As a result, they are one of the most valuable elements of a healthy, balanced diet and have grown enormously in popularity over the past few decades as more and more people begin to recognise their benefits.
Key to getting the most out of wholegrains is understanding that much of their benefits come from being consumed in unrefined form. Processed and refined foods lose a large proportion of their goodness because, at each stage of refining and processing, whether bleaching, grinding or treating, more nutritional benefits are stripped away. Most of us now understand the difference between refined white flour – which has gone through treatment processes that remove essential nutritional elements and organic wholewheat flour, which has not. The same can be said for rice – brown rice has had none of the bran removed and has not been bleached like conventional white rice. Even organic white rice loses that precious bran in order to make it softer and quicker to cook.
Wheat is perhaps one of the most popular wholegrains and it is made up of three separate parts – the bran, the germ and the endosperm. Each of these elements has its own benefit. The germ is an efficient source of Vitamin E, the bran is a great source of fibre and minerals and the endosperm delivers energy. As Vitamin E content reduces the shelf life of flour, the germ is often removed and, in the case of white flour, the bran will be removed to achieve the pale colour. Without these, the flour (which in this state is refined, white flour) has little to offer nutritionally. Many people consider any sort of flour to be a slow release energy food, but like white rice, white refined flour has a high glycaemic load, which means that its fast conversion of starch into simple sugars results in a spike in blood sugar, rather than a slow stream of fuel.
Whilst the refining process clearly removes much of the nutritional benefit, taste is often sacrificed too, although in the first world it has taken us some time to realise this. As a result we are now seeing a step away from white flour and rice – which used to be viewed as the more expensive, aspirational options – towards the ‘poor person’s’ staples of wholemeal bread and brown rice. Not only are they tastier and more satisfying, but these whole grains also tick the box of being ‘superfoods’ and in their original form are some of the most diet enriching, nutritionally valuable ingredients that we have. A clear lesson in the benefits of leaving well alone.