What Are Whole Grains?

It's very important that you ask yourself the question "What are whole grains" as most people are rather confused about the definition of the word.

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Many buy brown bread thinking that they're making a smart choice, but it's not always the case. Brown bread is often made with a mixture of wholemeal and white flour or even with just white flour colored with molasses.

The same with brown rice; often it's just white rice with a bit of coloring, not the real thing.

So What Are Whole Grains?

Whole grain foods are made with the intact kernels of cereals, such as wheat, rice, oat, barley, buckwheat, etc.

diagram of a whole grain kernel

Whole grains contain all three parts of the grain - the nutrient-rich germ, the energy-providing endosperm and the fiber-rich bran layer.

Most cereal foods are made with refined or crushed, processed kernels.

It's true that to make bread and pasta from whole grains you need a degree of processing otherwise you couldn't make either of those products.

But the processing must be kept to a minimum to preserve as much of the original nutrients as possible.

Whole grains are what our ancestors ate before modern food processing began pulverizing kernels into superfine powder to make white bread, as it was perceived as being more desirable and healthier, as well as having an increased shelf life.

Little did they know that they were paying more money for imperfection and they were definitely short-changed!

Today there's no excuse for falling into the same trap. Tons of research shows what food processing does to cereals.

Effects of Processing Whole Grain Foods

whole grain bread vs white bread

When whole grains are refined in order to remove the bran (the outer layer) and germ (the portion that sprouts new plants), they're also stripped of other important nutrients.

They lose 95% of their vitamin E content, 87% of their vitamin B6, 85% of their magnesium, 52% of their selenium and 40% of their folic acid and vitamin B12.

Wheat, for example, has twenty-five nutrients removed in the refining process that turns it into white flour, yet only four (iron, B1, B2 and B3) are replaced in some foods.

What are we left with? Very little, it seems, mainly "empty" calories, which rob our bodies of protection against chronic disease and make us fat in the process.

Consuming refined grains on a regular basis can actually cause many conditions.

Just as an example, in many parts of Asia, white rice supplies up to 80% of the total calories. White rice is particularly deficient of thiamine (or vitamin B1) and a severe deficiency of this vitamin results in the condition known as beriberi.

This condition - characterized by extreme loss of appetite, congestive heart failure, water retention, psychosis (disorientation, hallucination, loss of memory, etc.), muscle pain and other symptoms of disturbed nerve function - could be prevented if people simply ate brown rice.

Whole grain foods are rich in an array of disease-fighting chemicals - antioxidants, tumor suppressors, cholesterol reducers, insulin regulators and vitamin E, folic acid, zinc, selenium and magnesium.

A diet rich in whole grain foods can prevent a host of nutritional deficiencies and has been shown to be protective against:

  • The development of chronic degenerative diseases, especially cancer, heart disease, diabetes and varicose veins.
  • Diseases of the colon, including colon cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, hemorrhoids and diverticulitis.

So what counts as whole grains?

  • Bread with the word whole in the first ingredient (such as whole grain wheat)
  • Wheat berries, cracked wheat, bulgur wheat
  • Brown rice*
  • Whole grain barley (pearl barley isn't technically a whole grain, but it's still good for you)
  • Oats, oat bran, oatcakes
  • Wholemeal pasta
  • Popcorn*
  • Exotic grains, including amaranth*, buckwheat* and quinoa*
  • Whole grain rye
  • Millet*
  • Other types of whole wheat such as spelt and triticale
  • Sorghum*

Foods with * are gluten free.

Check the Label

whole grain bread


It's especially important to ask yourself the question "what are whole grains" when you are surrounded by an array of products that claim to contain healthy grains. Some labels are very misleading.

For example, some breads say "seven grains", or "bran" or "made with wheat flour", giving the impression they're made with whole grains when they're not.

How can you be sure that bread, pasta, crackers and so on are whole grains? Read the label carefully. The first ingredient on the list must have the word "whole" in it, such as whole wheat (also called graham flour), whole oats, whole rye flour and whole barley.

You may have seen on the market new breads called 'wholegrain white breads'. Even though they're wholemeal, they look like white bread because they're made from a special variety of wheat (albino wheat) that is light in colour, plus a host of 'dough conditioners' that keep the bread soft like white bread.

These breads are more processed than regular wholemeal breads because the whole grains are pulverized into tiny bits by special machinery to make the bread smooth and unfortunately this kind of process raises their Glycemic Index value.

Hi Maize Resistant Starch

Some other brands of white bread have suddenly become 'high fiber' without looking or tasting any different. They replace up to 1/4 of the white flour with flour made from a particular type of corn, called Hi-maize resistant starch.

Hi-maize corn flour isn't made from genetically modified maize, but it's been developed from a natural type of maize that contains high amylose starch. It acts like dietary fiber in the intestine providing all the same health benefits.

But can Hi-maize be considered a 'whole food'? Although it's touted as such in most articles I've looked at, it cannot be considered a whole grain. Why not?

Well, for one thing it's extremely processed and refined to make it into a fine flour. Then, if you do some research as well, you'll see the trademark symbol after the name. If it was a natural occurring food it couldn't be patented but it would be widely available, so it's either a patented formula or a patented process.

There's no doubt that resistant starch is extremely beneficial for our health, the same way as fiber is, but it's also present in other foods, such as unprocessed whole grains, peas and lentils, unripe bananas and other beans.

Black beans, for instance, contain the highest amount of total dietary fiber - 43% - and 63% of their total starch content is resistant starch.

Having answered the question, I hope satisfactorily, What are whole grains? now you can either go back to the Whole Grain Foods main page or go to the Next page.

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Articles in This Series on Whole Grains


Whole grain Foods (Main Page)

Benefits of Whole Grains

What Are "Whole Grains?"

Whole Grain Cereals

Slow Carbs vs Fast Carbs - What Makes Some Carbs Better than Others?

Glycemic Index of Foods - What is It?

Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load -What is the Difference?

Low GI Foods

Low GI Food List






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