Refined Grains: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly
Flour is all around us and a temptation at every meal. Breakfast toast, bagels, cereal, and pancakes fill our tables. Lunch revolves around sandwiches, wraps, pasta and pizza. Refined grains have been vilified as one of the leadings causes of ill health. Is there any truth to this? Should we toss all refined grain products off our tables? We will have an in-depth look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of refined flour to give you a better understanding of the goodies on your plate.
Reﬁned grain is the term used to refer to grains that are not whole, because they are missing one or more of their three key parts (bran, germ, or endosperm). White ﬂour and white rice are reﬁned grains, for instance, because both have had their bran and germ removed, leaving only the endosperm. Reﬁning a grain removes about a quarter of the protein in a grain and half to two thirds or more of a score of nutrients, leaving the grain a mere shadow of its original self.
Further refining includes mixing, bleaching, and brominating; additionally, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and iron are often added back in to nutritionally enrich the product. Because the added nutrients represent a fraction of the nutrients removed, refined grains are considered nutritionally inferior to whole grains. However, for some grains the removal of fiber coupled with fine grinding results in a slightly higher availability of grain energy for use by the body.
Grain refining led to disastrous and widespread nutritional problems, like the deﬁciency diseases pelagra and beri-beri. In response, many governments recommended or required that reﬁned grains be “enriched.”
The federal government’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that half your daily grain intake be from high-fiber whole-grain sources, foods like brown rice, oatmeal and whole-wheat bread. Nutritionists often exhort people to choose whole grains over refined ones whenever they can.
But according to one leading nutrition researcher, Julie Miller Jones, a professor emeritus at St. Catherine University, we shouldn’t be so eager to throw out refined grains altogether. Refined grains do have some benefits — namely, nutrients added to refined flours.
Since folic acid was added to bread, cereal and other grains in 1999, the rate of newborns with neural tube defects — a known consequence of folic acid deficiency — has decreased 46%. Additionally, important nutrients like copper and iron are more easily absorbed when eaten with refined grains. Whole grains are healthy because they’re so high in fiber, which Americans don’t get enough of, but that fiber also fast-tracks food through the digestive system, absorbing nutrients along the way.
As our national appetite for flour has inched up, so has the incidence of diet-related ills, such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Coincidence? Many nutrition experts don’t think so. When they weigh the evidence linking food choices and disease, they see the white, dusty fingerprints of flour everywhere.
Flour started out as an ingenious fix to a vexing problem. Grass seeds were plentiful, but the tough outer shell (the husk) made the seeds difficult to chew and digest. Early humans outsmarted the seeds by grinding them between stones, crushing the outer layers to get at the goodness inside. The result — a coarse powder — was the first whole-grain flour.
The downside was spoilage. Crushing the germ released its oils, which quickly turned rancid when exposed to air. With the advent of industrial milling in the late 1800s, machines began filtering out the germ and pulverized the remaining endosperm into a fine, white powder that lasted on the shelf for months. And so all-purpose white flour was born — along with a host of health problems.
Beneath their rigid architecture, whole-kernel grains conceal an array of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber. But when machines pulverize kernels into flour, even whole-grain flour, what’s left behind is a starchy powder capable of wreaking havoc on the body.
Overconsuming flour can lead to a number of problems in the body, including:
Grains are not essential, and there is no nutrient in there that you can’t get from other foods.