We have discussed the many benefits of consuming whole grains. Lest you think you are getting these benefits from eating many selections from your local grocery store, we need to understand that most products are not actually whole grain.
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Definition of Refined Grain
When a grain is not kept intact in its whole form, it’s referred to as a refined food. As we learned in my post on whole grains, the entire grain has three parts- bran, germ and endosperm. A refined grain has been milled to have the bran and germ removed. As a reminder, the bran contains most of the fiber along with some vitamins. The germ contains fiber, essential fatty acids, and a good dose of Vitamin E. When these two parts are removed, the endosperm is what is left, otherwise known as white flour.
History of Refined Grain
Throughout history, stones were used to grind grain. Wheat was ground between big stone wheels, and this could only get the flour ground so fine. The bran could be separated out with a bit more work in this process, but the germ was unable to be removed. The germ was simply crushed between the stones and oil would be released. Have you ever smelled old oil? It goes rancid and gets cloudy and an off smell. This required grains to be used fairly soon after milling.
In the 1870s everything changed with the invention of steel rollers. The rollers allowed such a fine grinding that the germ could now be removed. What had been a product only available to royalty was now available to the commoners. People preferred this fluffy white flour that was so light and easier to bake with.
What is Enriched Flour?
Enrichment refers to adding back in vitamins or minerals that were lost in processing. The entire wheat kernel contains FORTY vitamins and minerals, being very rich in B vitamins. As a result of the removal of the germ and bran, what remained in the white flour was void of nutrients. A few decades later, the diseases Beriberi and Pellagra was rapidly on the rise. Both diseases are the result of B vitamin deficiencies. Anemia also become a public health issue.
Once the connections were made with what was causing these diseases, millers were required to add back in several nutrients. Added back are niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, and folic acid (this one got added in the 1990s)- all B vitamins, along with the mineral iron. In other words, out of forty nutrients that are either destroyed or decreased significantly with refining, only five are added back. Seems to me the word enrichment is a false claim since the very word is defined as adding back in what was lost. To add another insult, the vitamins added are synthetic and purchased from pharmaceutical companies. Our bodies can have a hard time recognizing these synthetic “nutrients.”
Why Are Refined Grains Used by Food Companies?
Food companies need shelf stable foods that can sit for a long time without going bad. What better way to keep pests away than to take all the nutrients out of the food? Refining grains remove the germ which means no chance of those oils going rancid. Start with a food stripped of all its nutrients and add in some preservatives and enhancers and you have a product that can sit for years without spoiling.
Examples of Refined Grains
- Any bread where 100% whole wheat is not the first ingredient
- Pasta not listed as 100% whole wheat
- Most breakfast cereals
- Cakes and cookies
A good rule of thumb that will clue you in immediately is if you see the word “enriched” on the package. If they’ve had to add vitamins back in, they were originally taken out. Do yourself and your family a favor and put it back on the shelf. Look for a whole grain option or, better yet, eat a whole food instead of something packaged.
Health Consequences of Refined Grains
For years, nutritionists have known that a diet high in whole grains reduces one’s risk for diabetes, heart disease and cancer. If you need a refresher of less known benefits, see here. If one reduces diseases by eating whole grain, it stands to reason if one consumes the version stripped of every nutrient and fiber, disease states will develop.
The benefits in whole grains are partly because it’s a slow release form of energy. Removing a grain’s nutrients leaves a form of “fast food.” These foods cause a dramatic spike in blood glucose without the nutrients and fiber to slow down absorption. When our blood sugar rises, so must insulin in order to escort the glucose into our cells for energy. These continual rises and crashes can lead to insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes. Diabetes is a frightening disease that can lead to blindness, neuropathy, and kidney failure.
Refined grains are also heavily connected to obesity and heart disease. Lack of fiber in general can lead to obesity because fiber helps us feel full. Refined food products just leave us coming back for more a couple of hours later, then the rollercoaster continues.
How to Avoid Refined Grains
I encourage people to become a label reader. By this, I don’t necessarily mean the grams of fat, protein, and carbs. If we can learn to read the ingredient lists, we can determine how far from nature a food actually is. If you can’t recreate in your kitchen what is written on the ingredient list, that’s a sign it’s not going to benefit your health. We need to make the majority of our diet things that don’t even need a package, but I’m also realistic and follow a 80/20 rule. Unless you have a food sensitivity or chronic illness, there is room in our diets to escape perfectionism!
Because I’m realistic, I also know some mamas are BUSY and can’t always do everything fresh and whole. When you have to turn to a package, first, do your best to choose organic. At the very least, you will be sure you won’t be consuming GMO products or getting a dose of pesticides, herbicides, hormones, or antibiotics. Second, look for the words “100% whole grain.” Avoid words like “white,” “enriched,” “fine ground,” or “instant.”
There are many things in our food supply that are broken and we need a watchful eye on ingredients. Making a switch to whole grain products are a healthy and simple way to benefit your health.
For related articles on grains, please see: