Grains are the most important food crop in the world, a staple in nearly every culture’s diet. Grains are complex carbohydrates that are low in fat and contain protein. They are rich sources of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, plant compounds that may fight diseases, such as some cancers and heart disease. That’s why the Dietary Guidelines recommends more servings per day of grains (six to 11) than of any other type of food.
There are an amazing variety of grains and grain-related products, with more than 40,000 types of rice alone. The most commonly known grains in the U.S. are oats, wheat, cornmeal and rice, but there are many other types of grains and grain-related products available, including amaranth, barley, couscous, millet, quinoa, spelt, amaranth, teff, triticale and Job’s or Juno’s tears. Wheat-related products include buckwheat, bulgur wheat, wheat bran, wheat germ and sprouted wheat.
Popular foods made with grains include cereal, bread and pasta. Those made from whole grains—the entire edible part of a grain—offer the best nutritional value. Make sure the food label says “whole-grain” or “whole-wheat.” And don’t be fooled by brown coloring — it could be from molasses!
The whole grain consists of:
- The bran, which makes up the outer layer and is rich in B vitamins, trace minerals and fiber.
- The endosperm, the inner part of the grain, which contains most of the protein and carbohydrates.
- The germ, the very small part of the grain that sprouts a new plant and contains B vitamins, trace minerals and some protein.
The fiber in whole grains may help reduce the risk of certain cancers and protect against diabetes. Whole grains also contain antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E and minerals zinc and magnesium, that reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers.
While all whole grains are nutritious, oats have received special notice for their health benefits. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recognized oats as a food that can lower “bad” cholesterol (LDL) while raising “good” cholesterol (HDL).
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