A loaf of bread, a bowl of rice - oh, how we take grains for granted. Not a good thing, some would argue. Grain grouches argue that we're still hunter-gatherers in our genes and are not equipped to digest the seeds of these cereal grasses. Others say grains have been a critical force driving human evolution. What seems clear is that modern grain growing and processing is a major problem. Grain monocultures denude the planet of native flora and fauna. And one variety, wheat, monopolizes our diets.
The way even whole grains get refined into bread and cereal robs them of the nutrients found in the original seed. And generally speaking, the more processed grains are, the higher their glycemic index. That is, they make your blood sugar soar, stressing your system big time.
But there's another side to the refinement problem. Our ancestors figured out by trial and error that whole grains can also be hard on the body. Cooked in their dormant seed form, they're hard to digest and contain phytic acid, a substance that prevents us from absorbing minerals.
Traditional cooks prepared wheat, barley, oats, rye and other grains by soaking them at least long enough to initiate the sprouting process. Sprouting destroys phytic acid and ups a grain's vitamin B, C and carotene content. Research also indicates that consuming sprouted grains can help people with irritable bowel syndrome.
So if you're health-conscious enough to prepare a pot of whole grains, soak them overnight first, dump the water and then cook.
WHAT THE EXPERT SAY
"Grains are good for energy, endurance, calming nerves, clear thinking and ability to focus. All grains require very thorough chewing for efficient digestion. When you're preparing grains, it's important to wash them and soak them overnight. There's seldom an allergic reaction when you sprout any seed. If people (feel they are) sensitive to wheat, they may be sensitive to yeast. Avoid yeasted breads and use sprouted breads and sourdough. Make sure what you're eating is fresh; avoid the rancid oils in stale grain. Store grains in a clean, closed container in a dry, cool place. If the container isn't tightly closed, add a mint tea bag daily to keep bugs from getting in.'
CANDICE GRIFFITH, naturopath, Toronto
"Some grains have 50 to 100 different types of immune-enhancing phytonutrients. They also have minerals including calcium and magnesium in easily assimilable form. They have quality protein. I was the first scientist to show that every grain has all eight essential amino acids. Wheat allergies are very common, because of the gluten. When you consume a product that many times a day, in bread, pasta, etc, the body develops an intolerance to it. When you start eating wheat on a rotational basis every four days, and in its unprocessed form, you're able to tolerate it better. Stay away from processed flour. It's the best way in the world to overcome weight gain, lethargy and brain fog."
GARY NULL, PhD in human nutrition and public health science, NYC
"To identify whole grains, look for the word 'whole' in the ingredient list. Many words on products may be misleading, such as 'stone-ground,' 'granulated,' 'unbleached,' 'multi-grain,' 'enriched' or 'organic.' While these foods can still be nutritious, they are not (necessarily) made from whole-grain flours. Some people are sensitive to a protein in grains called gluten, found in wheat, oats, barley and rye - a disorder known as celiac disease. Only a physician can diagnose it; a food allergy or sensitivity should never be self-diagnosed. When people do this and cut foods from their diet, all they're doing is limiting their nutritional intake."
ALLISON BERRIDGE, registered dietitian, Belleville
"The so-called 'ancient' grains - amaranth, kamut, teff and quinoa - are higher in protein and minerals than wheat and rye. They are also well tolerated by most people. Digestive difficulties or skin rashes may be some of the symptoms of a wheat allergy/sensitivity. When organic whole wheat is substituted (for flour) and properly prepared by sprouting and/or soaking, these problems often disappear."
SIMONE GABBAY, author, Nourishing The Body Temple and Visionary Medicine: Real Hope For Total Healing, Toronto
"Macrobiotics considers whole grains the most nutritionally and energetically balanced food for the human being. Humans evolved with whole grains. Brown rice is the most balanced grain. The problem with wheat is that it's a filler in so many things that it accumulates in the body. Whole wheat berries are used in macrobiotics. They're very chewy and difficult to eat, so we tend to cook them with other grains. Soak grains and pressure cook them with high-quality sea salt. Always cook them with salt. It brings out their sweetness, and also lowers their acidifying potential."
LIDIA KULESHNYK, director, Macrobiotic Institute of Toronto
"Since markets have become international, grains have been grown in monocultural fields for sale. The system is unsustainable in the long run because the specific foods people eat become unrelated to what their ecosystem does or can produce. When people eat distantly grown foods, the food industry has both the opportunty and incentive to create more and more highly processed products. There's much more profit in a bag of potato chips relative to the cost of the potatoes than there is in selling potatoes. The same thing goes for grain."
HARRIET FRIEDMANN, University of Toronto professor, specialist in food security, sociology of agriculture