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:
- Bran – The outer protective layer; contains fiber, B vitamins, and antioxidants.
- Germ – The inner-most portion of the kernel responsible for plant reproduction; contains B vitamins and small amounts of healthy fats and protein.
- 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 Grain||Refined 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 rice||White rice|
|Quinoa||Couscous (most varieties)|
When at the supermarket, 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.
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 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends making at least half of your grains whole grains in order to reap their benefits. 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 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. 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!
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:
- 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)
- Replacing some or all flour with whole wheat flour in recipes for muffins, pancakes, cookies, etc.
- Searching for or pin recipes that incorporate quinoa, bulgur, wild rice, or barley
- Adding wheat or rye berries, wild rice, brown rice, sorghum, or barley to your favorite canned or home-made soup
- Using whole wheat or corn tortillas instead of flour tortillas
- Adding three-quarters of a cup of uncooked oats for each pound of ground beef or turkey when you make meatballs, burgers or meatloaf.
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 guests voice their preference for whole grain choices, these great-tasting and nutritious powerhouses will become more common in restaurants.