June 28, 2017
5 Things to Know About Whole Grains

5 Things to Know About Whole Grains

by Jeanine Barone  |  

You probably know that whole grains are a healthier alternative to products made from refined grains, because they’re loaded with fiber, nutrients, and other potentially beneficial plant compounds. Then why is shopping for whole-grain breads, cereals, and pastas so difficult? A package of dark brown bread touting "made with whole grains" may contain mostly refined white flour. And a box of pasta labeled “wheat” or “semolina” can contain zero whole-grain ingredients. To cut through the confusion, here are answers to some questions you may have about whole grains, including how to distinguish them from their many imposters.

1. What's a whole grain?

The American Association of Cereal Chemists International (AACCI) and the FDA define a whole grain as containing the three components of the grain kernel—the germ (rich in vitamins, minerals, and fat), the outer bran layer (rich in fiber, B vitamins, protein, and phytochemicals), and the endosperm (rich in starch, protein, and some vitamins and minerals)—in the same relative proportions as found in the original, intact (unprocessed) kernel.

2. How does refining affect whole grains?

Any time you see the word "refined" on an ingredient list, it means the bran and germ layers were removed during the milling process, leaving just the starchy endosperm. (Milling is the process of crushing and grinding a whole grain to produce flour.) This results in a significant loss of both soluble and insoluble fiber aswell as B vitamins, minerals (including calcium, iron, and magnesium), and antioxidant compounds. Indeed, evidence has shown that milling whole wheat into refined wheat flour strips away 70 to 80 percent of its vitamins and flavonoids (a large group of antioxidants). The refining process also can raise the glycemic index of foods that contain those grains, meaning they have a greater impact on blood sugar.

Not all milling results in refined flour. If a food company recombines the bran, germ, and endosperm components after milling in roughly the same proportions as in the original kernel, then the resulting flour is considered whole-grain. If the three components remain separated, though, then the resulting product is no longer a whole grain.

3. How can I identify a whole grain food?

You may be surprised to learn that, unlike whole-grain ingredients—such as whole wheat or whole wheat flour—there's no universally accepted definition of a whole-grain food, such as bread or pasta. In the U.S., according to USDA and FDA standards, a food can be considered “whole-grain rich” if it has at least 8 grams of whole grains per serving, at least 51% whole grains by weight, or has a whole grain as the first ingredient on the label.

It's that last clue that may be the easiest to look for when shopping for whole grains. (Though you may see packaged goods bearing a stamp created by the Whole Grains Council, an industry group. This appears onlyif the manufacturer paid to be in the program. We recommend you examine the list of ingredients instead.)

If you see the words "100% whole grain" on the package, or if the first ingredient is “whole wheat” or "whole" followed by the name of another grain (such as barley or corn), then it's mostly or totally a whole-grain food.

4. Are foods such as brown rice and oats considered whole grains?

Yes. Certain grains are always considered whole and do not need to include the word "whole" to reflect that. Examples include brown rice, buckwheat, bulgur, quinoa, millet, amaranth, and rolled oats or oatmeal.

Contrary to some information you’ll see online, even quick-cooking oats count aswhole grains, since oats of any sort are rarely refined.The difference between instant, three-minute, old-fashioned, steel cut, or other another variation is simply the way the oat grain is rolled or cut. Oats that are rolled flat and thin or cut into smaller pieces (which reduces cooking time) still contain the bran, germ, and endosperm of the whole oat. Steel blades are used to cut oats into smaller pieces, hence the name steel-cut oats, while oats that are steamed and rolled flat are termed rolled or old-fashioned oats. Oats that are cut into smaller pieces and rolled are quick-cooking oats.

5. What words on a label or package may misrepresent a food as 100% whole grain when it's not?

There are, alas, lots of them. Some terms on labels or packages indicating that products probably contain mostly refined grains include: multigrain, 7-grain, 9-grain, or 12-grain; 100% wheat (rather than 100% whole wheat); “contains whole grains,” wheat flour, durum wheat, stoned wheat, organic flour, or enriched or unbleached wheat flour. For example, “multigrain” simply means the product contains more than one kind of grain. Of course, one or more of these grains can be refined. Any time you see only "wheat flour" on a package, that means it contains refined or white flour, not whole wheat. And any bread labeled "wheat bread" is unlikely to be whole wheat; otherwise it would say as much.

Also see:Whole GrainsA-Z.