There is much hype these days about eating whole grains. Breads, crackers, and cereals are covered with labels about their whole grain content. Amidst this, why do we purposely eat a combination of refined and whole grains?
Whole Grains in Traditional Diets
Weston A. Price's research into traditional diets around the globe showed that people who eat nourishing, traditional foods have much better health than those who eat modern foods. Rami Nagel's more recent research has increased our knowledge of traditional diets, and has uncovered the fact that, in traditional diets, much of the bran and germ from whole grains was actually discarded when the grains were ground into flour. It seems that the people knew, not from scientific research, but perhaps through experience and intuition, that there are parts of grains which are not nutritious and even act as anti-nutritients. Nowadays we have a name for the anti-nutrient in grains that is of most concern: Phytic Acid.
image from ask.com
Phytic Acid - Whole Grains' Dirty Little Secret
Whole grains are touted to be higher in nutrients than refined grains, and it is true that they do have more potential nutrients than refined grains. However, whole grains also contain phytic acid, which is an anti-nutrient because it can interfere with the absorption of essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc. This is why, in some cases, eating a lot of whole grains can actually have a detrimental effect on health, and lead to increased cavities.
Yet, traditional peoples the world-'round knew to discard much of the bran and germ from whole grains, thereby reducing the phytic acid content of their food. By reducing the phytic acid content of grains, they were likely able to assimilate more of the nutrients in their food. In Rami Nagel's research, he found that "the calcium, magnesium, phosphorous and potassium in diets made up with 92 percent flour (almost whole wheat) were less completely absorbed than the same minerals in diets made up with 69 percent flour (with a significant amount of bran and germ removed)".
Sprouting, Souring, and Soaking to Neutralize Phytic Acid
image from foodandnutrition.org
In addition to discarding much of the bran and germ from whole grains, people in traditional cultures purposely used techniques such as soaking, souring, and sprouting in the preparation of grains. Now, we have scientific research which clearly shows that soaking, souring, and sprouting whole grains reduces their phytic acid content. The bottom line is that, in ancestral diets, people purposely discarded parts of the whole grains, and they used soaking, souring, and sprouting to increase the nutrient value of the grains they consumed.
The vast majority of "whole grain" foods sold in stores are missing these vital steps which would reduce the phytic acid. When whole grains are consumed without these special preparation techniques, it is possible that the phytic acid in the grains can actually lead to worse health, as the vital nutrients in food won't be able to be used by the body. So instead of having increased nutrition due to their whole grain content, such whole grain foods can actually lead to nutrient deficiencies!
How My Family Eats Refined and Whole Grains
Grain-based foods form a significant part of my son's and my diet. (My husband and daughter both still do best eating little or no grains, so they only eat grains occasionally.)
Given unlimited time and resources, I would do as they did in traditional cultures by grinding fresh whole grains, discarding much of the bran and germ, and then soaking or sprouting the grains prior to cooking them. But the reality is that, over the last few years whilst homeschooling and practicing homeopathy, I have chosen to spend less time in the kitchen. There are too many competing priorities for me to spend hour upon hour preparing food each day. (Been there, done that, during the GAPS Diet, and I do NOT miss spending an average of 6 hours per day in the kitchen.)
So, instead of making all of my own bread and grain-based foods, I often rely on storebought items. I still try to roughly replicate what was done in traditional cultures, though, by doing the following:
My son and I eat a combination of refined grains and whole grains, so that the overall balance is more similar to what was consumed in traditional cultures.
I ensure that most of the whole grains we eat have been prepared with sprouting or soaking to neutralize the phytic acid anti-nutrient.
Our Current Favorite Grain-Based Products
The storebought grain-based items we currently rely on are:
a lovely sprouted bread and whole-grain sourdough made by Living Harvest Bakery (a local bakery),
Ezekiel Sprouted Grain Bread, especially the 7 Sprouted Grains Cinnamon Raisin Bread,
cookies such as Walkers Pure Butter Shortbread.