Ask the Ethicurean: What is a whole grain?

Omniho suggested a while ago that we start a regular feature called "Ask the Ethicurean," in which readers pose ethical-eating dilemmas or inquire about brands you'd like us to investigate.

Chances are we won't know the answer offhand, but with the help of Google, Lexis-Nexis, access to academic and research papers, and the willingness to call people up and ask them nosy questions — we'll find out something for you. (And if we're wrong, readers will let us know.)

Sugar N. Schpiets has asked us in a comment on our Glossary page what the definition of "whole grains" are, and if there is in fact a "weasel-y corporate-government-food-combine legal term" for them. I thought this would be a nice easy one to launch ATE with.

All grains start out with three parts:

  • Bran— the outer shell, which protects against pests and contains important antioxidants, B vitamins and fiber
  • Germ — the seed for a new plant, which contains many B vitamins, some protein, minerals, and healthy fats.
  • Endosperm — the germ’s energy storehouse, which feeds the young plant so it can send roots down for water and nutrients, and grow sprouts up for sunlight. It has a lot of starchy carbohydrates, proteins and small amounts of vitamins and minerals.

Most processed grains, such as "enriched" or "white" flour, contain only the endosperm, losing about 25% of the grain’s protein and at least 17 key nutrients. That's why processors "enrich" refined grains with additional vitamins and minerals.

So what does this mean for food labels? I looked first in the Consumers Union eco-labels guide, but there was no listing for "whole grains." A Food Processing article says that while the use of this terms on a food label is not regulated by the FDA as part of a health claim — yet — it is governed by the prohibition against making "false and misleading statements." When you see a product listed as containing "100 percent whole grains," it probably does. If it is "rich in whole grains" or "made with whole grains," you're kind of on your own for interpretation.

To combat this, the Whole Grains Council industry group has created its own labeling system. Its "100% Stamp" means just what it sounds like, that all the grain is whole grain. That doesn't mean that it's not processed, only that the "whole grain" part is required to have the same proportions of bran, germ, and endosperm as the harvested kernel did originally. However, a quick look in my cupboard revealed no foods carrying this label, so you might want to check the Council's table to decoding grains listings on food labels. "Bran" and "wheat germ," for example, never refer to whole grains.

Alas, Sugar, your suggested definition that "to be 'Whole Grain' a food must have 2 (or more) grams of Fiber per 100 Calories" will not help you. Different grains have different amounts of fiber, ranging from 3.5% in rice to over 15% in barley and bulgur. And high-fiber products may have a lot of bran or other added fiber but little whole grains. Fiber is good for you too, but they're not interchangeable.

Next on ATE: Sometime in the next few weeks, we hope to answer Ommmaggie's question about whether Clover-Stornetta uses forced-molting on its laying hens. Send your questions for "Ask the Ethicurean" to t...@ethicurean.com.

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