I find the notion of fixing ourselves with a Whole Food, capsule Plant-Based Diet to be incredibly frightening and incredibly empowering at the same time. It is under my control, there is no bad time to start it, and it is never too late to start.
For those who missed the previous posts, you can find them here:
I wanted to continue on the subject of Whole Foods, as the hours that we have spent trolling through various grocery stores (Safeway, Co-Op, Costco, SuperStore, Community Foods) has reinforced one real thing: “whole foods” is the part of the diet that needs the most thought and research.
From grains to vegetables, nuts, fruits and other “vegetarian” options, it is almost overwhelming the quantity of refined and quasi-whole foods available on the market. As people want to “save time” when cooking, industry is more than happy to provide a quick-fix solution… for a price. That price is usually in the form of many beneficial pieces of the food being removed or destroyed for the sake of convenience of preparation – and the removed pieces are then sold back to you or used in other food industry tinkering.
In general, any part of a food that is fibrous increases cooking time. Industry removes the fibrous part (and all of the vitamins and minerals along with it) to provide faster-cooking food, then resells that fibre back to you as “bran” or puts it in other processed foods. This separation of the fibre from the whole also destroys some of the nutrients in the process – and as Campbell mentions – the body is a complicated biochemical machine. We don’t know all of what goes on in the process of eating a whole food, but in my mind I’d rather trust Mother Nature+millions of years of work than food “scientists” and their ~50 years of tinkering.
We also tend to remove things to prolong the shelf life of food. For example the germ is a highly nutritious part of grains (it contains antioxidants, B-vitamins, etc.), but tends to spoil faster than the endosperm. So in the interest of shelf life for consumers the food industry is more than happy to remove the germ and repackage it for sale as a “health product”. Or you could just eat the whole grain…
Industry is just doing what makes them the most money (which is usually what the consumers ask for), but the separation of foods into quick-fix packages seems to be having a deleterious effect on our societal health. I’m going to cover some of the foods we have come across that usually involve a simple choice on our part to get the healthier, “whole” version of. I was quite surprised myself.
Wheat – This covers a large amount of territory – from traditional hard winter wheat to durum, spelt, rye and other iterations. Wheat seems to have 3 important parts – (i) germ (ii) bran (iii) endosperm. You can buy wheat germ and bran separately, and white flour is just the endosperm part – so industry has provided us with a way to buy our whole wheat flour as 3 separate pieces if we want to.
Whole wheat flour has all the goodies in it, so we only cook with it now. It is almost the same price as white flour, so that makes it an especially easy choice. Usually it entails putting a little more water in recipes than when using plain white flour, but otherwise almost everything works the same.
Our bread maker already has recipes for whole wheat flour, and we recommend that people seriously look at getting one – it takes about 5 minutes to put the ingredients in the machine, then you let it rip and go to work (I often do). This allows you to easily make all varieties of breads with some simple substitutions, without having to worry about (i) price and (ii) hunting them down. The price of whole grain breads with seeds or other things can get quite insane ($5+!!), so it doesn’t take long to pay back the price of a bread maker.
It also means that we’ve had a rediscovery of just how crappy most bread is – even “7 grain bread” or “multigrain bread” usually has “Enriched Wheat Flour” (which is white flour) as the first ingredient. I think it’s funny (and sad) that it is legislated that white flour has to be fortified with minerals as it is otherwise so devoid of them. (if it says enriched, unbleached, or just plain “wheat flour”, it’s not whole wheat)
Pasta and couscous are both made with durum wheat (flour made from durum wheat is called “semolina” for whatever reason), and both are available in whole wheat varieties. We are only buying whole wheat pasta and couscous now, although it is hard to find whole wheat couscous (the bulk section at Community Natural Foods came through for us this time). Sourcing some of these whole grains has been a bit of a challenge.
As couscous is a traditional African dish I was surprised to find that as an “alternative” grain it was no better than white pasta (when purchased in North America – and I assume many other regions of the world are the same now). Whole wheat versions of both of these grains require no more cooking time and I can’t really tell the difference in taste, except I tend to fill up better on the whole wheat versions and feel better.
Brown Rice: There are tons of different varieties of rice, but the same basic principle applies to rice as wheat from what we can tell. Wikipedia has an excellent animation of the different processing grades of rice. Essentially brown rice only has the husk removed (which is undigestible), and white rice has the… bran and germ removed (just like wheat). So the general rule is to look for the “brown” variety of any rice you wish to purchase – which is usually pretty easy as they are explicitly labelled (for the most part).
Brown rice does take longer much to cook (25 vs 10 minutes), but it does seem to keep longer in the fridge as well – so make a large batch and chill.
Corn: Where to start… the Mexicans and various indigenous Americans have been growing a cornucopia of maize varieties for a long time. More recently, corn is the largest crop in the US and 85% of maize produced in the US is transgenic corn. Is GM corn a “whole food”? I don’t know. Corn strains have been evolving and selected for desirable traits since man started practicing agriculture, and different climactic trends in an area would favour one variety over another – so selection and evolution is natural. But is tinkering with a gene to produce herbicide resistance “good”? No one knows. Is blue corn any better? It depends on where it comes from I guess. The chances of being able to avoid GM corn in North America are so low, however, that it’s probably best to just get on with life (Europeans might have an easier time of it). Here’s some interesting research on GM crops, however: LINK
But back to whole grains, corn is sliced and diced the same way as the others: and it has been a very tough go to find “whole grain corn” (sometimes referred to as “stone ground corn”). Bob’s Red Mill seems to provide a whole host of different whole foods, and you can get blue whole grain corn, for example. Is it GM?
Oats: There are once again different grades of oats, depending on how much of the bran and germ has been removed. Quick Oats are at the far end of the processing scale, having had almost all of the bran and germ removed to allow them to “cook in under 2 minutes!”, as well as usually being pre-steamed and cooked. Rolled Oats are an intermediary oat, and have more of the bran left on them during processing. Steel Cut Oats are a whole grain oat, but take significantly longer to cook (the usual 25 minutes of boiling for a whole grain).
I guess for oats you have to balance your needs – sometimes I need a 2 minute breakfast, and throwing raisins, dried apricots, cinnamon and brown sugar in Quick Oats makes for a hearty, easily digestible breakfast that I can down and jump on my bike without any digestive worries. But you can prepare Steel Cut Oats ahead of time just like rice and pasta, chill, and add what you need – so it takes more forethought.
Quinoa: Quinoa is a nice “alternative” grain (it’s really a seed) that can be used for dishes like tabouli salad. It is a complete protein, and is gluten-free, as well as having a bunch of other goodies inside it. The unrefined seeds have a coating on them that needs to be soaked off, then it cooks fairly easily and has a nice firm texture. Most quinoa you buy in the store has been pre-soaked to remove the coating, but is still a “whole” grain, and can be found in bulk form in most stores (even Costco sells large bags of quinoa).
Amaranth: I don’t know much about this grain, but it is an interesting one. Instead of being a grass it comes from the seeds of a flower that are invariably stone ground. It is pricey relative to other grains, but is high in protein, provides an amino acid not commonly found in other grains and apparently grows well in arid climates. It also contains no gluten, which is attractive to those with gluten sensitivities – but makes it less than ideal for baking. I think we’ll have to pick some up and see how it works.
Spelt, Barley, Rye, et al: I think these grains all follow the same mantra as above – whole wheat versions are to be used whenever possible. I have found that with some of the “fringe” grains it is difficult to tell from the packaging whether it is a whole grain version or not. I have even found many bulk ailes in “health” food stores that sell “white” versions of various “alternative” grains, which are no better than white flour. I guess if you can see the bran in it, or it says “stone ground” your chances are pretty good that it’s a whole grain.
Realistically, whole wheat flour is a mainstream, quick, easy win. So if you don’t want to think about it, get a bag of whole wheat flour from anywhere (except Costco!?), whole wheat pasta and a honking bag of brown basmati rice from Costco. Look at bread labels and beware of phantom “health” breads, and get some whole wheat couscous if you’re feeling adventurous because it takes about 5 minutes to prepare.
Edit: You can find all the posts in this series HERE