A few years ago, our Whole Grain Hotline took a call from a woman in Ohio who said, “I don’t understand your Whole Grain Stamp. How can it go on products that don’t contain any whole grains?”

“It can’t!” we replied. “What do you mean?” She said she had read the ingredient list, and there were no whole grains in the bread she was holding in her hands. I asked her to read the ingredients to me. “Whole wheat flour… ” “Hang on… whoa!” I said, “Whole wheat flour is a whole grain and it’s the first ingredient.” “No it isn’t whole,” she insisted. “It’s been ground up. It isn’t whole any more.”

I gently pointed out that grains are considered whole as long as all three edible parts — the bran, the germ, and the endosperm — are still present in their original proportions. It’s okay if the grain has been ground or cracked or flaked, or otherwise processed. We do not have to sit in the middle of the field, eating intact grain kernels off the stalks, to have them count as “whole.”

There are, in fact, some advantages to processing grains in certain ways. As we reported in an earlier blog, wheat with 75,000 parts per million (ppm) of gluten can be transformed to wheat with as little as 12 ppm of gluten, if it’s sourdough-fermented with certain lacto-bacilli. Long sourdough fermentation has also been shown to increase riboflavin (vitamin B2) by as much as 30% and to nearly double thiamin (B1).

There can be trade-offs as processing goes beyond the minimal level, though – so a diet that includes intact and minimally-processed whole grains makes sense. For one, processing can raise the Glycemic Index of grains. The Glycemic Index measures how quickly foods can be converted into blood sugar (glucose) — to fuel your body. You may think “quick fuel — that’s good!” but the best way to picture this is to think of the way a fireplace works when you fuel it. If you put paper on the fire, you get a quick burst of heat and flame, but the fire dies down almost immediately. A couple of good logs may take a while to provide any warmth, but will soon be providing dependable fuel for hours.

To give ourselves a steady supply of energy throughout our day, we want to eat foods that are more like logs, and less like paper — foods that cause a slow release of blood sugar, rather than a quick rush that soon leaves us running on empty. Foods with a low Glycemic Index (GI) are the “logs” that can keep us from raiding the vending machine at 10:30 a.m. – while high GI foods can act more like paper, giving us a quick fix that soon lets us down.

The Glycemic Index is usually measured on a scale of 1 to 100. Foods with scores of less than 55 are considered “low GI;” scores of 55-69 are “medium,” and 70+ is pegged as “high.” (GI measurements involve human subjects and results vary; scores are often expressed as a range.)

So how does processing affect the GI of grains? Whole wheat kernels – think wheatberry salad or pilaf – have a GI of about 30; stoneground whole wheat flour comes in at a GI of about 59-66; and regular whole wheat flour has a GI of 68-84. Not all processing is the same, however. If we make that flour into fluffy sandwich bread, its GI might be about 64-75, while if we make it into pasta, we get spaghetti with a GI of 37-42. (Even white pasta has a low GI, because of the structure of its starches.)

The GI of the foods you eat can make a difference not only in your energy level all day at work, but also in your efforts to maintain your weight. A new study by David Ludwig at Children’s Hospital Boston shows that a low-GI diet including lots of minimally-processed whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes topped both a low-fat diet and a low-carb diet for creating steady, long-term weight loss without increasing inflammation. That’s because this type of traditional diet — like those promoted by Oldways’ pyramids — is healthy to start with, and much easier to stick with than an Atkins-type diet or a low-fat diet.

The take-away message? Go for variety in your whole grains. We love our whole wheat bread, but rather than having toast for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and whole wheat rolls at dinner every day, why not change it up a bit? Have a bowl of steel-cut oats for breakfast, and a side of barley pilaf or whole grain pasta at dinner. A few days a week, switch your sandwich out for tabbouleh (made with bulgur) or another grain salad at lunch. You’ll discover a whole new world of flavor and health when you mix some intact grains into your daily meals. (Cynthia)

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