Reviewed by: Sonali Kulkarni, Lead Nutritionist, Elda Health
What are whole grains?
It is said that thousands of years ago, man accidentally came upon seeds of some plants like wheat and rice and then started using those for consumption in various ways. Over the years man learnt to use the seeds as it is, grind them, cook them and also process them. And these seeds, or grains, have been a package deal - 1) containing carbohydrates which is a vital source of energy and 2) containing healthy fats, antioxidants, proteins and minerals, hence an excellent source of nutrition.
Some whole grains commonly used in the Indian kitchens are: Jowar (Sorghum), Ragi (Finger millet), Bajra (Pearl millet), Broken wheat (Dalia), Sattu (barley), Kuttu (Buckwheat) and Sabudana (pearl sago).
Wondering how such a small grain can give us all these benefits?!
The answer lies in their structure. All whole grains are made up of three parts: the bran, germ and endosperm. Each of these parts contain nutrients that promote good health in some form or the other.
The bran or outer layer has fiber. It houses B vitamins, iron, copper, zinc and antioxidants. It also contains natural chemical compounds that help in prevention of diseases. The fiber in bran helps slow down the process of converting starch into glucose. The result? Blood sugar remains at a steady level instead of spiking. The fiber also lowers cholesterol and helps in digestion.
Next comes the germ or the core of the seed. This is where the growth takes place. The germ is full of healthy fats, vitamin E and more antioxidants.
Finally, the endosperm or the innermost layer. Carbs, protein and some amounts of B vitamins and minerals are found here.
Refined grains/flour vs whole grains/flour:
As man learnt to use these grains in multiple ways, he also learnt to process and refine them. But the health benefits of such processed grains do not match those of its unrefined counterpart.
The process of refining essentially removes both bran and germ retaining only the endosperm part. This is the part that is soft, easy to digest & easier to chew. The result is that these refined, highly processed grains have now lost most of their health-promoting components. They are also lower down on the scale of nutrition.
Flour milled from whole grains is much more nutritious. For example, whole-wheat flour is much healthier as compared to maida, even though both are derived from wheat.
Research has shown that a diet consisting of mostly refined flour or refined grains can have a detrimental effect on one’s health. Refined food like maida is used in making a lot of Indian as well as non-Indian delicacies. Whether it is a sweet pastry, vermicelli kheer or savoury diamond cuts or pooris; it is definitely okay to consume such delicacies once in a while in the festive season! But just as anything in excess is not good for us, so is the case with these refined grains! The first obvious effect of eating food made from refined flour becomes evident in the morning when one has to deal with what is becoming increasingly common- Constipation! The fiber in whole grains goes a long way in preventing constipation. And one of the richest sources of fiber; apart from fruits and vegetables, are whole grains.
The grain can be cracked, crushed, or even ground- it will still be called whole grain if it has the same proportion of bran, germ and endosperm as it had before processing.
Whole grains in our diet:
Consuming more of whole grains is one of the healthiest changes we can make in our eating habits. So, going back to the traditional diets of our grandparents is a beneficial and healthy choice. Before the 1950s, whole grains such as amaranth (rajgira), barley (jau), pearl millet (bajra), finger millet (ragi) and sorghum (jowar) were more commonly used in Indian kitchens. It was after the Green Revolution of 1951, that white rice and refined wheat flour became a part of our diet. But India has many traditional foods which are prepared from whole grains. Right from bajra, jowar roti to broken wheat kheer to ragi balls to multi-grain dosas. Did you know that a simple and delicious form of whole grain is popcorn?! Oatmeal is another one.
Make it a point to eat a portion of whole grains every day because whole grain is a wholesome food indeed.