No one knows for sure when people started eating grain; current scientific data is inconclusive, but it’s clear that whole grain has been part of the human diet for a long, long time—going back at least 10,000 years. In fact, primitive grain storage facilities have been found dating to at least 11,000 years ago. In short, people in various parts of the world have been eating whole grains for a very long time. It’s September, and for the Whole Grains Council, that means it’s Whole Grains Month again. In recent years, the Whole Grains Council has been using the month of September to help promote eating more whole grains. The Whole Grains council has been around since 2002 and was created by a group of grain millers, manufacturers, scientists, and chefs in conjunction with an organization called the Oldways Preservation Trust to build awareness of whole grains and their health benefits
In part because of the work of the Whole Grains Council, or WGC, and in part because of dietary trends in recent years, whole grains have received a lot more attention. But not everyone knows what exactly they are, and there are a variety of terms that can make things even more confusing for the health-conscious consumer: “Ancient grains,” “heirloom grains,” and grains with strange names like quinoa, farro, kaniwa, or freekeh. So what are whole grains in the first place? According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a whole grain “contain[s] the entire grain kernel ― the bran, germ, and endosperm.” Well what does that mean? The WGC gives us some better detail:
“All grains start life as whole grains. In their natural state growing in the fields, whole grains are the entire seed of a plant. This seed (which industry calls a “kernel”) is made up of three key edible parts – the bran, the germ, and the endosperm – protected by an inedible husk that protects the kernel from assaults by sunlight, pests, water, and disease.”
The different components of a whole grain—the bran, germ, and endosperm—each contain different nutrients that make whole grains healthier than processed or refined grains. Those extra nutrients in the different parts of a whole grain include antioxidants, lots of B vitamins, fiber, protein, minerals, healthy fats, and carbohydrates. Refined grains have had both the bran and germ removed in the milling process. This processing gives the final product a finer texture and longer shelf life, but the healthy nutritional content of the bran and germ are lost—especially B vitamins, fiber, and iron. In fact, according to the WGC, about 25% of the protein and at least 17 important nutrients are lost. Those processed grains also commonly go through an enriching process to put some of the B vitamins and iron back in, but the fiber remains lost.
Thus, whole grains are a healthier choice compared to refined grains. They naturally have more protein, more fiber, and more vitamins and minerals, and nothing has to be added back in chemically to fortify them. The shelf life of whole grains may not be quite as long, but if you are eating right and regularly, shelf life shouldn’t be an issue.
In fact, for some whole grains, the shelf life dramatically surpasses processed products; for example, the estimated shelf life of a sack of processed enriched wheat flour is between 6 and 8 months past the use-by date, while the shelf life for raw quinoa, a very popular whole grain originating in South America, may be as high as 2 to 3 years—without refrigeration. Bear in mind, though, that the WGC recommends on their site that intact whole grain quinoa be used within 4 months if stored in a pantry and 8 months if stored in the freezer. Farro, an ancient grain popular in Italian cuisine (and a primary food source for Caesar’s Roman army), is also popular, and according to the WGC has a great shelf life—6 months in the pantry and 1 year in the freezer for the raw form.
But how do we know that whole grains are heathier? Aside from the fact that they contain more nutrients, their long-term benefits have also been scientifically studied. According to a paper created by several scientists including Dr. Lu Qi, Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard University, “high consumption of whole grains or cereal fiber was significantly associated with reduced risk of all-cause mortality and death from cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, respiratory disease, infections, and other causes.” So people who eat lots of whole grains tend to be healthier and at lower risk for common preventable causes of mortality. They also found “those in the highest intake group had a 17% lower risk of all-cause mortality and 11 to 48% lower risk of disease-specific mortality.” That makes it pretty clear: whole grains are a healthy choice.
Incidentally, just as farro grain fed Rome’s centurions marching across Europe, quinoa fed centuries of Inca warriors throughout the Andes. So this September, head to the grocery store and pick up some whole grain. If you make it quinoa or farro, you can eat like an ancient warrior—and be healthier at the same time. Decrease your chances for diabetes, respiratory disease, and cancer. Increase your warrior diet. Happy dining!
Eat by Date. (2015, July 31). The shelf life of flour. Eatbydate.com. Retrieved from http://www.eatbydate.com/other/baking/how-long-does-flour-last-shelf-life-expiration-date/
Eat by Date. (2015, July 31). The shelf life of quinoa. Eatbydate.com. Retrieved from http://www.eatbydate.com/grains/quinoa
Huang, T., Xu, M., Lee, A., Cho, S., & Qi, L. (2015, March 24). Consumption of whole grains and cereal fiber and total and cause-specific mortality: Prospective analysis of 367,442 individuals. BMC Medicine 13(59). Retrieved from http://www.biomedcentral.com/1741-7015/13/59
United States Department of Agriculture. (2015, July 31). Grains. Choosemyplate.gov. Retrieved from http://www.choosemyplate.gov/food-groups/grains.html
Whole Grains Council. (2015, July 31). What is a whole grain?. Wholegrainscouncil.org. Retrieved from http://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/what-is-a-whole-grain
Whole Grains Council. (2015, July 29). Whole grains 101. Wholegrainscouncil.org. Retrieved from http://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101