Grains, a complicated relationship
Understanding our bond with them and how to reap their benefits
By Amelia Lundy and Sean Couey, Co-Founders of Seeds that Feed, a breakfast food company focused on organic whole grains and sustainability. See more at www.seedsthatfeed.com.
Virtually every culture has its own traditional bread or porridge, varying according to region. Rye breads and porridges are found in Nordic countries, teff porridge and flatbread in Ethiopia, and crusty wheat loaves and creamy wheat porridge in Italy, are just a few of the hundreds found across the globe. The success of whole grains in many of the world’s civilizations is mainly due to the fact that they are an inexpensive way to nourish and do not easily spoil. Having a food that stores well allowed the first civilizations to grow and prosper, as it reduced the risk of famine in times of low crop yield and provided a valuable commodity that could be transported and traded.
Whole grains, which are actually a hardy grass seed, are made up of three parts: the bran, germ, and endosperm. Whole grains serve as an excellent source of B vitamins, fiber, and iron. On the other hand, refined grains such as white rice, white flour, and instant grits, while quick to prepare, are stripped of most of their natural health benefits. A refined grain is a grain in which part or all of the whole grain has been removed. According to the Whole Grains Council, grains lose about a quarter of their protein and around half or more of their essential nutrients during refining. In most refining processes, such as in grinding and sifting, the whole grain is reduced to its starchy endosperm and retains very little nutrition.
Today one of the main reasons we refine grains is to increase shelf-life, as the refining process prevents the growth of toxic mold and fungi during storage, but it’s not why we began refining them in the first place. During the Middle Ages in Europe, consumption of refined grains first gained popularity among the aristocrats as a status symbol, while farmers and peasants usually resorted to consuming darker whole grain flours derived from rye, oats, and barley. As grain processing became cheaper and faster through mechanization, the entire population came to enjoy the white flour of the rich. Eventually, refined flour became commonplace and is the main type used in most countries to this day.
Around 1900, refined white flour production exponentially increased, and with it, a host of nutrition related deficiency diseases, for example, pellagra and beriberi. Science took note and, around 1920, an American chemist, Benjamin Jacobs, began to document these nutritional losses. As a result, he developed the process of enriching refined grains and flours, still prevalent today. The enriching process involves adding the B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate) and minerals (calcium and iron) that are taken out during the refining process are then added back in. However, these vitamins and minerals are often added in amounts disproportionate to what is found in the original whole grain and are in a synthetic form that is not as well absorbed by the body.
Today’s trend in the US is towards a diet that includes a more diverse range of whole grains, but there are those who still believe grains are detrimental to our health, making for a complicated relationship with grains in our current culture. In certain diets, especially in veganism and DASH diets, grains are hailed, while in others, namely paleo and gluten-free diets, all or many grains are villainized.
At closer look, however, balance and diversity in diet seems to be the best answer to improved health, and that includes a diet with grains. To those who are against the consumption of grain products, much of the supposed ‘evils’ are due to eating refined grains or eating improperly prepared whole grains. Rather than soaking, sprouting, and fermenting whole grains, as our ancestors did, the majority of us don’t take the time or simply do not know how to prepare grains for ideal nutrition and digestion. Because of short cuts commonly taken in cooking whole grains, they get a bad reputation for stripping our bodies of the nutrients that the grains themselves deliver because of un-neutralized phytic acid.
Phytic acid is known as an “anti-nutrient” that will impair the body’s absorption of minerals in a given sitting, especially iron, zinc, and calcium. Yet, this so-called anti-nutrient is also an antioxidant that is said to help prevent cancer. Thus, small doses may not be such a bad thing if we are eating a balanced diet full of vitamins and minerals. Phytic acid can be found in most nuts, beans, and grains, but rice and wheat have especially high levels. You can degrade/neutralize the phytic acid in these foods through soaking, sprouting, and/or fermentation. Those who should be especially wary of phytic acid are vegetarians consuming delicate plant based (“non-heme”) iron and those at risk for osteoporosis, for whom adequate calcium absorption is indispensable.
1. When preparing whole grains, either look for sprouted varieties, or soak in acidic solution (for example, water with a few teaspoons of lemon, yogurt, or buttermilk) overnight, then drain and rinse before cooking. A bonus of soaking is that it will cut cook times by as much as half!
2. Try baking with sprouted flours– no presoaking necessary! Check out Thrive Market’s Sprouted Spelt Flour.
3. Learn to make SOURDOUGH or look for naturally fermented and risen breads at local stores and bakeries.
Overnight Peanut Butter Banana Bread
Adapted from Nourishing Traditions
Makes 1 standard loaf
3 cups whole spelt or whole wheat flour
2 cups kefir
3 eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon sea salt
⅓ cup maple syrup
¼ cup natural peanut butter (look for one without corn syrup or palm oil added)
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
¼ cup butter, melted and cooled
3 very ripe bananas (the browner, the better)
½ cup dark chocolate chips or walnut pieces
Combine the flour and kefir in a medium bowl, cover with a clean kitchen towel, and let rest for 6-24 hours at room temperature. (The longer the rest, the greater the rise and digestibility.)
After the flour has soaked, preheat oven to 300ºF and grease a standard loaf pan.
Blend remaining ingredients, except for chocolate chips/walnuts, in a blender or food processor*. Combine with soaked flour and chocolate chips/walnuts in a large bowl and bake for 90 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Allow to cool for 30 minutes in the pan before transferring to a cooling rack.
*If you don’t have a blender or food processor, mash bananas and whisk eggs separately before combining with remaining ingredients in a large bowl.
Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats, Second Edition by Sally Fallon with Mary G. Enig, PhD. © 1999 New Trends Publishing, Inc.