Get the Scoop on Whole Grains The What, Why & Where to Find Them

Whole Grains

What is a whole grain? Is it wheat?  Whole wheat? And where does gluten fit in? If you’re among the many Americans who are confused by these terms, today we are setting the record straight!

The What:

What is a whole grain? Is it wheat?  Whole wheat? And where does gluten fit in? If you’re among the many Americans who are confused by these terms, today we are setting the record straight!

Yes, whole wheat is, in fact, a whole grain—though it is only one of many types of whole grains. Although there are many kinds, all whole grains have one thing in common: a whole grain kernel.

A grain kernel is made up of three parts:

  1. Bran – The outer protective layer; contains fiber, B vitamins, and antioxidants.
  2. Germ – The inner-most portion of the kernel responsible for plant reproduction; contains B vitamins and small amounts of healthy fats and protein.
  3. Endosperm – The largest portion of the kernel that provides energy to the grain for growth; contains carbohydrates, protein, and small amounts of vitamins and minerals.

A whole grain contains each of these three kernel parts, providing a wealth of nutrients. When grains are milled into flour, these parts are often separated. If the bran and germ — which contain the most concentrated nutrients — are removed during milling, a refined grain is created. Because half or more of many key nutrients are missing from refined grains, some refined grain products in the U.S. are enriched with a small number of vitamins and minerals to return some of their nutritional value. Enriched grains are still missing many of the nutrients found in whole grains – including most of the fiber.

Here are some examples of common whole grains and their refined counterparts:

Whole GrainRefined Grain
Whole wheat flour (used to make whole wheat breads, pasta, and baked goods)White flour (used to make white breads, pasta, and baked goods)
Brown, red, black riceWhite rice
QuinoaCouscous (most varieties)

When at the supermarket, a simple test is all that’s needed to determine if a food is considered a whole grain. Check out the food label, and if the first ingredient lists a whole grain, it’s a go! Don’t be fooled, though. Sometimes a food is made with whole grains, but it is not considered a whole grain food. For example a “multi-grain” bagel may list white flour as its first ingredient and whole wheat flour as its second ingredient. This means the bagel is predominantly made of a refined grain— white flour. Visit the MyPlate  website for a more comprehensive list of whole grains and the Whole Grains Council website to learn about the Whole Grain Stamp—another useful tool to identify whole grains.

The Why:

Grains (and the carbohydrates that come with them) are important in everyone’s diet. According to MyPlate, grains should make up about one quarter of each meal. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends making at least half of your grains whole grains in order to reap their benefits. For most adults, the recommendation for total grain intake is 6-8 servings daily. With some simple math, we know this means 3-4 servings should be from whole grain options each day. Look here to see examples of one grain servings.

As mentioned earlier, whole grains contains several vitamins and minerals, like B vitamins, iron, magnesium and selenium. They also contain fiber, which may reduce constipation and help with weight management, by making you feel fuller on fewer calories. Consumption of whole grains is also linked to reduced cholesterol levels and decreased risks of heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. Sounds to me like there are many, many good reasons to aim for that ‘half grains are whole’ goal! If you’re looking for even more evidence on why to choose whole grains more often, visit the Whole Grains Council website.

It’s important to mention celiac disease and gluten intolerance when we’re discussing grains, as the prevalence of celiac disease has risen dramatically over the past couple of decades. If you are following a gluten-free diet, you’re in luck! Not all whole grains contain gluten. Gluten-free whole grains may include: amaranth, buckwheat, corn, millet, quinoa, rice, sorghum, teff and wild rice. Some of these grains may seem foreign to you, but their cooking instructions are as easy as cooking rice!

The Where:

Whole grains can be found anywhere and everywhere these days. Look in your local grocery store, corner bakery, farmers’ market, and child’s school cafeteria to find some tasty, wholesome whole grains. Keep your eyes peeled for the Whole Grain Stamp, which more and more products are bearing every day—both in the U.S. and abroad. Incorporate these whole grains into your daily diet by:

  1. Substituting whole-grain products for refined grain products (i.e., 100% whole wheat bread instead of white bread and brown rice in place of white rice)
  2. Replacing some or all flour with whole wheat flour in recipes for muffins, pancakes, cookies, etc.
  3. Searching for or pinning recipes that incorporate quinoa, bulgur, wild rice, or barley
  4. Adding wheat or rye berries, wild rice, brown rice, sorghum, or barley to your favorite canned or home-made soup
  5. Using whole wheat or corn tortillas instead of flour tortillas
  6. Adding three-quarters of a cup of uncooked oats for each pound of ground beef or turkey when you make meatballs, burgers or meatloaf.


Contrary to popular belief, carbohydrates are very healthy and necessary for performing everyday functions.  When this vital nutrient is consumed, it breaks down into glucose. Glucose is the preferred source of energy for the body and the only source of energy for the brain.  When extra glucose is consumed, it is stored in muscles and the liver for later use—such as for regular organ function, a walk up stairs, a marathon run, or any and all activities in between.

Low-carbohydrate diets, in their many versions, have been popular topics for years among those looking to lose weight. The truth is that carbohydrates do not cause weight gain, but some types of carbohydrates—simple carbohydrates—may interfere with weight loss and/or promote weight gain.

Simple carbohydrates are those that break down quickly in the body. These are essentially sugars—both natural and added sugars, in foods like fruits, dairy foods, sweets, and sugar-sweetened beverages (including fruit juice). Essentially, these types of carbohydrates are quickly absorbed into the blood stream, causing blood glucose levels to spike—and then later fall. This rise and fall causes the ‘sugar high’ you feel when consuming a piece of cake, a can of soda, or even your lunchtime sandwich. It is often followed by the ‘crash’ felt about an hour later, when you likely feel tired and sluggish. This rollercoaster of blood sugar levels can be dangerous for those with diabetes but can also negatively impact energy levels and hunger cues of others without the disease.

As the much preferred alternative to simple carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates provide fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals—and leave you feeling satisfied and energized. Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest than simple carbohydrates, turning the rollercoaster of blood glucose levels into more of a gentle wave. Starch and fiber are the two types of complex carbohydrates. Starch comes in the form of grains, breads, cereals, and starchy vegetables, like potatoes and corn*. Fiber is found in fruits, vegetables, legumes (i.e., beans, peas and lentils) and whole grains—including the every-popular popcorn! It is important to remember that refined grains, such as white breads, pasta, and rice, have little-to-no fiber. As we learned last time, fiber keeps you feeling full; this is because fiber slows digestion even more than starch alone. For instance, whole wheat bread will take longer to digest than white bread because it has more fiber—even though both are sources of starch.

To dig even deeper, fiber can be classified as either dietary or functional fiber. Dietary fiber is the form of fiber found in plants, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Functional fiber is fiber that can be artificially made and added to products, such as snack bars, crackers, yogurts, and some over-the-counter supplements. As with all nutrients, food is the preferred source over supplements and additives. Thus, dietary fiber should be focused on when working to meet daily fiber needs. Dietary fiber can also be further classified into two types: soluble and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber is found in foods like oats, barley, apples, and citrus fruits. It forms a gel-like substance when digested and binds and eliminates cholesterol, helping to lower blood cholesterol levels. Insoluble fiber is found in whole wheat products, nuts, beans, and many fruits and vegetables (particularly in their skins). It does not break down when digested but instead provides bulk to stools, helping to promote bowel regularity. All packaged food products are required to list total fiber on their nutrition facts labels, while some food products may even distinguish the amount of fiber coming from soluble and insoluble fiber. Look for high fiber foods (5 grams/serving) and good sources of fiber (2.5-4.9 grams/serving) to make sure you’re on your way to meeting your daily fiber needs. The Institute of Medicine recommends including the following amount of fiber daily:

  • Males 19-50 years: 38 g/day
  • Males 50-70 years: 30 g/day
  • Females 19-50 years: 25 g/day
  • Females 50-70 years: 21 g/day

Take Home Message
Putting all of this information together, the main message is that each of us needs carbohydrates as part of a healthy, balanced diet. The Institute of Medicine recommends 45-65% of an adult’s calorie intake come from carbohydrates. Rather than choosing a low-carbohydrate diet, focus instead on a complex carbohydrate-rich diet. Nutrient-dense and fiber-rich carbohydrates, like those from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and low-fat and fat-free dairy products, are the better choices to meet recommended carbohydrate needs. The occasional simple carbohydrate is OK—but enjoy in moderation to avoid low energy levels and keep the focus on nutritious—and yummy—complex carbs!
Many restaurants now offer whole grain choices in the breadbasket, along with delicious side dishes made from whole grains, like quinoa or buckwheat. Ask your server if whole grain choices are available, and if so, substitute brown rice in place of white, and whole wheat pasta instead of regular. A surprising number of restaurants are jumping on the whole grain bandwagon, even when they don’t say so on the menu. Over time, as more diners voice their preference for whole grain choices, these great-tasting and nutritious powerhouses will become more common in restaurants.
For more information on the health benefits of whole grains, along with recipes, tips, and a wealth of resources on all things whole grain, visit the Whole Grains Council and MyPlate websites.

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