Does it really make any difference whether you eat whole grain? An American Society of Nutrition report (1) reviewed multiple publications to determine whether whole grain lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. It found only weak evidence for any reduction of risk. This is understandable because of the FDA definition of whole grain. Some products labelled whole grain may actually increase risk.
What Is Whole Grain?
The FDA defines whole grain as any grain product that has the same relative proportions of endosperm, germ, and bran as intact grain. And the product does not have to be 100% whole grain. Just 51% is adequate. The rest can be sugar or marshmallows. See the accompanying photograph of Lucky Charms with “Whole Grain” plastered across its front.
Whole grain is perceived as healthy. So there is a big desire to be able to label a product “whole grain.” The product will have a halo of “healthy.” Lucky Charms is only one example of the problem with the present definition of whole grain.
There are plenty of other products labelled whole grain that are not as obviously ludicrous as Lucky Charms in trying to be perceived as healthy. Even those without marshmallows and added sugar may have undesirable effects.
What Is Bad About Processed Whole Grain?
Just the usual milling and processing of grains can reduce the health value of whole grains. Processing changes the food characteristics of the grain. Processing often removes fats, adds sodium, degrades antioxidants, reduces fiber, and changes the phytochemicals in the grain.
Whole grain can be a product that has separated the 3 main parts of a grain, and then put the parts back together. But in separating them, big changes occur. The fat is lost and is not added back in. This gives the “whole grain” product a longer shelf life. But nutritional value is reduced.
Grinding the grain, or puffing the grain, will add more surface area. Digestive enzymes have more places to work on right away. They don't have to break down part of the grain to get to other parts of it. This means that the natural sugar and starch within the grain are absorbed more quickly. You don't need added sugar to get a blood sugar spike.
Sodium presents a major problem with processed grains. It is added to most, including “whole grain.” There are only a few ready to eat breakfast cereals with a favorable content of sodium and potassium. See this post for a table of ready to eat breakfast cereals with a favorable ratio.
How Intact Grains Make A Difference
How can you get the nutrition from grains without the problems found in processed grain products? It is simple – use intact grain.
Intact grain has not had the three main parts of a grain separated. The kernel remains intact. This means it retains its nutrients. The healthy fats are still present.
And when the grain is intact, it is degraded by digestion more slowly. This results in slower absorption, and less hunger for a longer time after a meal. You no longer get the blood sugar spike and drop. It is this drop that results in hunger two hours after eating.
Instead of hunger returning in two hours, intact grain results in hunger taking several hours to return. The next time you eat will be later, and you will eat less. A study, comparing those who ate processed whole grain versus those who ate intact grain, showed that those who ate intact grain for breakfast ate approximately 1/3 fewer calories at lunch (2).
Refined grain is even worse than the misleading “whole grain.” It removes the germ and the bran from the grain. This results in even fewer nutrients than in “whole grain.” And of course, refined grain gives you the same spike and drop in blood sugar.
Sodium Is Usually Added To Flour
Processed refined grain, and processed whole grain, are ground and milled into a fine powder. In addition to breakfast cereal, the resulting flour is often used for other products. Whole grain breads, muffins, and other baked goods have become popular because they are perceived as healthy.
But in producing these other products sodium is often added in the form of salt. Or it may be added as baking soda or baking powder. This addition will ruin the favorable potassium sodium ratio found in intact grains. It almost always results in a reversal of the potassium sodium ratio. Whereas intact grain has a favorable potassium sodium ratio much greater than 1, products from processed whole grain usually have a very unfavorable ratio less than 1.
The few nutrients still left in the processed whole grain product will not be able to overcome the unfavorable effects of the poor potassium sodium ratio. So it is as important to avoid processed whole grain products as it is to avoid refined grain products. If salt, baking soda, or baking powder are used to make the product, it will lower your potassium sodium ratio for the day. This is true for all baked goods, except those that are low in sodium.
Using intact grains for hot cereal, porridge or other dishes can provide a great amount of potassium and little sodium. It can improve your potassium sodium ratio for the day. Using processed whole grain products will have the opposite effect, and will increase your odds of developing hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.
1. Consumption of cereal fiber, mixtures of whole grains and bran, and whole grains and risk reduction in type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. Cho SS, Qi L, Fahey GC Jr, Klurfeld DM. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Aug;98(2):594-619. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.067629. Epub 2013 Jun 26.
2. High glycemic index foods, overeating, and obesity. Ludwig DS, Majzoub JA, Al-Zahrani A, Dallal GE, Blanco I, Roberts SB. Pediatrics. 1999 Mar;103(3):E26.