There’s no doubt that whole grains offer numerous health perks over refined grains. Whole grains are chock full of key nutrients – fibre, zinc, iron, potassium and antioxidants, to name a few. Eating these grains is not only linked to better bowel regularity but also a decreased risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke and certain cancers along with easier weight management. Recent research, though, is showing that different forms of whole grains, those called intact grains, may supply even more health benefits.
Intact grains, which look like kernels or seeds, are subject to less processing. While whole grains can be left intact, they can also be cut or milled to turn them into smaller particles or flour. Think of a soft whole wheat bread versus wheat berries or instant oatmeal compared to large flake or steel-cut oats and you’ll get the picture.
Like all whole grains, intact grains are packed with nutrition, have a lower glycemic index, meaning the carbohydrates contained are released into the bloodstream more slowly and can help to avoid quick rises in blood sugar readings… just more so.
Research, published in the Journal of Nutrition, compared the impact on blood sugar and insulin readings of consuming intact or thick-cut oats (steel cut) versus thin cut (instant). The review of 16 different studies found that eating intact oats, instead of the more finely milled or thin cut, led to lower levels of both blood sugar and insulin readings following the meals. Having higher insulin levels can tire out the pancreas where insulin is produced and can lead to a greater likelihood of developing diabetes.
In other research, intact and finely milled whole grain wheat, oats and brown rice were also compared in subjects with type 2 diabetes and again, the intact grains improved the effects on blood sugar measures.
Besides helping to prevent diabetes later in life, choosing more slowly digested grains can also enhance your day-to-day living. Quickly digested carbohydrates can boost blood sugars rapidly and then result in their dropping quickly. More stable blood sugar and insulin readings can help to avoid a rollercoaster effect in terms of energy and mood.
How to find intact grains
In intact whole grain products, you can actually see the entire kernel or grain. Think of buckwheat groats, kasha, steel-cut oats or oat groats, quinoa, wheat or rye berries, hulled or hull-less barley, pot barley, amaranth, sorghum, millet and brown rice. But you may find varying degrees of processing or milling in different whole grain products. For example, wheat berries can be cut into coarse bulgur or even into the smaller particles found in fine bulgur. Grinding them completely yields flour.
While intact grains may offer more health perks, they’re not always suitable for various dishes. As whole grains, intact or milled, certainly supply an abundance of nutrients, the key is to choose a variety of more intact and less processed grains when the opportunity arises.
For example, opt sometimes for bread that is coarser in texture where you can see some of the grain in the slice or steel-cut oats over quick-cooking oats and so on.
One potential barrier for many when it comes to incorporating many intact grains is their cooking time. They often can take much more time to prepare than their milled counterparts, time that you may feel you don’t have. Some grains, though, like amaranth, quinoa and buckwheat can be ready in 20 minutes or less. Others, such as oat groats (the oat kernel before being cut), barley and wheat berries, take significantly longer to cook.
So while, products like instant oats, may appeal because of their short preparation times, choose sometimes to go for the longer cooking options. That’s where planning comes in. Cook double or triple what you might need for a dish and freeze the rest in labelled containers in the portion size you might use.
You can then enjoy them cold in a grain salad or in a bowl with vegetables and your choice of protein. Have them hot in a pilaf or as a bed for a stir-fry or stew. Soups, containing intact grains are another option to savour as they can be a hearty addition to those requiring longer cooking times. Again, make enough to freeze some for another meal.
After all, who doesn’t love a comforting bowl of barley soup?