(Eating) Tools for Success: Whole Grains

“What did you learn at school today?”

As we transition into fall, parents can expect to hear their school day inquiries met with everything from early childhood answers detailing every occurrence to adolescent rebuttals of “… nothing.”

While answers to this question change as children mature, parental concerns about their children’s school day persist. Among parents’ concerns is an interest in what children eat when away from home and the best ways to ensure that they receive proper nutrition. Incorporating whole grains is an essential part of doing so. School-age children, who are transitioning through vital periods of growth and development, can benefit from including whole grains into meals.

According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, whole grains are an essential part of a nutritious, well-balanced diet. The grains food group helps to promote health and prevent disease through the provision of vital nutrients like fiber, which aids in digestive processes and blood sugar regulation.

It’s recommended that half of all grains be whole grains. Sometimes it can be a challenge to identify whole grains, as there are a variety of grain-related words and phrases on food labels. With about 41 percent of students bringing lunch from home, parents have an opportunity to positively impact children’s diets by learning how to decipher whole grain labeling. Here are a few labeling examples and what they mean.

Whole Grain

A whole grain refers to an entire grain kernel, meaning that all edible elements — the germ, endosperm, and bran — are present. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has determined that whole grain products like brown rice should not be altered or stripped of naturally occurring elements; however, FDA has not established a standard for most products made using whole grains. Any product that contains whole grains can technically be marketed as such.

The Whole Grains Council, an advocacy group that supports increased whole grain consumption, established its own set of guidelines for whole grain labeling and uses stamps on food packages to help consumers identify approved whole grain products. Products must contain at least 8 grams of whole grains per serving to use the organization’s basic stamp.

Multigrain

“Multigrain” refers to products made using more than a single grain type. This could mean using various types of flour like refined wheat and barley flours to make muffins or incorporating whole grain ingredients like whole grain rice and whole grain quinoa into a salad. Multigrain products are not necessarily whole grain, but they can be. 

100 Percent Whole Grain

The FDA has not established labeling requirements for a food’s grain contents, but it does recommend that products labeled as “100 percent” contain only whole grains and no refined grains. The Whole Grain Council’s 100 percent stamp identifies 100 percent whole grains as providing at least 16 grams per serving by using whole grains exclusively.

There are also variations in how whole grains are processed and presented to shoppers. Each of the following terms indicates that a product is made with whole grains, though each type is made in a unique way.

Whole Berry

Whole grains grow as groats, or “berries,” which can be processed into smaller particles and refined for a smoother texture. Grains sold as “whole berry” — such as whole berry wheat — are not mechanically separated. The berry remains intact from field to shelf.

Cracked

Some raw whole grains are processed, usually by pressing or cutting, just until they crack. This process results in “cracked grains” which have a smaller particle size and cook more quickly. Cracked grains maintain their nutrient contents.

Bulgur, which you can find as part of the tabbouleh you might pick up at a Middle Eastern market, is made from wheat berries and is a close relative of cracked grains. In contrast to cracked grains, which are immediately cracked, this product is partially cooked usually by boiling (referred to as parboiling), dehydrated and then cracked.

Stone-Ground

Stone-ground grains are crushed and, as the term implies, ground between two stones. This is referred to as a stone mill. It’s as simple as that. This type of milling is used usually to produce flour like stone-ground, whole wheat flour and is incorporated into foods like crackers and bread.

Rolled

Products like old-fashioned oats are made by steaming oat groats and pressing them flat between smooth rollers. This process creates a larger surface area and reduces cooking time. Rolled grains are also more stable than most other grains and thus can be stored for a longer time period. Their cooking times might be longer than grains that have been broken into smaller pieces (think “quick oats,” which cook in a few minutes, versus rolled oats that take a bit more time).

Sprouted

Sprouted grains are germinated, harvested and quickly dried to prevent roots from growing. This process produces enzymes that contribute to increased nutrient content and flavor. Sprouted grains may be easier to digest than other grain alternatives because sprouting helps to partially break down naturally occurring starches.

These grains can be found in rice and bread products. Sprouted grain breads generally do not contain preservatives, which are often used to extend shelf life. These breads are generally found on store shelves or in the refrigeration or freezer section of local grocery stores.

Take Your Pick

Regardless of the variation children prefer, whole grains are an essential part of nutritious meals that promote proper growth and development.

Identifying whole grains can be challenging without an understanding of different grain varieties. As parents become more familiar with labeling differences, they will be better equipped to incorporate whole grains into their children’s daily meals. Parents also will be well on their way to helping their children develop balanced eating habits, providing them with tools for lifelong success

This blog was written by Casey Evans, 2018 Sylvia Rowe Fellow.