Whole grains have more health benefits to offer other than those from consuming fiber. These plant foods are also unique and rich sources of phytochemicals, bioactive compounds exclusively produced by plants that lower the risk of chronic disease.
Whole grains contain dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals, and phytochemicals, but only the former two components have been thoroughly researched. From the North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University’s Center for Excellence in Post-Harvest Technologies at the North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC) in Kannapolis, Associate Professor Shengmin Sang, PhD shines the spotlight on phytochemicals in whole grains and their health-promoting effects.
“My research goal is to identify bioactive compounds in functional foods and herbal medicine to prevent chronic disease, mainly focusing on colorectal cancer and metabolic syndrome,” Sang explained. “Now this research is being extended to phytochemicals in whole grains, because they are a very important part of the diet.”
Phytochemicals in Whole Grain Wheat
Phytochemicals in whole grain wheat are beneficial because of their ability to combat colorectal cancer, lower blood sugar, reduce glucose intolerance and insulin resistance, lower “bad” cholesterol, and lower blood pressure. In a review of more than ten types of phytochemicals found in whole grain wheat, Sang describes three major health conditions – colon cancer, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease – of which compounds unique to wheat can lower an individual’s risk.
Sang’s review identified nearly 200 different phytochemical compounds, more than scientists ever realized existed in a whole grain.
Phytochemicals in Whole Grain Oat
Whole grain oats also have anti-diabetic and cholesterol-lowering effects. These functional foods contain two unique types of phytochemicals: avenanthramides (AVAs) and avenacosides A and B. These and other phytochemicals present in whole grain oat have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiatherosclerosis, anticancer, and anti-itch properties.
AVAs, avenacosides A and B, and their exclusive existence in whole grain oats emphasize the importance of including a variety of whole grains in the diet. “Eat different types of grains, with the idea of individualized nutrition in mind,” Sang said. “For example, studies show that phytochemicals in wheat are good for colorectal cancer, while phytochemicals in oats are better for cardiovascular disease. Depending on what disease you may have or be at risk for, different whole grains may provide different protective benefits.”
More to Come on Whole Grain Research
Beginning with wheat and oat, Sang plans on reviewing all of the major types of grains over time. While his mission is to focus on phytochemicals, he also stresses the importance of fiber in whole grains. The high dietary fiber content in whole grains helps with weight maintenance by promoting satiety and slowing down nutrient absorption, and, according to Sang, “phytochemicals and fiber may even have synergistic effects for preventing diseases.”
As individuals eat more whole grains, their risk of developing type 2 diabetes, obesity, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other conditions declines. However, most people still do not eat enough whole grains. But as scientists like Sang learn more about the beneficial compounds in whole grains, the incentive for eating more of them will be greater.