We all know whole grain breads, cereals and pasta are good for us, but many of us might not know why.
On top of that, without knowing what whole grains are or what whole grain products actually look like, it can be difficult to know if it's the right choice.
To better understand the importance of including them in our diets, we spoke to Simone Austin, accredited practising dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia.
What is a whole grain?
"A whole grain has the germ (the inside part of the grain with good fatty acids), the endosperm (the middle layer with the carbohydrate and protein) and then the bran (the outer layer with a lot of fibre, vitamins and minerals)," Austin told The Huffington Post Australia.
Whole grains are a form of complex carbohydrates and come in a huge range we can enjoy. These include:
- Brown, black, red and wild rice
- Quinoa (although technically a seed)
While whole grain products include these grains as a 'whole', white flour products (such as white bread, white rice, white pasta, noodles and many cookies, breakfast cereals, snacks and crackers) are considered to be 'refined' as they have had the bran and germ layers removed. This leaves only the endosperm and contains much less fibre, minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals.
Whole grains fill you up more, which is part of the reason why they help people maintain a healthy weight.
"Opting for a whole grain product is best as it has all of those great, nutrient-rich parts in it," Austin said.
Whole grains are found in whole grain cereals (such as muesli, Weet-Bix, Cheerios and bran), some breads (typically rye, spelt or wholemeal bread) and pasta (for example wholemeal, rye, spelt and kamut).
When looking at bread in particular, there is a bit of confusion about the difference between multigrain and whole grain bread.
"Multigrain is often a white flour based bread that has a few whole grain thrown in. Whereas a whole grain bread typically has wholemeal flour plus extra grains thrown in," Austin said.
While multigrain is still a better choice than plain white bread, Austin said the quality of multigrain breads can differ greatly.
"Some multigrains at least have a large amount of grains in it, but others are very sparse in how many grains they include," she said.
Compared to white flour, whole grains contain more fibre, protein and important vitamins and minerals such as folate, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, iron, vitamin E, zinc, magnesium and phosphorus.
"As whole grain contains more fibre, they help you go to the toilet more regularly," Austin told HuffPost Australia. "Including whole grains and dietary fibre regularly also reduces your risk of bowel cancer.
"The fact that it's high in fibre, which is great for feeding bacteria in your gut and for overall gut health, is really important."
Studies also show that people who include whole grains in their diet are less likely to gain weight.
"Whole grains fill you up more which is part of the reason why they help people maintain a healthy weight," Austin said.
"This is partly because you have to chew whole grains more so you take longer to eat it, meaning your stomach has more of a chance to tell your brain it's full, which can help reduce the risk of overeating."
"Plus, whole grains taste good. A really nice quality whole grain bread tastes amazing."
How to check if a product is whole grain
Choosing from the list of whole grains above is a good guide -- however, finding whole grain products like bread and cereal require a bit of quick investigating.
1. Check the ingredients list
If you pick up a cereal or bread, check that the first ingredient in the list is wholemeal or whole grain wheat/flour/oats/etc. If the ingredient is: flour, enriched flour, degerminated, bran or wheat germ, it is likely to not be a whole grain.
"Check that wholemeal flour is the first ingredient. Otherwise it could be mostly white flour with just a little bit of wholemeal sprinkled in," Austin said.
Tips for choosing whole grain products:
- Look for words like 'whole grain' or 'wholemeal'.
- Some 'multigrain' breads are made with white flour and various whole grains added.
- 'Wholemeal wholegrain' bread is made with wholemeal flour plus whole grains and has more fibre and nutrients than wholemeal, wholegrain or white breads.
2. Feel the weight
This applies primarily to bread but it's an easy way to see whether it's a whole grain bread.
"You can often tell it's a whole grain bread as it's heavier and denser," Austin said. "White and multigrain bread is often lighter and fluffier."
3. Look at the product
"If you can see that it's got grains, seeds and nuts it's more likely to be whole grain," Austin said.
"The seeds and grains you can usually see in a whole grain bread include soy, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds and oats."
How much to eat
For Australian adults, it's recommended we eat at least 4-6 serves of grain foods per day, with two-thirds of this coming from whole grains. Here's what one serve equates to:
- 1 slice (40g) bread
- ½ medium (40g) roll or flat bread
- ½ cup (75-120g) cooked rice, pasta, noodles, barley, buckwheat, semolina, polenta, bulgur or quinoa
- ½ cup (120g) cooked porridge
- ⅔ cup (30g) wheat cereal flakes
- ¼ cup (30g) muesli
- 3 (35g) crispbreads
- 1 (60g) crumpet
- 1 small (35g) English muffin or scone