Bakers Journal

Whole Grains, Nature’s Nutrient Powerhouse

November 6, 2007
By By Donna Shaw B.Sc. MBA

It’s about a whole lot more than heart health . . .

Are you clear on adding value?
How many times has a customer asked you for the “healthiest” bread available?   After directing them to a whole grain loaf, did you miss an opportunity to add extra value to this customer’s experience? Did you mention to the health-conscious consumer that whole grains are much more than just a source of fibre? Was your response targeted to your customer’s specific health concerns – i.e., high cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes or losing weight?  Read on for some quick tips on how to dispense health information that will not only be valuable to your customers, but will keep them returning to your shelves for more.

Whole grains — newly defined
The new Canada’s Food Guide suggests six to eight servings of grain products per day for adults, with at least half of these servings comprised of whole grains. 

Whole grains include cereal grains that consist of the intact, milled, ground, cracked or flaked fruit of the grains whose principal components – the endosperm, germ and bran – are present in the same relative proportions as they exist naturally in the intact grain.


For example, whole grain products have the following ingredients:
• whole grain wheat  • whole grain rice  • rolled oats or oatmeal  • brown or wild rice  • buckwheat • bulgur (cracked wheat) 
• whole rye  • pearl barley • millet • sorghum  • whole grain corn
Wholegrain products are an important source of carbohydrates, dietary fibre, protein, minerals (notably iron, zinc and magnesium), and vitamins (including the B vitamins and vitamin E).  More recently, whole grains have been found to be an excellent source of antioxidants1.

Antioxidants are compounds that have the ability to prevent damage to healthy cells and tissues within the body; consequently, antioxidants have been clinically shown to reduce the risk of diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes1.  Our bodies can form some antioxidants, but most are consumed in our diet. 

Each of the three layers of the whole grain contributes something slightly different2.  The outer bran layer is rich in B vitamins, fibre, minerals and phytochemicals that have antioxidant-like activity. It is the phytochemicals (in particular phytoestrogens) within whole grains that may play a role in disease reduction.  The endosperm layer is predominantly carbohydrate, but also has a small amount of B vitamins. The innermost layer, the germ, is also rich in minerals (iron, zinc), B vitamins, phytochemicals and the well-established, antioxidant duo, vitamin E and selenium. The highest concentration of nutrients is located in the germ and bran layers. 

During the milling and refining of grains, most of the bran and germ is removed, leaving only the starchy endosperm – the part used to produce refined white flour. Therefore, processing of whole grains results in a substantial loss of dietary fibre, vitamins, minerals, and, most concerning to nutrition experts, phytochemicals. 

Whole grains – a slice of life in action
Consider how something as delicious as bread, made with whole grains, can be so beneficial for so many conditions. Here are just a few on which to nibble:

As we age, we require an increased amount of vitamin B6, found primarily in whole grains, in order to reduce the level of homocysteine in the blood. Homocysteine is an amino acid that requires B6, B12 and folate to clear it from the blood. High homocysteine levels have been associated with an increased risk for heart disease and stroke1.

Cancer prevention:
Researchers estimate that about one-third or more of all cancers may be related to diet5,6. The good news is that a prudent diet that includes fruits, vegetables and whole grains is associated with a decreased risk of cancer, most likely as a result of the interaction between antioxidants, fibre and phytochemicals found in these food choices1,3,5.

The insoluble fibre in whole grain breads reduces the risk of constipation and improves overall digestive health 1,6.

Studies indicate that the risk for Type 2 diabetes can be decreased when whole grains are added to most diets1. Even after Type 2 diabetes has been diagnosed, whole grain consumption can improve insulin sensitivity, most likely due to the antioxidant-like properties of the phytochemicals, and the high magnesium content of whole grains7.

High cholesterol:
Soluble fibre, in particular, from oats and barley, clearly lowers cholesterol (two to six per cent) and triglycerides (22 per cent), although fibre alone has not been shown to decrease the risk for heart disease4.

Cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke):
The antioxidant properties of whole grains, such as rye and corn, reduce the risk for heart disease and stroke by preventing oxidative damage, reducing plaque rupture, and preventing the formation of blood clots1.

Whole grain consumption is associated with a reduction in risk for both heart disease, and stroke1.

Weight loss:
Whole grain foods are digested and absorbed slowly, resulting in a longer feeling of fullness; in addition, whole grain products help in maintaining a healthy body weight by being low in fat1.

Even modest weight loss can reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease, slow the aging process, and increase longevity1.

The “whole grain story” suggests that the health benefits come from more than just the fibre content. Products made from whole grains provide a whole package of nutrients in addition to fibre, including the antioxidant properties of phytochemicals, in just the right balance to promote optimal health. Looking at whole foods, like whole grains, rather than focusing on individual nutrients takes into consideration the complex interactions among nutrients – and this approach is the current focus of much nutrition research.

Whole grain food choices can easily be added to almost any diet to address a number of health concerns. So, the next time a customer asks for “the healthiest” loaf you bake, make sure you fill both their mind and body with the knowledge of good health.

Donna Shaw is a food and nutrition marketing professional with a focus on the communication and promotion of functional foods to the growing number of health-conscious consumers. She has a B.Sc. in Nutrition, an MBA in Agribusiness and over 20 years of health-care marketing experience. Donna can be reached at

1. Thompson, J., Manore, M., and Sheeshka, J. Nutrition: A Functional Approach, Toronto: Pearson, 2005.
4. Flight, I. and Clifton, P. “Cereal grains and legumes in the
prevention of coronary heart disease and stroke: a review of the literature,” European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2006) 60, 1145-1159.
5. Li, W., et al. “High-Amylose Corn Exhibits Better Antioxidant Activity than Typical and Waxy Genotypes,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (2007), 55, 291-298.
6. Riezzo, et al. “Functional Foods: Salient Features and Clinical Applications,”  Current Drug Targets – Immune, Endocrine & Metabolic Disorders (2005), 5, 331-337.
7. McCarty, M. “Magnesium may mediate the favourable impact of whole grains on insulin sensitivity by acting as a mild calcium antagonist,” Medical Hypotheses (2005) 64, 619-627.

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