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Whole Grains It’s Not Grain Surgery


By Benjamin Goodin

September is whole grain month because, for a few decades now, nutritionists have been pleading with the common consumer to eat healthier. There has been a lot of conflicting advice about carbs-laden grains: we should eat them; we shouldn’t eat them; we should only eat certain types. This tug of war becomes a bit confusing for consumers who are less educated than a dietician. Then gluten-free eating enters the argument and this us-or-them standoff begins to look more like the floor of the stock exchange with nutritionists of every opinion vying for our attention.

Two of my personal favorite indulgences, bread and starches, have gotten a particularly bad rap in health community for their simple carbohydrate content. Even if my doctor told me to stop eating these foods, I might consider stopping. I think she might be somewhat pacified if we compromised, and I ate my carbs smarter.

Like so many other dietary troubles, the problem with eating grains comes down to decisions. A great deal of the grains we eat are in a processed form, a form that lays on the starches and simple carbs in high quantities. Conscious of the recent eyebrow raising that has occurred in reaction to carb and starch consumption, many grain products, especially those that are made from wheat, have been advertising openly and loudly when their product contains whole grains. As a grown adult, I will admit that I’d be hard pressed to tell you exactly what that meant other than my tortillas and loaves of bread taking on a distinctly rustic appearance: being more brownish than usual and peppered with little flecks of something throughout.

Most of the grains and prepackaged foods that we eat are of the “processed” or “refined” variety: meaning that they’ve been somehow prepared before hitting the shelves. In the case of grains, this means that they’ve been, crushed, milled, cut, rolled, or even cracked. The process of refining grains separates the bran and the germ from the rest of the kernel, and thus it loses a bit of nutritional value. Basically, you’re left with the endosperm part of the grain, and that is pretty much just starch. Now, starches are pretty delicious, but all on their own they’re missing most of the nutrients from the germ, and the all-important fiber from the bran. Variety and diversity are the key to any sort of healthy eating, just like the serving suggestions demonstrate on the cereal box: besides a heaping bowl of your chosen cereal (for fiber and carbs), a well-rounded breakfast includes some healthy sugars (fruit), ample calcium and protein (milk), and some vitamin C (that giant glass of orange juice). The diversity axiom goes the same for grains — well-rounded is healthier, and it helps your body process some of that starch.

September is an especially big month for The Whole Grains Council. Not only is the theme of this month their namesake, but the Council’s featured grain of the month is actually two grains: rice and wild rice. Together, they “provide about half the calories for up to half of the world’s population.”

When we talk about whole grain rice, we’re not just talking about brown rice. Yes, the brown color is prevalent in unprocessed, whole grain rice that would otherwise be white without the germ and bran. However, rice comes in a variety of colors and sizes, so brown isn’t the gold-standard of healthy rice. Rice is usually classified by kernel shape —long, medium, and short — and whether or not it is “sticky,” which means “starchy.” What separates many of varieties of rice, however, is actually fragrance. The aroma of some species of rice imparts flavor, which can range from floral (jasmine) to nutty (basmati). A little research can reveal the full spectrum of rice-aroma intricacies; a little kitchen experimentation can lead to some interesting combinations and results.

Since the Whole Grain Council knows so much about rice, you’re probably wondering why they seem to repeat themselves when they say that September’s grains of the month are rice and wild rice. The answer is pretty simple; wild rice isn’t actually rice — it is actually a seed of a long, aqueous grass — yet it earned that name because it is a somewhat close cousin to rice, and the plant it comes from shares many similarities, including general appearance. If you’re a fan of eating locally, you might be pleased to know that the wild rice most of us are familiar with originated right here in the United States’ own Great Lakes region, and was eaten and harvested sustainably by Native Americans in the region for possibly thousands of years. Long-grained wild rice is a dark-brown color, has a distinctly nutty flavor, and is pleasantly chewy. The version of wild rice we likely recognize most is almost always whole rice grains, and boasts some impressive health benefits. At 6.5 grams of protein, a cup of wild rice has more than an egg and packs twice the fiber of brown rice. The nutrient profile of wild rice is complex too: it contains 23 percent of the daily value for manganese, 11 percent of your B-complex vitamins, and has 30 percent greater antioxidant activity than white rice. Whole grain wild rice, along with any other whole grain rice, is naturally gluten free.

Even if you’re not a particularly big rice fan, there are still plenty of other whole grains you can eat, each with its own particular properties and nutritional benefits. Some whole grains are a bit elusive on the grocer’s shelves (I’ve not once seen a bag of teff to speak of). All are very clearly labeled as being whole grains if they’ve not been processed; non-whole grain varieties lack that descriptor whether or not they’ve been converted, milled, refined, enriched, or gone through some other refining process. So, if you’re on a health kick, or just trying to avoid processed foods, whole grains can be very rice to you, even if you barley know a thing about them. Just try not to rye about it.

Photo credit: nipaporn/AdobeStock

Stuffed Peppers with Squash, Black Beans, and Rice

Serves 2 as a main dish or 4 as a side

If you have leftover rice and cooked black beans on hand, this recipe can be made in just a few minutes. Alternatively, you can slice up the red peppers, add some shredded lettuce, and make a salad out of it.

½ cup    cooked brown rice
1 cup    cooked black beans
2    Mexican gray squash or zucchini, diced
6    green onions, sliced
2 tsp.    pepitas (green pumpkin seeds)
2 cloves     garlic, minced
1 Tbsp.    chopped fresh oregano
2 tsp.    apple cider vinegar
juice of     1 lime
¼ tsp.     sea salt
½ tsp.    freshly ground black pepper
2  red bell peppers, cut in half, cored, and seeded.
Optional:    Salsa

Combine the rice, beans, squash, green onions, pepitas, garlic, oregano, vinegar, lime, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Fill the pepper halves with the squash, rice, and bean mixture. Top with salsa, if using, and serve.

Per serving:
187 calories, 16 g protein,
54 g carbohydrate,
13 g sugar, 3 g total fat,
14% calories from fat,
16 g fiber, 317 mg sodium.

Recipe reproduced from PCRM.org, with  credit to Dr. Neal Barnard for the original recipe.

Photo credit: shibachuu/AdobeStock