Food Watch: Cereals – Part 1

Bowl of rolled oats. These are not a whole grain. The whole grain is steamed and flattened.

What’s usually your first bite of the day?

For many, it’s a simple, easy bowl of cereal. Most of us grew up eating cereal for breakfast.

We don’t have to eat cereal in the morning, but many people and families find it quick to eat before hurrying out the door to begin the day.

But is it good for us? Is cereal healthy?

Well, it depends on two things:

  1. Which type of cereal are you talking about? There are HUGE differences.
  2. How do you define “healthy”?

I define healthy foods as whole foods (as close to their natural state as possible); unhealthy foods are any foods that have been processed/refined and/or contain many ingredients we wouldn’t find in nature. The more processed the food, the unhealthier it is.

Cereals come from grains. Some forms of grains are better than others. Most of us are familiar with the term, “whole grain” which can describe cereal or other foods, like bread and pasta. We’re encouraged to eat more whole grains and fewer refined grains. I think we all “get” that.

But, what does whole grain or refined grain actually mean? Let’s have a closer look.

Whole Grains

A whole grain is “a grain of any cereal and pseudocereal that contains the endosperm, germ, and bran, in contrast to refined grains, which retain only the endosperm.”. (Wikipedia)

Whole Grain

Image from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Okay. So, why should we eat the whole grain instead of the refined grain?

The whole grain is like a “complete package” of super awesome nutrients our bodies can use. Yay! As you can see from the image, all three parts (bran, endosperm and germ) are included in this healthy little party.

Refined grains, on the other hand, are incomplete because part of the whole grain has been removed. What’s left is usually only the endosperm.

The bran is stripped away so the grain will be soft and easy to chew. Most of the fibre has been removed.

Cereal manufacturers take out the germ because it contains some fat; they want their product to last on the shelf (fats go rancid and do not last long without refrigeration).

So, what’s leftover in the refined grain? A fluffy, light food product called flour. The refined flour is then used to make a processed product, like most cereals.

Refined grains, or flour, have most of the valuable parts gone. Very little, if any, fibre. Most nutrients (vitamins and minerals) have disappeared too. Since the nutritious parts are stripped away, many companies “fortify” the cereals by adding nutrients etc. back in. These “nutrients” are man-made, and although there may be some benefit to the body, we are not getting that complete package we would with the original whole grain. Some things, like phytochemicals, cannot be replaced.

-Phytochemicals (or phytonutrients) are “any of various bioactive chemical compounds found in plants, as antioxidants, considered to be beneficial to human health” (dictionary.com).

“Phytochemical is a term that refers to a variety of plant-derived compounds with therapeutic activities such as anticarcinogenic, antimutagenic, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. (ScienceDirect)

It seems to me that we should keep the phytochemicals in our food. We can do that by eating whole foods as much as possible.

Ok. We know that whole, intact grains are healthier for us than refined grains.

What about whole grain flours? Should we eat cereals and other products like bread and pasta that are made with whole grain flours?

Absolutely. A whole grain flour product is one that contains all three parts of the original whole grain. When deciding on a whole grain product, like cereals, the ingredient list should be the first place you look. Always.

Here are two tips for choosing products based on their grain content (from “Tips for Grain Products” a Canadian government web page).

  1. Look at the ingredient list. “Whole grain foods will have the word “whole” or “whole grain” followed by the name of the grain as one of the first ingredients. For example, whole grain whole wheat or whole grain oats.”
  2. Don’t look at the color of a food to determine if it’s whole. Some products may be colored with molasses or other coloring. Many people, for example, assume a bread must be whole wheat if it’s color is brown.

Whole grain flours are definitely healthier for our bodies than refined grain flours, but they’re not as optimal as the whole food (eating brown rice is better than eating brown rice flour, for instance).

One thing to keep an eye on: just because a product says, “whole grain” on the package or in a product’s marketing doesn’t mean it actually is “whole grain”. Companies put all kinds of claims on their products to convince us their product is healthy. Remember to check out the ingredients.

Now that we’re clear on what whole and refined grains are, let’s take a close look at cereals, so we can determine the healthier choices.

Types of Cereals

-Cooked, whole grains like oatmeal

-Partially cooked grains, that are not whole, like instant oats

-Packaged cereal

Healthiest Cereal Ever: Cooking your Own Grains 10/10

The best whole grain cereals are ones like whole oats, whole quinoa and other whole, intact grains. If you haven’t cooked a whole grain before, don’t worry. Numerous websites have the information you need to cook grains properly. You’ll learn about the proportions of grain and water to use. It’s easy, actually. If you’re a bit intimidated, don’t be. Just experiment. That’s what I did.

Oats

-Whole oat groats are the whole grain:

whole oats in field

Steel-cut oats are oat groats cut into a few pieces. Still a whole grain:

IMG_5031

Rolled oats have the outer layer (husk/hull) of bran removed; they are then steamed and flattened. Not a whole grain:

IMG_5032

-Instant oats are rolled oats cut into two. Not a whole grain.

Cooking Whole Oats

I buy steel-cut oats in bulk and use 2 cups of water for each cup of oats.

First, I bring the water to a boil, and then I add the oats.

Next, I lower the temperature to low and let the oats simmer with the pot lid off, for about 15 minutes. I stir occasionally. If you buy steel-cut oats in a package, then the directions will be included.

I’ll decide when my oats are done based on how soft they are. I might prefer my oats with a softer texture than you. In that case, keep your oats on low for only 12 minutes. You’ll learn how you like them with experience.

Sometimes, I leave the oats on the stove element too long, and they dry out a bit. No big deal! I just add water and stir, and they’re fine.

Another way to make your oatmeal is to make overnight oats. I don’t use this method, but if you do an online search, you’ll find tons of ways to make oatmeal overnight, saving you time.

In the past, I’ve also made quinoa or buckwheat (also called kasha) and mixed them in with the oats, making a powerhouse of three whole grains as our hot cereal.

After you make your own grain(s), store it in the fridge, so you can just scoop some out each morning. Microwave some in a bowl and add whatever milk/liquid you like. I use soy milk (ingredients are organic soy beans and water…that’s it!). We usually have cashew milk in the house because my husband and daughter like it. Some people use cow’s milk; others use water. Whether you use milk or water, the liquid loosens up the packed oatmeal. Add as much milk/water as you like until you get the consistency you prefer.

The last step is to top your bowl of homemade, healthy grains with berries, fruit, nuts (walnut, almonds, hazelnuts etc.) or seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, ground flax, hemp, chia etc.).

Homemade, whole-grain oatmeal is one of the best ways to start your day. I don’t add any sugar or other sweeteners, but my daughter likes to add a bit of pure maple syrup to hers.

Give it a try; find your oatmeal.

Stay tuned for the next post: Part 2 of Food Watch: Cereals

Wishing you health and success on your journey,

SignatureAli

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