Expert Health Articles

Defining a Whole Grain

Martha GonzalezMartha Gonzalez, RD, LD, CLC

Clinical Nutrition Manager

Whole grains are part of a well-rounded diet. They provide many nutrients such as fiber, vitamins and minerals, and they help keep our bodies healthy by reducing our risk of diseases. Eating fiber-rich whole grains also keeps us fuller longer and feeds healthy bacteria. The most common types of whole grains used in the United States are wheat, rice, corn and oats. Other types include barley, rye, buckwheat, bulgur, quinoa, spelt and many more grown around the world.

To understand whole grains, it is necessary to comprehend their anatomy. There are three parts of a wheat kernel: the bran, endosperm and germ. The bran is the outer shell of the grain and is high in fiber and B vitamin. Inside the bran is the endosperm, which makes up most of the kernel and mainly contains starch. Also inside the bran is the germ, which is the nutrient powerhouse of the grain. It contains vitamin E, healthy fats, antioxidants, minerals and B vitamins.

When making processed wheat flour, the bran and the germ are removed along with their nutrients, leaving only the endosperm. You can purchase enriched, processed wheat flour, which means some of the nutrients lost in processing are re-added such as B vitamins and iron. Nutrients still missing from enriched wheat flour include fiber, vitamin E, healthy fats and antioxidants.

Finding whole grain products at the store can be confusing, but there ways to read labels that make it easier. First, look for the word “whole.” Many times you may find bread titled “Wheat Bread,” but this does not mean it is “whole” wheat bread. Second, look for the “100%” mark. You might see products that say “made with whole grains” or “contains whole wheat.” While these may contain some whole grains, most are made with refined white flour. Third, look at the first ingredient. The ingredients are listed by weight with the heaviest first, and the whole grain ingredient should be listed as the very first one. Additionally, check the fiber content on the nutrition facts label. A quality whole grain bread will have at least 2-3 grams of fiber per slice. Furthermore, be careful of the misleading word “multigrain,” as it simply refers to the fact that the product contains a variety of grains, not necessarily including whole grain. Finally, do not judge a product by its color. Bread that looks brown does not automatically mean it is made with a whole grain. 

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests making at least half your grains whole. You can increase your whole grains by switching to whole grain bread or pasta, using brown rice instead of white rice, or trying new recipes that use grains like bulger or quinoa. Making the switch from refined grains to whole grains can lead you on the path to a healthier lifestyle. Talk with your dietician for more information about the benefits of adding whole grains to your diet.