February 4, 2014

What is “Whole Grain?”

We’ve heard that whole grains are healthier than refined grains. But, what exactly is the difference between whole grain and refined grains? Simply put, whole grain is ANY grain that still contains all three parts of its seed – the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. Whole grain is a broad term that can include many familiar types of grains such as corn, barley, wheat, buckwheat, oats, rice, and quinoa, as well as some not-so-familiar grains like amaranth, millet, sorghum, and triticale.

All grains grow naturally as “whole grains.” Once the grain is refined, it loses its “whole grain” status. In the late 19th century as the industrial revolution was taking place, manufacturers realized that the main cause of spoilage in the flour was from the high amount of fatty acid in the germ of the wheat grain. The standard shelf life was 6-9 months, but that was not nearly long enough to manufacture, distribute, and consume. The logical solution was to remove the problem – the germ. The other case of the grain, the bran, contains a relatively high oil content which also led to the product going rancid. The endosperm is what constitutes most refined flour today.

With the removal of the bran and the germ, about 25% of the grain’s protein is lost (see image below), Whole vs Refined grain nutritionWhole vs Refined grain nutritionalong with numerous vitamins and minerals.  In order to recoup many of the lost nutrients, manufacturers “enrich” their flour with Riboflavin (B-2), Niacin (B-3), Thiamin (B-1), Iron, and Folate. Vitamins B-6 and E, fiber, zinc, and potassium are present in refined flour, but only fractionally compared to its whole wheat variety.

Numerous studies have shown that the addition of whole grains into a diet significantly increases health and reduces the risk of diabetes, stroke and heart disease. These effects are of course in conjunction with a healthier lifestyle, but the benefits of whole grains over refined grains are scientifically accepted. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that everyone eats at least six servings of grains per day, and at least half of them are whole grain.

Whole grain food and recipes are plentiful. Approximately 15-20% of the grain products in today’s supermarkets contain whole grain. Brown rice, oatmeal, and popcorn are examples of everyday foods that are entirely whole grains.  Whole wheat and whole grain bread is readily available at any supermarket or bakery.

For more information on whole grains and to find recipes and snack ideas, check out the Whole Grain Council’s website.

Whole vs Refined grain nutritionWhole vs. Refined grain