Thursday, March 20, 2008

Wheat? Whole Wheat? What?!

Here's another article that first appeared in Pregnancy Magazine -- about why it's important for women to eat WHOLE GRAINS while pregnant.

Wheat? Whole Wheat? What?!
By Jennifer Margulis

When I was six months pregnant with my first child, I walked into our local bagel shop and asked if they had whole wheat bagels. The clerk behind the counter looked perplexed.

“No,” she said in a low, almost conspiratorial tone, “none of our products are made with wheat.”

Of course most of the bagels in that shop were made with wheat flour. But it is processed wheat flour that is white in color and many people, like the bagel clerk, don’t know that white flour and whole wheat flour actually come from the same grain. Pregnant women are now routinely advised to eat whole grains instead of processed grains but with this kind of widespread confusion, what’s a pregnant mama to do?

“It’s important for everybody to eat whole grains, at least three servings a day,” says Larry Lindner, executive editor of the Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter and an expert on nutrition, “but it’s particularly important for pregnant women.” Whole grain food, like brown rice, whole wheat pasta, unpearled barley, whole millet and oats, is high in fiber, which can help alleviate constipation, a problem many pregnant women experience. In addition, since whole grains take longer to digest, pregnant women suffering from low blood sugar (also known as hypoglycemia) report fewer problems when they eat whole grains.

“Whole grains metabolize more slowly in your body,” explains Kristen Bernard, an obstetric nurse at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital in Brattleboro, Vermont, who counsels pregnant women on nutrition. “They reduce problems of high glucose that can come from eating refined grains. They have more fiber, which helps your intestines stay cleaner, and more vitamins and minerals.”

A kernel of wheat is made up of three components: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. The bran, which contains most of the plant’s fiber, and the germ, which contains most of the nutrients, are both removed in the process of converting whole wheat flour into white flour. What is left is the starchy endosperm.

Because so many vital nutrients are taken out during processing, most food companies add back chemical nutrients into white flour, which is why the flour is called “enriched.” However, so many vital nutrients are lost in the refining process that enriched flour, though it sounds healthy, can never be as nutritious as whole grain flour. “Most of the nutrients that were there to begin with are never reinstated,” explains Lindner. “These include vitamin E, vitamin B6, pantothenic acid, magnesium, manganese, zinc, potassium, and copper.”

Another vital component of the grain is lost during processing: phytochemicals. Though it sounds like a tongue twister, phytochemical is simply a fancy term for chemicals found in plants that are not vitamins or minerals but that play a part in promoting good health. “Unlike vitamins and minerals, phytochemicals are not put into prenatal supplements,” explains Lindner, “but they are in whole grains.” In fact, researchers are just beginning to isolate these compounds-—there are literally thousands of them. While there is more to learn, one thing is certain: whole grains contain dozens of beneficial phytochemicals, processed grains do not.

When it comes to wheat products like bread, pasta, pie crusts, pretzels, cereal, muffins, cakes and cookies, pregnant consumers need to be savvy label readers. “Look on the ingredients list of the grain-based foods that you buy and make sure that the word ‘whole’ is in there,” says Lindner. “You want to see that word ‘whole’ and you want to see it first.”

But beware: even products that are advertised as “whole wheat” often are not made exclusively with whole wheat flour.

“Sometimes the big lettering on the front obfuscates the actual ingredients,” cautions Lindner.

For example, Maria & Ricardo’s Tortilla Factory, based in Quincy, Massachusetts, sells a package of ten-count “whole wheat” tortillas. A look at the ingredients, however, shows that these tortillas actually contain more white flour than whole wheat flour. Whole wheat flour is the third ingredient. It’s important to read labels carefully and remember that “wheat” does not mean “whole wheat.” If “wheat” is listed as one of the ingredients, you can be sure it means “white wheat”—the nutritionally devoid food that it is best to leave on the shelf.

According to Ruth Yaron, author of the bestselling book, Super Baby Food, the bottom line is money.

“The reason why everything is processed is because it’s cheaper,” insists Yaron, who explains that food manufacturers promote products made exclusively from white flour because white flour has a much longer shelf life than whole wheat flour. “White flour can stay on the shelf for months, even years, while whole grain flour gets rancid very quickly,” Yaron says.

I grew up eating white bread and white rice, like everybody else. It wasn’t until I was 29 years old, pregnant, and keenly interested in nutrition that I realized how much tastier and more interesting whole grains are to processed grains, especially if you find the right products. Whole wheat pasta with sardines is a gourmet Venetian specialty (and Bionaturae’s organic whole wheat pasta is so delicious that I’ve managed to convert even the most skeptical friends). But as Americans we have learned to prefer white bread, and many of us have never even tasted brown rice.

“When your body gets used to a healthy diet, you won’t like how you feel when you eat the processed stuff,” insists Yaron.

Since whole grain foods are so much healthier, making the switch while pregnant is not difficult. Start with a bowl of oatmeal or cold rolled oats in milk with raisins, flax seeds, and almond slivers for breakfast, use whole grain bread for your next lunch sandwich, or add a half a cup of barley or brown rice as a side dish to a dinner meal.

Grab and go products for healthier snacking during pregnancy, available at health food stores and in the natural foods aisle of conventional supermarkets, include brown rice cakes, brown rice crackers, graham crackers made with whole wheat flour, and multigrain pretzels.

1 comment:

Rob said...

Thanks to the significantly higher fiber content, whole grain goods are also really good for keeping your blood sugar on an even keel - which I've heard can be tricky for some women during pregnancy.

The whole "low carb" movement is really all about this - not all carbs are bad, just the nutritionally void junk made with white flour or other over-processed grains.

Mission makes a high-fiber, high protein tortilla, by the way, called "Carb Balance" that's not too dense or chewy, so it still tastes like a tortilla should. This is pretty easy to find at most larger grocery stores.