What is a Grain?
These tiny, unassuming seeds have played a pivotal role in the history of human civilization, shaping culinary traditions across the globe. But what exactly is a grain, and why do these unassuming kernels create such debate in terms of dietary intake?
At its core, a grain is a small, hard seed or fruit of a cereal crop. Crops like wheat, rice, oats, barley, and corn are all examples of plants that produce grains.
A grain seed has three main parts:
• The bran is the seed’s outer layer (skin), which is very fibrous.
• The germ, also referred to as an embryo, is the hub for all the goodness that the seed contains (such as vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids).
• The endosperm is the germ’s food supply, which mainly consists of starch and a little bit of protein.
Are These Grains?
One of the most widely consumed grains is wheat, which is a staple in many diets worldwide. From bread and pasta to pastries and cereals, wheat has found its way into countless dishes. Rice, is another prominent grain, is a dietary staple in numerous Asian countries. These three foods are often in my frequently asked question box! To answer:
Oats = yes
Quinoa = yes
Corn = yes and no! Corn on the cob is a vegetable and process corn kernels (like in popcorn) are.
Are They Good or Bad?
Now this is the question which sparks a lot of debate. Very rarely will I put food or food groups into 'good' or 'bad'. This is because it fails to answer the more important question of how much nutrients am I getting? The reason grains are so confusing is because they all have a different level of processing which alters their nutrients. All grains are are ‘born’ a wholegrain. It is the process of industrialised milling which changes this. It's important to note that all grains, even the most nutritious wholegrains, such as steel cut oats, still have been processed in order for consumption its about the level of processing that has occurred. This is why oats and quinoa are often asked - they are grains but some of the more nutrient dense wholegrains.
Wholegrain & Refined Grains
The main difference between wholegrain and refined grain lies in the parts of the grain kernel that are included in the final product.
- Contains all three parts of the grain kernel: the bran, germ, and endosperm.
- Bran: The outer layer, rich in fiber, B vitamins, and minerals.
- Germ: The core, containing essential fatty acids, vitamins, and antioxidants.
- Endosperm: The inner part, providing carbohydrates, protein, and some vitamins.
When you consume a whole grain product, you get the full nutritional package of the grain, including fiber, which aids digestion, and a variety of nutrients that contribute to overall health. Examples of whole grains include whole wheat, brown rice, quinoa, oats, and barley.
Not Wholegrain (Refined Grain):
- Has undergone a milling process that removes the bran and germ, leaving only the starchy endosperm.
- This process results in a finer texture and a longer shelf life but removes a significant portion of the nutrients found in the bran and germ.
- Refined grains lack the fiber, vitamins, and minerals that are present in whole grains.
Common examples of refined grains include white flour, white rice (including baby rice), and products made with these ingredients like white bread and most commercial breakfast cereals.
Choosing wholegrains over refined grains is generally considered healthier due to the increased nutritional content. The fiber in whole grains also helps regulate blood sugar levels and contributes to a feeling of fullness. In addition for toddlers it can provide some extra nutrients such as iron, fibre and vitamin B12.
You will have seen the mention of baby rice under the refined grains section. This is a highly processed (and marketed) product for infants. One of my key messages in terms of starting solids and baby feeding is to avoid this product all together. In addition, I also recommend waiting to introduce grains overall until a baby is 10-12 months of age. I have a lot of resources explaining the science and rationale behind this. You can read my blog here and check out my best selling book here. I have gone on to create a product which offers similar practicality but significantly more nutrients for a baby - my Baby Porridge with Pumpkin.
Practical and Sustainable
Sustainable nutrition and food supply is not a separate variable in terms of dietary intake. It can be easy to forget when we are privileged by an abundant food supply especially in first world countries. Grains play a vital role in environmental sustainability. Many grains are resilient, adaptable crops that can thrive in diverse climates. Their cultivation provides food security and supports rural economies, making them a crucial component of a sustainable global food system. In comparison to vegetables they are a lot more cost effective. This is also why I do not like to put grains into a 'good' or 'bad' category.
All of my cookbooks contain recipes where the major focus is on wholegrain intake but still supportive of the core foods which provide the key essential nutrients. You will also find my food products follow the same nutrition principles here. I have a forthcoming blog on how to introduce grains to a toddler but cover this in detail in my other best seller - The Nourished Toddler.
Hope this helps to cut through some of the confusion around grains! You can also check out my coffee group presentations and upcoming events which is always a good option for asking questions like this and hearing from others!
x Dr Julie