Mar 23, 2012

Q & A with the Dietitian: Puzzled By Whole Grains

Sometimes food labels can be confusing. Lately, whole grains are making a comeback as more people are realizing their health benefits. However, between "whole grain", "whole wheat", "100% whole wheat", "enriched wheat", etc, labeling for grain products sometimes make it difficult to discern the healthiest choice.

Q. Jen wrote:

Several years ago, I switched my family over to whole wheat pasta for the clear nutritional benefits. This has generally been fine, except that I've found the whole wheat pasta sometimes doesn't work well in casseroles and overwhelms the flavor of very light sauces. I recently noticed a new pasta product at Trader Joe's called High Fiber Penne. The nutritional information on the back of the package is surprisingly similar. The penne cooks and tastes more like a traditional durum semolina pasta noodle. I'm wondering if the High Fiber Penne noodles would be a reasonable addition to our pasta collection or if this is marketing hype that is leading us away from a solid nutritional food choice.



A. Dear Jen,

It's fantastic that you've made the commitment to cooking with whole grains. Currently, there are a growing number of choices when it comes to pasta. And just when you think you've got it figured out, a new product comes out and throws you for a loop. 

The answer to your question lies in understanding what whole grains naturally provide. While the good-for-you ingredient list is long, I'll focus on some specifics. Whole grains provide B vitamins, zinc, copper, iron, and vitamins A and E. These vitamins and minerals help support a healthy immune system. Additionally, whole grains are an excellent source of carbohydrates, provide fiber and are low in fat. All the healthy ingredients found in whole grains work towards maintaining a healthy body and may help lower cholesterol, promote a healthy GI tract and prevent certain types of cancer. The current recommendation from the USDA is to make half of your grains whole grain. 

Whole grains include products such as "100% whole grain" bread, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, popcorn, oatmeal, quinoa, millet, and amaranth.

Can you guess which products below are whole grain?

The cornmeal and the rice are not. And yes, we eat them occasionally at my house.

To answer your question specifically, the high fiber penne is essentially white pasta with added fiber, vitamins and minerals. The first ingredient on this product is "enriched durum wheat seminola". Translation: enriched white pasta. The remaining ingredients are added fiber and B vitamins. But remember all the other healthy ingredients I mentioned above found naturally in whole grain products? They're not all found in the high fiber penne. Also, nutritionally it's often easier for our bodies to absorb nutrients found naturally in food products than those that are added or "enriched". For these reasons, I would recommend using the whole wheat pasta most frequently and using the high fiber penne occasionally (like you said, when it works better with the recipe you're using).

Thanks for your question Jen and I hope this helps!


  1. Could you do a post about coconut oil? I've heard conflicting opinions about whether it is a healthier alternative or not... What have you seen about it?