A Grain of Sense

At the beginning of the year, I spoke about sharing fundamentals throughout the year, and we started with sweeteners. I thought it would be a good time to look at grains, which are great foods for the winter season. Whole grains are a rich store of protein, numerous vitamins and minerals, quality fats, fibre and complex carbohydrate - which is the source of our most basic fuel, sugar. Other than amaranth and quinoa, complex carbohydrates are not a source of complete protein (that is, they don't contain all essential amino acids) and are generally served with a legume for this reason.

Once the inedible husk is removed, a grain is made up of three parts:

Bran: this is the outer layer - the skin, so to speak - of the seed. It protects the valuable fat stored in the germ and endosperm from light and insect damage. It is rich in B vitamins, anti oxidants and fibreGerm: rich in B vitamins and fat, it also contains some protein and mineralsEndosperm: at the very core of the kernel lies the starch, with some protein and small amounts of vitamins and minerals.

One of the biggest problems today is the refining of whole grains - the removal of the bran and germ, leaving the starchy endosperm. The carbohydrate in grain is considered complex - that is it takes longer to convert to sugar in the body than a simple carbohydrate, such as the sugar in milk or fruit. Nature goes to a lot of trouble to provide fibre and fat to slow down the conversion of carbohydrate to sugar. Pure, white flour is like high octane fuel. But, just as important are the abundant B vitamins found in whole grains. You need them to digest carbohydrate. When you eat a large amount of white flour, your body has to find them from somewhere, and needs dictate that they come from the body.

Law currently mandates that refined flours (and thus breads) be fortified with thiamine, niacin, iron and calcium. But, just like the starchy carbohydrate, vitamins and minerals need other things (like fats) to enable them to be digested and used. Some of the things that are required we know about, and some we don't. So any nutrient is always best absorbed from the whole food rather than refining a food and then adding the bits and pieces back again.

Whole is the best possible way to have your grain. For example, a bowl of brown rice. But you can also break the whole grain up (in a food processor or blender) or roll and thus flatten it out to make it quicker to cook, or grind it into flour. A porridge from any whole, rolled or ground grain is better than a breakfast of puffed or crispy flaked cereals, and a muffin with whole meal flours is better than that made with a refined, white flour.

I don't use or recommend any puffed or crispy flaked grains, especially for children (this includes puffed rice, rice cakes or crackers). It's not just because many are loaded with sugar (many in the health food stores aren't), but rather because they are highly refined, and this also includes many of the organic ones in a health food store.

It's thought that under the extreme pressure and high temperatures used during processing the chemical structure of the protein can change, producing toxins. I would encourage you to avoid them in any shape or form.

Grain can be difficult to digest and this is one of the reasons so many have problems with it. The two most difficult proteins for humans to digest are in cow's milk (casein) and the particular protein in wheat (gluten). Because young children have an immature digestive system (and the younger they are, the less equipped they are to digest carbohydrate) this difficulty is only compounded. Shifting to other grains that are not wheat can help. Thus you may be able to tolerate the other gluten grains such as barley, oats, rye or spelt (of these spelt is the more water soluble). Or you might consider the gluten free grains: amaranth, buckwheat, corn (maize), millet, quinoa and rice. There are other things you can also do to aid the digestion of grains:

Use the 'softer' and easier to digest grains. These will be hulled millet, oats, rice, quinoa and amaranth. Quinoa and amaranth are particularly wonderful. All are gluten free except oats, though often you can find gluten free oats. Barley, kamut, maize, rye, spelt and wheat are all gluten grains, are much more difficult to digest with spelt being one of the easiest (of this group), as it is more water soluble.Where possible, soak all grain used. Most traditional food cultures and virtually all pre-industrialised peoples soaked or fermented their grains. Soaking delivers huge benefits. All grains contain phytic acid in the outer layer or bran, and enzymes that inhibit digestion. Phytic acid is well known to bind calcium, magnesium, phosphorous and especially zinc in the intestinal tract and block their absorption. As little as seven hours of soaking in water with some acid (lemon juice, vinegar, whey, buttermilk, yoghurt or kefir) encourages lactobacilli and other helpful organisms to break down the phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors. Another huge benefit is that lactobacilli break down gluten and other difficult to digest proteins, and in effect, predigest the protein.Where possible, bread should be sourdough. Sourdough leavening, is ultimately a process of lacto fermentation, and provides similar benefits to the grain flour as described above.Cook the grain in a bone stock.Provide a rich source of lacto fermented foods. This will enrich the gut bacteria and aid digestion. For example, pickled (lacto fermented) vegetables, yoghurt and sour cream.Use a real salt. This aids digestion. (I use Celtic Salt.)

For some this will be enough. Others will not be able to tolerate any gluten at all. There are varying degrees of intolerance to gluten - from those who simply find it incredibly difficult to digest (generally because they have a poor digestive system) to those with coeliac disease, where gluten triggers an autoimmune response that damages the stomach. In both cases all gluten containing grains should be avoided.

There's a lot of confusion about wheat free diets and gluten free diets - they are not necessarily the same thing. Some people just need to avoid the particular gluten found in wheat and they will be fine. Spelt, oats and barley are easy to use and wonderful in this role. On a gluten free diet you will need to avoid all gluten grains. Thus something labelled "wheat free" may not necessarily be gluten free and labelling something "wheat and gluten free" is silly - you may as well just say "gluten free".

Finally, I have to say a word about the Glycemic Index which is used to rank different carbohydrates on how they affect our blood glucose levels. I'm not a fan. If we were eating our foods in a whole state (specifically grains) and in a balanced way we would, in most cases, be absolutely fine. Carbohydrates in whole grains (and even in vegetables and legumes) are a valuable and nutrient dense food - nature did not stuff up - and the Glycemic Index will not save us. By refining a grain, discarding the germ and bran and eating the starch, we were bound to end up in trouble. Sticking to a whole grain will in all cases be far safer and more nutritious than scouring the Glycemic Index and eating a refined grain. Eating fat and protein with a grain will also slow the glycemic response.