.
    At the same time I have to say that I am leaning more and more towards limiting grains. I don't think I could just give them up but I do feel better if I don't eat mostly vegetable/lean meat/fish diet.

  8. We use spelt flour for most yeast baking and pies, and barley flour for many of the treats. Date squares with a barley/spelt mix are wonderful and keep the Devil away.
    Most bakeries and commercial food prep use white flour as it is cheaper and cheap is what matters, not healthy. Just ask Satan, but make sure you've got your oatmeal handy.

  9. I was a kid in the 70's too, but we rarely had white bread or pop tarts or sugary cereal. Oreos (and other store bought cookies) were reserved for camping. My mom made whole wheat bread and any desserts we had were home baked. We did eat white rice though because my Dad didn't like brown rice. And white pasta - I do remember my Mom trying whole wheat pasta, but it was pretty awful back then (my parents actually do eat whole wheat pasta now).

    I will eat brown rice because I know it's better for me, even though there might be other kinds that I like better. Husband won't eat brown rice, so we always have Basmati or Jasmine rice (we've tried brown Basmati, but he doesn't like that either). I'm secretly glad that Husband doesn't like whole wheat pasta though; I can eat it, but I don't enjoy it as much as regular.

    However, we both are quite happy to eat whole wheat or multigrain bread. For making pie crusts, pizza dough, pancakes, etc, I use Nutri Flour Blend, which is the same type of thing that Charlotte was talking about.

    I do try to make healthy choices when I can, but I admit there are some things I don't want to give up. :)

  10. I love whole grains. But the media, experts, or whatever "out there" have pretty much ruined it for me,because somehow I am afraid the vegetable, meat, fish credo might be true.

    And yet...

    how could the meat,fish,vegetable diet possibly feed the world?

    Doesn't that mean we MUST be meant to eat grains? I agree that too many cause weight gain, but I still don't want to believe that in and of themselves they are bad.

    I also have a newly diagnosed diabetic husband and grains, even the good ones, really DO make his blood sugar skyrocket. So I have done a lot of reading, some of which says that even for non-diabetics the starches are putting a stress on our systems and therefore are not good.

    I just don't know what to believe or what to do anymore.

  11. I have a bread robot for tasty whole grain breads...cheapter and exactly what I like. I find now I like whole grains and prefer them, although I recall as a kid refusing whole wheat because I thought it was stale and awful.
    I've just realised that *fresh* whole grain stuff is yummy...maybe the availability of whole grains tuff was far less when we were young. It sure tastes way better than I remember it...

  12. ooo I actually love the brown rice pasta.

    When my parents owned a (mongolian bbq) restaurant, we tried offering brown rice, but nobody wanted it. So eventually we switched to fried rice because it was expensive to keep making brown rice only to throw it out untouched at the end of the day.

    That said, I try to eat whole grains but I'm not fanatical about it. I actually try to make most of my diet fruits and veggies (screw the food pyramid!), so I guess I don't worry if they're not all whole.

  13. Ah, the whole grain dilemma. I try to stick to whole grains when possible, but I admit I also adhere to a relatively low-carb lifestyle so I don't sweat it to greatly.

    I like the Barilla Plus and the Dreamworks pasta. I loooove bulgar wheat (especially in Tabouleh). But...if we're having garlic bread it's gotta be regular old Italian white. Not that it matters in that case since you're loading it up with butter and garlic anyway!

    I used to make my own bread all the time, the hard, by hand, way. But most of my recipes seem to fail here at high altitude. It's super frustrating. And I haven't had the time or energy to tinker much with them. I've found a few good mixes I can toss in my bread maker though.

    I've also found most recipes that call for plain old white flour do pretty well if you sub up to half with whole wheat. You'd never guess my chocolate chip cookies aren't made the traditional way...

  14. Vodka comes from grains, doesn't it? So if I make sure I get the whole-grain vodka from Whole Foods, will that count as healthy?

  15. I only eat whole wheat breads but have only found two brands that taste good to me. I really should make my bread more often.

    FYI, if you are in the market for a new bread machine, there are always machines available at the Goodwill. Apparently when that trend was hot a lot of people who didn't want them must have received them as gifts!

  16. Hi Crabby,

    I am so excited. I actually have soemthign to contribute!

    I only buy Ezekiel bread. Most supermarkets carry it now a days. I usually buy the sesame. It is made with sprouted whole wheat, sprouted barley, sprouted millet, sprouted bareley etc.

    It has 80 caloreis and 3 grams of fiber per slice. Take that white bread!!!

    I also eat 100% shredded wheat when I eat cereal.


  17. My kids were raised on the brown stuff; it was Grandma who introduced them to cookies and toaster pastries and sugared cereal.

    They are allowed that stuff -- at Grandma's house.

    Good luck, from someone else who is a very nervous flier.

  18. I never refrain from the grain. whole grains are just about the only kind of cereal that I eat nowadays. The good thing about whole grain cereal is you don't need a big serving of it.

    Rahim Samuel
    Publisher, Wellnessbymanymeans.com

  19. Ah, the whole-grains hippie-trip. Welcome to my world, Crabby: my mom was the weirdo who lived down the street from you and who ate whole grains (ground her own wheat, even!) and--*gasp*--SOY.

    That said, two suggestions:

    1. Quinoa = yummy; amaranth = an acquired taste, buckwheat = too intense for some people. The best way to get acquainted with buckwheat is in pancakes, while the best way to love amaranth is combined with other grains.

    2. Mark Bittman's "How To Cook Everything", which has almost supplanted the Joy in this household. It's got a fantastic section on grains.

    And an extra, super-bonus tip: Any time you bestir yourself to cook something like grains or beans, both of which can be pains in the ass, cook three times as much. Freeze one-cup portions in sandwich bags. Thaw and use as needed.

  20. Have I mentioned recently that I adore you, Crabby?

    I have so much fun with discovering new whole grains. It's kind of embarrassing how many different kinds of oats (rye, rolled, steel-cut, wheat, spelt etc) and flours are in my pantry. My kitchen is basically a health food store in itself. I love the whole grains. Particularly popcorn. Mmmmmm popcorn.

  21. I guess I'm lucky all my local Asian restaurants have brown rice, sometimes they are out but they generally have it. As for whole grains I HIGHLY recommend the book "Whole Grains, Every Day, Every Way" by Lorna Sass. She tells you the best way to cook each and then gives a bunch of recipes, so far all have been winners and I've done about 15 of them.
    I also cook my whole grains in a pressure cooker, brown rice in 15 minutes, and I mean the good stuff not the minute crap. Before I had the pressure cooker I would make large batches (say rice for 8 people) and freeze it in individual portions and then take it out when I needed it, no excuses then for not having whole grains.
    I don't bake so my own bread is out of the question, baking makes my head hurts who wants to be that precise in the kitchen??? But I have found Ezekiel Breads to be good as well as Alvarado.

  22. Yes, whole grains are amazing and people should really steer clear from white flour!!! I try to tell everyone this all the time...
    I stopped eating white everything about 3 years ago- I now feel fuller after I eat, I lost 10 lbs and I have more energy to run :)

  23. I am lazy in terms of baking BUT I have done it. BUT for me, I spend so much time reading labels & looking for the grains & brads I want, I am surprised I have time to eat what I do & blog as well!

    Man, packed full of info in this post!!!!

  24. Thankfully after reading books like YOU The Owners manual I have gotten a lot better at eating meals like an adult. Unfortunately I still snack like a third grader which means string cheese and granola bars. Oh well. Baby steps right?

  25. I'd love to know what your bread machine recipe is, Crabby. I've yet to make a wholemeal bread machine loaf that doesn't have all the appeal and stomach-feel of concrete.

  26. Now I'm craving carbs...

    I used to make a GREAT whole wheat bread, but I tried to a year or so ago and it came out TERRIBLE, an awful lump of whole grain ick. I must have lost my touch. I kind of stopped eating much bread.

    I can't stand white flour anything. Except pie crust....

  27. Okay this: "all the Fake-Healthy Not Really Whole Grain products out there" is my pet peeve too!!! There should be a punishment for companies that pull this crap. Like Cocoa Krispies "now with whole grains"! Egads.

  28. Quinoa is great because it takes only 15 minutes to cook! Pretty darn tasteless, but cool texture. The only successful way I have spiced it up was putting turmeric, garlic, and peppers in the water while simmering. Wouldn't eat it as a stand-alone dish, but great paired with chicken, especially if you make a pan sauce.

  29. I'm a skeptic and stick to my breadmaker. But when I absolutely have to buy something, I look for Near East, Arnold's, and surprisingly even Pepperidge Farms has some good stuff. You just have to know how to read through the marketing. I have a list of Healthy Heather approved products on my site: http://diaryofareluctantathlete.blogspot.com/p/clean-eating-shopping-list.html

  30. Bread is a huge problem, so I tend to avoid it. Over the last few years I have come to prefer brown rice to white rice and, like you, am quite miffed that you can never get it in a restaurant.

    I also really, really want to try quinoa.

    Funny thing about oats - I could never even LOOK at it, but started eating it occasionally about a year ago and now I love the stuff. We should never let our childhood prejudices rule the rest of our lives!

    All in all I don't eat a lot of grains, but when I do, I try to find healthy versions.

  31. I believe we have destroyed the quality of all grains in the past century. So many people have an allergy or hidden food intolerance to most grains. I ask people to eliminate grains for 60-90 days and see how they feel. They tend to better being off grains.

  32. They sell some extremely whole grain bread at my farmers market. I only eat it with egg/cheese. I have other bread, still whole grain, but much less so, that I use for sandwiches, and occasionally, I love some of that sourdough, though it's not whole grain. I don't bother with white rice, except for sushi, and most restaurants have brown. Even my burrito comes with brown rice, whole wheat tortilla. Doesn't taste quite as good, but I've more than gotten used to it by now.

  33. I have endometriosis and it's advised that I don't eat wheat and rye. It worsens my condition or something. Anyway, what I try to do is eat brown rice instead of polished rice. My city isn't big on the whole grains so it's a bit hard to have variety here.


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