By now in almost all supermarkets we find foods on which the adjective “wholemeal” stands alongside those we have learned to consider “classics”, such as pasta, bread or its substitutes and breakfast products.
Even in restaurants, dishes based on wholemeal products are heralded as an absolute novelty, now finally available: wholemeal pasta, wholemeal pizza, wholemeal bread have become synonymous with refinement and quality of the raw material.
As if the integral were a new discovery.
The truth is that the refining of cereals is a practice adopted by the industrial world quite recently, for various reasons: refined cereals are more easily workable and suitable for processing flours, they cook faster and keep longer in the time.
In fact, at the time of harvest the cereals are composed of three parts:
- the external bran (14% of the weight of the grain), consisting mainly of cellulose, also contains vitamins and mineral salts;
- the endosperm or egg white (85% of weight), which mainly contains carbohydrates;
- the germ (1-2% of weight), rich in fats and vitamins.
A whole grain has all the components just mentioned, while a refined grain, depending on the degree of refining, will only preserve the endosperm with the starchy component, losing bran and germ.
The latter, being rich in fats, is more easily subject to oxidation and rancidity, eliminating it therefore means having products that last longer.
The advantages for the food industry of having a product that is more easily usable by processing companies and “salable” to the public are undeniable.
But is this choice for consumers equally beneficial?
The advantages of eating wholemeal
You often hear me insist in my videos on the importance of whole grains (and if you don’t know anything about it, do it now!), but if I do it is because, among the few certainties in the food sector, the benefits that integral can bring in terms of prevention of non-communicable diseases.
This is due to the quantity of fiber contained, which has various uses within our organism: it increases intestinal motility, provides an intestinal “cleansing” service and nourishment for the “good” bacteria in our intestinal microbiota.
The benefits supported by scientific research cover several areas.
There are numerous studies in this regard.
In a 2017 systematic review and meta-analysis that investigated the effects of adherence to the Mediterranean diet and the risk of mortality in an overall population of 2,130,753 subjects, the lower risk of cancer mortality was associated with the higher consumption of whole grains, as well as vegetables and fruit, where in particular the protective effect was had against the incidence of colorectal cancer.
Whole grains are among the foods with an inverse correlation (i.e. they decrease the risk) of coronary heart disease, stroke and heart failure.
An optimal intake of whole grains, vegetables, fruit, nuts, legumes, fish has shown an important decrease in the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Prevention in metabolic diseases
There are many observational studies and subsequent systematic reviews and meta analyzes carried out to understand the correlation between the different food groups.
It can be summarized from the conclusions that the risk of disease onset decreases if the consumption of whole grains and in general the adoption of a Mediterranean diet is preferred, demonstrating:
- decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes and reduced cardiovascular mortality in women with diabetes mellitus;
- decreased risk of hypertension and the development of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and kidney disease in combination with a global change in lifestyle (exercise, weight loss and dietary changes);
- inverse association with the risk of overweight, obesity, abdominal obesity and weight gain.
On the other hand, national and international guidelines endorse these results: the Italian LARNs in fact recommend consuming at least 25 g of fiber per day from unrefined vegetables, fruits and cereals, while the World Cancer Research Found , which drew up the 10 rules for healthier living, indicated in third place the recommendation to consume more whole foods to prevent the onset of cancer.
Furthermore, the introduction of whole grains is usually part of the dietary guidelines provided by nutrition professionals.
Not because they are less caloric: the starch fraction is in fact the same, but the presence of extra fibers and fats determines a greater satiety and with the same energy introduced, we will have less starches and many more fibers, as well as vitamins, mineral salts and essential fatty acids.
Consuming whole grains therefore increases the quality of our diet while allowing us to achieve greater balance and weight control.
The disadvantages of wholemeal food
There are also some disadvantages in choosing the consumption of whole grains: for example, they need longer preparation times than refined ones, with the need for soaking and long cooking, but adequate meal planning and some preparations will allow you to easily remedy the problem.
The presence of some antinutrients such as phytic acid and tannins, which reduce the absorption of mineral salts and proteins, is also a negative factor.
But even in this case, the solution is at hand, because soaking and subsequent washing under running water removes them to a great extent.
To keep the nutritional composition unaltered, the ideal for cooking cereals in grains is that by absorption: that is, cereals must not be drained but must cook by absorbing their cooking water, with a ratio of 1 part of cereals and 2 of water.
In addition, a long leavening, as occurs with natural leavening with sourdough, helps to make the micronutrients easily assimilable and makes the bread much more digestible.
In some cases the problem may be health: unfortunately there are situations in which the introduction of fiber in the diet is often not convenient, as in the case of irritable bowel and intestinal diseases, for due to the fact that the fibers are an indigestible fraction.
In these cases it is always better to check with your doctor and possibly a nutrition professional whether or not whole foods are tolerable, together with the different types of vegetables and legumes.
Recognizing an integral product
It is not always easy to distinguish real wholemeal products from those that are not: it often happens that companies, given the economic advantage they derive from them, refine most of the flours and then only subsequently reinsert the bran, precisely in order to name the products as “wholemeal”.
Unfortunately this is allowed by law, and if you are an inattentive consumer you may run into the error.
A true wholemeal product has “wholemeal flour of ..” as its first ingredient and not “00 flour with the addition of bran”, eye.
Also check the percentages: in order to be defined wholemeal, it is enough that the product has 51% wholemeal flour compared to the total, so just over half.
Furthermore, many are “fooled” by the dark color, thinking “ the darker, the more wholemeal ”, but there are also wholemeal products that have a lighter color: the most important thing is to check homogeneity, because products with a light grain but with darker dots usually denote bran added to the main flour; as always, reading the label helps in the choice.
Another precaution when looking for a wholemeal product is to check that it is “bio”: refining removes the outer part where pesticides usually remain, while in wholemeal ones this component remains.
A small memorandum on which products are wholemeal and which are not:
|Whole grains||Refined cereals|
|Products whose first ingredient is wholemeal flour (pasta, bread and its substitutes, breakfast products ..), non-pearled grains (barley, spelled, oats ..), brown rice or in the different varieties ( black, red ..).||00 flour, products not specifically wholemeal, semolina, cous cous, polenta, flaked cereals, pearled grains, polished rice.
0, 1 and 2 flour products are only partially refined.
Oats, quinoa, amaranth and other less commercial types of cereals are always sold in raw form, because the processing processes are very complex and expensive due to the difficulty to separate the endosperm from the bran: therefore they are preferable because they are less processed and with a more balanced macronutrient profile.
How to introduce wholegrain products into your diet
In general, to benefit from the health effects of whole grains, it is recommended to consume three servings a day.
Including them in your diet is simple: just replace a few portions of refined foods with their whole version.
The introduction of whole grains should be progressive , in order to allow the body to adapt to the higher fiber content.
Here are some examples of wholemeal products to be included in various meals:
- for breakfast wholemeal rusks, wholemeal breakfast cereals, wholemeal bread or oats;
- for lunch and dinner wholemeal pasta, wholemeal bread, non-pearled or peeled grains, brown rice, wholemeal pizza;
- in wholemeal bread snacks or crackers wholemeal.
However, each of the products mentioned must be included in a balanced meal also in the other components of the single dish together with cooked and / or raw vegetables, protein sources (alternating vegetable and animal ones), fruit and good fats such as extra virgin olive oil.
If you are interested in learning more about nutrition watch the free video lesson ” The timing of nutrition “.