A “whole grain” is a grain with the endosperm, germ and bran all still intact. The hull may or may not be present. “Whole grain” food refers to using whole grain in its whole shape, or ground into flour.
Whole grain food is digested slowly in the human digestive system since it has many complex carbohydrates in it; this means whole grains have a low glycemic index rating. To help the human digestive tract deal effectively with these complex carbohydrates processes such as fermenting, soaking, sprouting and cooking grain is recommended. Amylase is the enzyme that breaks complex carbohydrates down into simpler carbohydrates.
With the bran present in whole grain products, they are rich in fiber. When we eat fiber the muscles of our intestine are triggered to the involuntary contraction and relaxation pattern, moving the food on through; so even though fiber is indigestible, it’s very good for our digestive system. Having a fiber rich diet will keep you healthier and maintain a healthy weight.
One more thing to keep in mind when preparing food with whole grains is that since whole grains are high in phytic acid it’s crucial for digestion and mineral absorption to soak, ferment and/or cook grains before consuming them. The phytase enzyme present in plants containing phytic acid is what will neutralize the phytic acid into a digestible form.
What Makes up a Grain?
Bran – This is the outermost layer of grain. In whole grain flour the tiny pieces are sharp and often cut the developed gluten in dough, creating a denser and heavier product than a bran-free white flour product would. Creating a soaker for bread dough will make the bran edges softer, allowing a better bread rise later on. Bran provides a good source of fiber in whole grain flour.
Germ – The embryo of a wheat kernel. This is the part of the wheat kernel from which germination takes place. The germ is packed full of essential nutrients such as protein, fiber, polyunsaturated fats, vitamins (B complex and E), and minerals such as phosphorus, thiamin, zinc and magnesium so it’s a greatly beneficial health food. Essential fatty acids and fatty alcohols are also present in wheat germ.
Since wheat germ contains polyunsaturated fats, food made with whole wheat flour (still containing the germ) will go rancid more quickly than food made with white flour (white flour only contains the endosperm from the grain).
The germ contains some oil, which is referred to as “wheat germ oil.” The germ oil is so delicate it will go rancid in whole grain flour within a few days. Packaged whole grain flour in stores has often gone rancid before it’s purchased.
Endosperm – The nutritive component within seeds encased in the pericarp derived from the embryo sac and eventually surrounded and absorbed by the embryo. The majority of a grain kernel (over 80% of the weight in a wheat kernel) is comprised of the endosperm and is what’s primarily desired when the grain is harvested, so the quality and quantity of endosperm in the grain is important.
White flour is ground wheat with everything removed from the flour except the endosperm of the grain. Since the germ and bran are removed nearly all the grain’s vitamins, minerals, and nutrients are processed out. Removing these nutritious parts of the grain results in a product with a longer shelf-life and whiter color. In an attempt to compensate for the lack of nutritional quality in this processed flour a few lab-grade vitamins and minerals may be added back in to “enrich” the product. Research has shown though, that the iron enriching this flour is a metallic form of iron, not a nutritional form at all. What was once full of complex carbohydrate has been turned into a food with simple carbohydrates—while this does make it easier for our bodies to digest, it is a food with practically no nutritional benefits. Yes, it is food and it will (eventually) fill the stomach . . . so if I were starving I would count white bread a blessing if it were the only food available. That’s pretty harsh though.
What’s the Best Then?
Unless you’re completely gluten-intolerant I have found the best way to consume grain for optimum nutrition and digestibility is to:
- Have a variety of grains in my diet, particularly ancient grains.
- Use organic grains when possible and never use GMO grain.
- Prepare the grain in a variety of ways (all of which break down the phytic acid levels and complex carbohydrates).
- To use only freshly milled flour. Over time the vitamins, minerals, protein and oil within fresh flour will degrade leaving me with significantly lower nutrition quality and if left long enough, even rancid flour.
In my opinion many people who have a hard time digesting gluten would do well if they brought gluten slowly back into their diet following the four points above. I think much of the reason so many people have trouble with gluten is that Americans have consumed highly hybridized (new varieties) and genetically modified grain that has been processed in completely the wrong way. Our bodies just don’t know what to do with a mess like that.
Processing grains (and other food) in a traditional way to maintain all the vitamins, minerals, proteins, and enzymes is nearly a lost art that’s been traded for “pretty” products and quick production. Quantity has beat quality in food production the last few decades . . . and our health as a culture is declining as well, people are becoming more and more allergic, disease inflicted, depressed and obese. I think these problems we have are in large part due to consuming a refined, modern food diet. Traditional cooking is an art I want to help bring back.