Demystifying Whole Foods

Hint: They have but one ingredient . . . themselves!

Last week, I touched on the topic of , in general. Realizing that there was a time when I didn’t quite understand these concepts, I figured it might make for a good column today.

Advertising “whole grains” seems to be the present-day marketing tool much like “low-fat” and “fat-free” were a decade or so ago. Not that this is a bad thing, but just as with the fat-free campaign, it shouldn’t lead you to believe that the product, as a whole, is necessarily good for you.

Case in point: I just looked at the ingredients in a box of a popular breakfast cereal, which boasts having roughly 8 grams of whole grains per serving. That’s all well and good, but as I read on, I see that it also contains various forms of sugar, artificial color, and the preservative BHT, which I’ll let you look up on your own. Let’s just say that it’s stunning what’s allowed in products intended for human consumption. So, the benefits of the whole grains in this cereal hardly outweigh the risks presented by some of the others. You wouldn’t walk through fire to retrieve your multi-vitamins every day, now, would you?

So, let’s forget about the “whole grain” phrase and return to the question of what whole foods are. Simply stated, a whole food has but a single ingredient – itself, and you should be able to picture it growing (think apples, rice, walnuts, kale). The less that has been “done” to a food, the better.

So while unsweetened applesauce with no additives may sound like a whole food, it’s not quite as beneficial as the apple itself, with its fiber-packed peel. Reduce an apple to just its juice, and you miss out on the vast majority of its nutrients, which are found primarily in the fruit’s skin and pulp.

The same rules apply to whole grains, of course. The most common grain in our American diet is wheat, which is initially a nutritious enough grain that loses most of its goodness once it’s been stripped of its bran and germ, bleached and otherwise chemically treated.

So, when buying bread, for instance, look for 100% whole wheat or 100% whole grain as the first ingredient, and a minimum of ingredients thereafter. Steer clear of enriched breads which contain highly processed grain to which nutrients have been added back in. They are low in fiber and several of the essential nutrients, and because of the chemicals used in processing, can pose various health risks.

Whole grains also include barley, brown rice, buckwheat, bulgur (which is actually cracked wheat), corn, millet, oats, quinoa, rye, and spelt, all of which can be found locally (try for the less familiar ones). Each of these can be cooked and eaten as hot breakfast cereals or used as the basis for cold salads.

Think about what you like to mix into your bowl of oatmeal but substitute the oats with barley or millet, for a change. Likewise, consider what you might stir into a cold rice or pasta salad and experiment with different grains like quinoa or wheat berries (or use whole grain pasta, which is now readily available).

Here’s an easy, whole grain salad recipe from which uses quinoa as its base. Quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”) is a complete protein all on its own, which is uncommon for a grain.

Quick Lemon & Garlic Quinoa Salad


- 1 cup dry quinoa

- pinch of sea salt

- ½ cup carrots, chopped

- 1/3 cup parsley, minced

- ¼ cup sunflower seeds


- 2-3 cloves garlic, minced

- ¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

- 2 tablespoons soy sauce, tamari, or shoyu

Rinse quinoa with warm water and drain through a fine strainer. Place quinoa in a 3-quart pan and dry-roast on low heat (about 5-8 minutes). Stir grains constantly until they begin to change color and give off a nutty aroma. Bring water to a boil in a large pot. Add salt and toasted quinoa to boiling water. Boil for 10-12 minutes. Remove from heat and drain through a mesh strainer. Prepare dressing in a large bowl. Add carrots, seeds, and parsley. Add cooked quinoa and toss well. Serve at room temperature or chilled. Makes 4-6 servings

There are some very compelling reasons for eating whole foods.


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