What struck us most about the Food Guide Pyramid, which debuted about 15 years ago, was its wide base representing grains. There in a row were pictures of bread, cereal, rice, pasta and crackers, the most popular grain products in the American diet. The health experts’ advice, which accompanied the Pyramid, was that a healthful diet should include 6 to 11 servings of grains a day.
Since then, the Food Pyramid has been replaced with MyPyramid, and although the new version is not as easy to decipher, the message is similar; grains are important. But not just any grain. Whole grains, such as brown rice, quinoa and bread with whole-wheat flour listed as the first ingredient, are better choices than refined grains, like white rice and white bread.
The difference between whole and refined grains is the result of what happens in processing. In its original state, a grain has three parts: the fiber-rich outer covering called the bran; the germ, which sprouts into a new plant; and the inner starchy endosperm, which supplies food for the germ. When grains are processed or refined, the bran and germ, with their fiber and nutrients, are stripped away.
Even if fiber is added to replace what’s been taken out, other nutrients lost in the processing will still be missing. Studies show whole grains’ health benefits, such as controlling blood sugar and reducing cholesterol, are more powerful than fiber alone. What has always impressed us about grains is how easy it is to substitute them for one another. For instance, quinoa, a seed eaten as a whole grain, can be used instead of white rice in jambalaya. It’s the kind of culinary juggling nutrition experts had in mind they built the Pyramids.
By Jean Kressy, a food writer in Ashburham, Mass.