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?