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Ask Well: Getting the Most Out of Whole Grains

Q: Are whole grains as beneficial if they are ground up, for example, as in smoothies, or made into flour as in cereal?

A: Whole grains are good, whether served whole or ground up, experts say, but with a few caveats.

Some product labels will suggest that they contain whole grains when they really don’t, warned Maria Elena Rodriguez, a dietitian and diabetes expert with the Mount Sinai Health System. Read the label carefully and make sure that whole grains — and not sugar or a sugar equivalent like corn syrup — are among the first few ingredients.


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Intact whole grains are grains in which all three components of grain — the bran, the germ and the endosperm — are preserved, such as in steel cut oats, barley, brown rice, buckwheat, farro and millet, Kristin Kirkpatrick, a dietitian with the Cleveland Clinic, said in an email.

Ground into a flour, these grains may still be considered “whole,” according to the Food and Drug Administration, she said, while refined grains, in which the bran and germ are stripped, are not. “But the chemistry of the grain changes” with grinding, she said. “The glycemic index and calories go up as fiber goes down.” She cited whole grain bread, whole grain cereal and whole grain pasta as examples of foods that typically contain ground whole grains.

“My advice is to add only intact grains to your smoothies, like steel cut oats, barley, millet or farro,” Ms. Kirkpatrick said.

Though grinding up whole grains robs them of some of their fiber, said David A. Levitsky, a professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University, it also makes them more palatable. Whole grain cereals may not be as good as whole grains in their natural form, he said, “but it’s better than zero.”

Different grains respond differently to being ground. Flaxseed, for instance, is more nutritious ground up, because the body can’t absorb its nutrients as well whole, Ms. Rodriguez said.

If you’re going to drink smoothies, pay attention to the sugar and fiber levels, Ms. Rodriguez advises. “I would keep sugar content to 15 to 30 grams,” she said, noting that some have 60 grams of sugar from fruit. “It’s natural sugars, but some of them are juice extractions,” with little fiber.

A good rule of thumb, she said, is to look for products that have three grams of fiber or more per serving and have the “whole grains” stamp on the box.

(photo credit: Frapestaartje)

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