Whole Grains are the Whole Package

Health experts agree that we need to eat more whole grains for optimal health. For years, epidemiological studies have found health benefits in people who eat whole grains, including a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes, a decrease in heart disease and certain cancers and less unwanted weight gain.  
Furthermore, a recently released "experimental study" resulted in two papers published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and more evidence that whole grains might be superheroes. In the eight-week, randomized trial, 81 subjects were assigned to a strictly controlled weight maintenance diet that included either whole grains or refined grains. In a comparison of the whole-grain diet versus a refined-grain diet, researchers found that participants in the former group absorbed 92 fewer calories, had greater fecal output and experienced a boost to their metabolism resulting in calories burning even while at rest. Researchers estimate that the amount of extra calories burned would be equivalent to a 20- to 30-minute walk and a possible five pounds lost annually.
Based on the same study and subjects, another group of researchers also determined that the results showed a favorable effect of the whole-grain diet in creating a healthy gut environment and more positive immune responses. The two combined make quite a case for whole grains, indeed.
In fact, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that refined grains be replaced with whole grains, aiming for at least three servings daily for females and four servings for males. As you can see, there's no need to fear whole grains—they aren't the enemy. However, consumers are often perplexed by their unusual names, the cooking and preparation required, and how to serve them. 

What's in a Whole Grain?

Each grain starts its life as a whole grain. A grain is considered "whole" when it contains all of its original parts—bran, germ and endosperm—in the same proportions as when the grain was in the field.
  • The bran is the multi-layered outer covering of the kernel of grain that contains antioxidants, B vitamins and fiber. You may be familiar with wheat bran or oat bran sold at your grocery store. 
  • The germ is the "baby" of the kernel, which grows into a new plant. It contains many B vitamins, some protein, minerals and healthy fats.
  • The endosperm is the inner part of the grain and is the food supply and energy for the young plant. As the largest portion of the seed, it contains starchy carbohydrates and proteins, as well as small amounts of vitamins and minerals.
When grains are processed and refined for breads, cereals, pastas and flours, the bran and germ are removed, leaving behind the white endosperm. During this process, grains become less nutritious, losing 25 percent of their original protein content and 17 other essential nutrients. True whole grains, on the other hand, are packed with antioxidants, healthy fats and fiber, plus vitamins and minerals such as B vitamins, vitamin E, folate, vitamin K, magnesium, potassium, iron and selenium.
Take some of the guesswork out of the grocery store by familiarizing yourself with exactly what makes up a whole grain and what does not.
Yes, I'm a whole grain.
I contain all three-grain parts in the original proportions.
No, I'm not a whole grain.
I do not contain all three-grain parts in the original proportions.
I am maybe a whole grain.
You'll have to investigate further to determine if I am a whole grain.  See the clues below.
Whole grain (name of grain)
Whole wheat
Whole (name of grain)
Stoneground whole (name of grain)
Brown rice
Oats and oatmeal
Whole (name of grain) flour
Enriched (name of grain) flour
Enriched flour
Degerminated cornmeal
(name of grain) bran
(name of grain) germ
Wheat flour
Durum wheat
Organic (name of grain) flour
Stoneground (name of grain)
If you're still unsure, dive into the nutrition label:
  • If the first ingredient listed contains the word "whole" or a "whole grain" (for example, whole-wheat flour or whole-rye oats), it is likely, though not guaranteed, that the food is mainly composed of a whole grain.  
  • If there are two grain ingredients and only the second ingredient is listed as a "whole" grain, the food may contain as little as one percent or as much as 49 percent whole grain. You have no way of knowing. 
  • The clue finding gets even more difficult if there are several grain ingredients in a food item like a multi-grain bread. For example, consider if the list of ingredients shows wheat flour, whole wheat, whole oat flour, whole cornmeal and whole rye flour. In this example, there are four whole grains used and only one refined grain—the wheat flour. Yet, you have no way of knowing the percentage of each. The refined flour could be making up 90 percent or more of the total grains, and the whole grains less than 10 percent. Due to this type of confusion, the Whole Grains Council created their "stamp" to help consumers quickly identify true whole grains. 

Today's Grains

The whole grains of today are actually as old as the hills. They have been a nourishing component for millions of people around the world. The grains below, when consumed in a form that includes the bran, germ and endosperm, are examples of generally accepted whole-grain foods and flours:
  • Amaranth, which is actually a seed
  • Arborio rice
  • Basmati rice
  • Brown rice
  • Buckwheat, which is actually a seed
  • Bulgur
  • Jasmine rice
  • Millet
  • Whole barley
  • Quinoa
  • Triticale
  • Wheat berries
  • Wild rice, which is actually a seed
  • Popcorn
  • Corn
  • Farro
  • Freekeh
  • Oats
If you're still confused, explore the expansive world of grains and how to read labels by visiting the Whole Grains Council encyclopedia tool.

Adding Whole Grains to Your Diet

The easiest way to increase the amount of whole grains you consume is to substitute some processed grain products with their whole-grain equivalent. This is as simple as having a slice of whole-grain toast in the morning instead of using white bread, or using whole-wheat flour in pancakes.
While at the grocery store, be extra careful reading food labels, too. Words such as multigrain, stone-ground cracked wheat or seven-grain don’t necessarily mean the product is made with whole grains. And color doesn’t automatically signal whole grain—some brown breads are simply white bread with added caramel coloring.
With a few simple tweaks to your diet, you can add a whole lot of whole grains to any healthy eating plan.
  • Wake up with a bowl of cooked oats—steel-cut, old-fashioned, quick-cooking or instant.  They are all whole grains.
  • Build an egg sandwich using a toasted, whole-grain English muffin.
  • Create a lunchtime sandwich using whole-wheat bread or a whole-wheat pita pocket.
  • Use your favorite jarred spaghetti sauce on whole-wheat spaghetti.
  • Serve grilled chicken and sautéed veggies over instant brown rice with a dash of soy sauce.
  • Snack on light microwave popcorn.
  • Stir up a sensational soup using frozen mixed vegetables and whole-grain barley or instant brown rice.
  • Toss together the ingredients in your favorite pasta salad using whole-wheat pasta or farro.
  • Experiment with a new recipe using whole grains.
Despite misinformation spewed by publicity-seeking authors as well as bloggers searching for sensationalism, nothing really has changed. High-fiber, nutrient-rich, whole grains have been and are still one of the keys to good health. Now, we just have more evidence from well-controlled research studies to back it up.