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Whole grains get government boost

"Make half your grains whole." That's the government's most recent dietary guideline (www.mypyramid.gov).

When people hear the phrase for the first time, some respond with: "So, am I supposed to make sandwiches with white bread on the bottom and whole wheat on the top?" Not quite, but it's a creative idea.

The message is this: we don't eat enough whole grains. For me, it usually begins with whole-grain toast, but the whole-grain list includes oatmeal and even popcorn. (Yes, really, it's true — a bowl of slightly-buttered, lightly-salted popcorn can be a good thing.)

Whole grain foods are linked to improved cardiovascular function and reduced risk of heart failure. Researchers at the University of Minnesota and the University of North Carolina followed more than 14,000 people for more than a decade and concluded that whole-grain eating was pivotal to managing cardiac risk. Whole grains also blunt some of the problems associated with diabetes. And if that's not enough for you, eating them has demonstrated reduced likelihood of being overweight or obese.

It's a good thing and we should do it — but sometimes it's difficult to get the right stuff. For example, if I'm going to follow dietary guidelines, I need 6 ounces of grains a day, 3 ounces of which should be whole grains (a slice of bread, 1 cup of cereal and a half-cup of cooked rice or pasta each weigh one ounce.)

It's tricky. I can't just rush through the grocery store at the end of a busy work day and grab the brownest-appearing loaf of bread off the shelf. Eating whole grains requires contemplation, a little detective work. Sometimes what you end up purchasing is a loaf of bread that looks perfectly acceptable, but it's actually white bread. It's masquerading as whole wheat bread and you know that because, when you look at the label, omigosh, it's chock full of caramel coloring.

You know you've found what you need if the very first words on the list of ingredients are "whole wheat" or "whole grain." Not just "wheat" but "whole wheat."

Beware of that word "enriched." It sounds like such a beckoning term, doesn't it? But it's telling you the food item is basically white flour — with a few added vitamins. Lately I've noticed "water" is the first ingredient — water's a good thing. Drink it often — but don't let it be the first ingredient on your loaf of bread.

There are a few more issues I should share. Can you handle this? Foods labeled with words like multi-grain, stone-ground, 100-percent wheat, cracked wheat, 7-grain or bran are usually not whole grain. Those are such fine-sounding words, too. It's almost sad, isn't it?

I often say, "I'm not a dietician, I'm just an eater." And lately when it comes to whole grains, I've become a somewhat picky eater. I want whole-grain toast so rich and nutty-tasting I don't even miss the butter I didn't put on it. I want whole-wheat pasta that resembles my sweetest recollections of the lighter-colored angel hair version.

On the search to eating well — see you at the store.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.