“Would you like that on a roll or a bun?”, “What kind of bread would you like that on?”, “Would you like that toasted?”. These are all common questions asked in different restaurants each and very day. Not to focus just on bread but all types of grains, whole or refined, are often the stable of choice in America and many parts of the world.
We have pasta, tortillas, flour wraps, and pretty much anything made from dough or ultimately from grains. Shelves in supermarkets are almost always fully stocked with these items. Anytime there’s a forecast of severe weather or other phenomenon that requires people to stay in their homes for long periods of time, the #1 food item that gets sold out is bread by far.
In my last article, I explained what the Mediterranean Diet is and how great it is for weight loss and just healthy living in general. It’s actually more than just a diet because it’s a lifestyle. I cannot recommend it highly enough but there is just one thing that keeps it from being the “best”. It includes the consumption of whole grains.
To be fair, I did say whole grains and not just any grains which would include refined grains. But what do I have against whole grains? Nothing personally. Much of the world relies on it as part of their daily meals. It is definitely the most common food type in the world.
But what is it doing to people really? Are there other things going on inside our bodies when we consume grains beyond just what’s been told to the public? Is there a difference between grains before the industrial revolution and the grains we eat today? If grains turn out to be not so good, but I still have to have it, are there “safe” ways to enjoy them?
We’ll get to answering all those questions and more, but let’s start off with a bit of history on the grain.
History Of The Grain
Some of the earliest records of grains were from the Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans, who at that time were already harvesting grains and milling them. At that point, food processing was already well in place.
But historians speculate that grains had a much longer history that what’s recorded. If the earliest records show that grains were being harvested and processed, prior attempts to consume grains must have been made.
Although there’s no evidence to provide definite proof for this, it’s a possibility that grains were introduced as food when humans decided on settlement in a certain area. Agriculture became important since hunting in the same area is not sustainable in the long term.
Vegetables and fruits were not available all year round and did not stand the test of time in storage. More likely than not, grains were first consumed by animals and then humans decided to try this food for themselves. Trial and error led to the growing and harvesting of grains for long term storage. Further refining of the grains led to even longer storage.
This is a lot of speculation for how the grain found its way into the human food chain. But regardless of how it got here, records show that they were being consumed on a regular basis at that point.
Earliest Recorded Consumption
As mentioned, the earliest records of grain consumption were from about 5,000 years ago during the times of the Egyptians. But historic and archeological evidence such as milling stones and baskets for gathering suggests that major consumption of grains started about 5,000 – 8,000 years ago.
Interestingly, there’s an article published by Julio Mercader in the Science Journal claims that grains have been a regular part of human consumption for over 100,000 years¹. This is interesting because the tools required to harvest grains even in the pre-industrial revolution time period were not available 100,000 years ago.
Furthermore, the preparation of grains from growing and harvesting and processing into an edible state requires tremendous amount of effort compared to hunting or foraging for fruits, grain consumption was highly unlikely back then. This is not to say that grains were never ingested that long ago. But regular consumption of grains most likely was not part of the human diet until less than 10,000 years ago.
The Health Effects
When it comes to the health effects of grains, let’s first look at some patterns in history, then we’ll consider the science behind it all.
First, let’s go back to the records of grain consumption we talked about earlier. We know grain consumption was recorded for at least 5,000 years. So going back to 3,000 B.C.E. til now, humans have been consuming grains as a society.
Researcher have studied the skulls and teeth remains of individuals living in that time period and leading up to our present day. Below is a table summarizing the percentage of tooth decay and cavities found among the population of that time.
Time Period Percentage of Cavities
3,000 B.C.E. 3%
2,000 B.C.E. 4.5%
1,000 B.C.E. 5%
100 A.D 11%
1,000 A.D. 5.5%
1,959 A.D. 24%
Before the 20th Century, the percentage of cavities rarely ventured into the double digits. The spike you see on the last row is when grains were mass grown and harvested and consumed on a grand scale. There’s also a spike in the 1st Century.
This is the time period when the Romans had conquered much of the “world” at that time and was considered a world power. Human teeth remains were mostly from the Romans that were studied in this time period. It’s also a coincidence (or is it) that the Romans were the first to take refining of grains to a new level.
The Romans took the milling technologies to a new level and were able to produce refined grain products on a scale never done before their time. The refined products quickly took over for the upper class while the lower class were left with whole grains.
Many actually attribute this as one of the failings of the Roman Empire that led to its downfall. The degraded health of the upper class, including its leaders, led the world power to its demise. There were other factors of course, but it does not surprise me that this would’ve contributed to it.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, it’s apparent the grain consumption had fell off. There were still grain consumers but there was no mass production of refined grain products like it was during the time of the Romans. Interestingly, the cavity rates dropped back down to close of that before refined grains were consumed regularly.
Fast forward almost 2,000 years and we have the industrial revolution, which is great in many ways, but also terrible in others. One of the less obvious is the mass production of grains, more specifically refined grains. So are the grains today different from the ones during the Roman’s time? How about the grains we eat today vs. the grains before the refinement process was invented?
Whole Grains Vs. Refined Grains
We often hear about the benefits of including grains in our diet. A prime example of this is the food pyramid.
If we’re to follow this pyramid strictly, we would be eating 6-11 servings of grains per day. A single serving is a slice of bread, a single muffin, 1/2 cup of rice, etc. It doesn’t help when we get recommendations like eating 6 or more slices of bread or muffin per day². Yes, you read that right, this is a recommendation from the U.S. National Library of Medicine².
This does not specify the difference between whole grain and refined grain. We often see the label “Whole Grain” printed on food packages and being boasted as the “best” source of grain. I have yet to see the label “Refined Grain” on any food product.
So what’s the big dealio between whole grain and refined grain? Besides what we just talked about with the Romans’ refined grains and oral health, let’s see the differences in processing between the two.
Grains in general are harvested from the field. The main difference in a whole grain and a refined grain is the way they are processed in the factory. Depending on what the grains will be used for, they can end up going through very different modes of preparation.
Whole grains go through minimal processing compared to refined grains. Even so, the grains making up a whole grain product could’ve underwent a series of processing steps such as milling, boiling, oil extraction, rolling, etc. These are all steps to make the grains edible.
Refined grains on the other hand, are required to go through many different steps in order to produced a refined grain product. The natural composition is much more modified than whole grains. The most distinct difference between the whole grains and refined grains process is the removal of the bran and the germ in the refined grain. This removal leaves behind just the seed of the grain.
Grains were often the food of choice for sailors and seamen that have to be in the ocean for long periods of time. There was a specific account of one sailor that recalled the grains being spoiled after some time out at sea, and whole loads of grains had to be thrown out because they’ve gone rancid.
If the grains didn’t go bad, the rats and other pests got to them before the sailors did. This caused a lot of food wastes and trouble for the consumers.
Refined grains at that time were hailed as the solution to this problem. It addition to lasting almost indefinitely due to the removal of all oils (keeps it from going rancid), no pests, rodents, or other animals would bother to eat it. This may sound good from a preservation standpoint, but do we really want to be consuming something that even animals won’t bother to?
We have something that the Romans didn’t have in their day, the science to determine the nutritional value of our foods. Would the Romans have kept up their consumption of refined grains if they know what we know now? Let’s take a look at the nutritional value of grains.
The two most common forms of grains in the world are wheat and rice. In their whole grain state, they keep 100% of their nutritional value. Nothing is changed about them nutrition wise.
In the refined state however, is a different story.
Here are a few key nutrient content of refined wheat:
- Riboflavin: 19%
- Vitamin E: 5%
- Magnesium: 16%
- Zinc: 24%
- Selenium: 48%
Refined rice is just a bit better:
- Riboflavin: 53%
- Vitamin E: 18%
- Magnesium: 17%
- Zinc: 29%
- Selenium: 65%
These are what we’re getting with refined grains. The nutritional deficit is obvious, and in response to that, manufacturers came out with an “enriched” grain.
This is something that’s also common on food labels, “Enriched Grain”. This is exactly like it sounds, the grains have been enriched with certain nutrient content so that some even exceeds that of the whole grains. But this only applies for a few of the nutrients, most notably Thiamin, Folate, and Iron for enriched rice.
But most of the nutrient content stay the same as that of the refined state. The few that I listed in bullet points above are just some of the vital ones that our bodies need to function properly.
So from just a nutritional standpoint, refined grains and enriched grains are both apparent no-no’s. They don’t give us what we need for a healthy body. But whole grains keep all of its nutrients, so it must be safe to eat right?
Effect On Health
At this point, we will only be considering whole grains since it’s the “healthiest” version of the grains that we’ve considered thus far. So what does it do for us health-wise? Consider a study conducted on 2,834 participants that aimed to study the effects of whole grain vs refined grain consumption on body fat levels.
Yes, I know I just said we’ll only be talking about whole grains from this point forward. This study though is to highlight the health effects of whole grains.
No information was given on the duration of the study, but the group that consumed whole grains showed a decrease in body fat level. Both subcutaneous adipose tissue (the outer layer of fat around our bellies, thighs, etc.) and visceral adipose tissue (fat around our organs and innards) were lowered when whole grains were consumed³.
For those of us that don’t know about the different layers of fat, visceral adipose tissue is much worse for our health than subcutaneous. It has a much higher correlation with heart disease and other cardiovascular problems.
So whole grains cuts this down, that makes it perfectly fine to include in our diet right?
First of all, this study compared whole grains and refined grains. Nowhere in there does it compare other foods. Refined grains are worse than whole grains is something we’ve already established.
Second, just because something is better than something else, doesn’t mean the first something is good (makes sense?). Intelligent English: Whole grains being more nutritious and apparently healthier for us than refined grains does NOT mean whole grains jn general are good for us.
3 Key Ingredients
Well, considering that the 3 common ingredients in whole grains are Lectin, Gluten, and Phytates, maybe not so much.
Lectin binds to our intestinal lining walls, which is ironic because the fiber content is always on the forefront of pro-grain debates. “Fiber helps move things along in your gut.” yes, and the lectin is right there to keep that from happening efficiently in the long term.
Gluten’s a topic that’s been beaten to death for the last 5 years. For some, gluten has no noticeable side effects when ingested. My dad actually loves this common Chinese dish called Gluten Rice. It doesn’t get anymore gluten than that. But there are some people that cannot take this. Even for those of us with no apparent intolerance to gluten can experience some form of calcium and vitamin D3 deficiency, bone defects, and possible hyperparathyroidism.
Phytates are pretty much the nail in the coffin for whole grains. We hear about blending certain foods or adding certain ingredients to make nutrients and mineral more “bioavailable”. All that means is that our bodies absorb the nutrients and minerals more efficiently, resulting in more and faster absorption.
Phytates does the exact opposite of that.
We aren’t able to absorb as much of the minerals in the whole grains. So much for all the vitamins and other good stuff that we’re missing out on without whole grains in our diet!
For Those That Must Have It
I know a lot of us still love our bread and pasta even after reading this, and that’s okay. I’m not advocating to completely cut grains out of our lives. I don’t see any nutritional value in ice cream but I’ll go to town on some cookies and cream Ben and Jerry’s any day of the year!
If whole grains (hopefully not refined grains) are going to be somewhat of a stable in your life, you may try soaking, sprouting, and most of all, fermenting them during your preparation. Yes, this means a little more work but they negate some of the negative effects of grains on our health. I’d recommend checking out this article to learn more.
- “Mozambican Grass Seed Consumption during the Middle Stone Age.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 03 July 2016.
- “Diabetes Diet – Gestational: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” U.S National Library of Medicine. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 03 July 2016.
- “Whole- and Refined-grain Intakes Are Differentially Associated with Abdominal Visceral and Subcutaneous Adiposity in Healthy Adults: The Framingham Heart Study.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 03 July 2016.