We’ve heard the term “whole grain” for a while now. It’s popping up on food labels all over the grocery store. The USDA recommends that at least half of the grains we eat should be whole grains. But what the heck is a whole grain in the first place?
All grains start out their lives as whole grains. When they are harvested, grains have four layers.
- Husk. The husk is the outer protective coating of each individual grain. It helps protect the nutritious grain inside against pests and weather. It is inedible, and is stripped away in the initial processing.
- Bran. The bran is another protective coating around the grain. It is high in fiber, antioxidants, and B vitamins. Think of the bran like the skin on an apple or a potato. (Or any other fruit or veggie that has an edible skin.)
- Germ. This is the inner-most part of the grain. The germ is the part that has the potential to become a new plant, if the grain is planted in the ground next year. (All grains are seeds.) The germ is high in B vitamins, protein, minerals, and healthy fats.
- Endosperm. This is also called the kernel. The kernel is the largest part of the grain. If the grain is being used as a seed, the kernel acts as the first food source for the germ, so the brand-new plant has enough energy to put out roots to get more nutrients and the first shoots to get energy from the sun. The kernel is rich in carbohydrates, and has lower levels of proteins and some vitamins and minerals.
Image from the Whole Grains Council.
What’s the difference between a whole grain and a “regular” grain?
In a word? Processing.
Whole grains are refined, or milled, to make “non-whole” grains. During milling, the bran and the germ are removed. This makes the part of the grain that is left (the kernel) easier to chew and digest. It also gives grains a longer shelf life. (If whole grains are stored without refrigeration, the fats in the germ can go rancid over time.)
So all that sounds good… easier on the body, easier to store. But, there’s a trade off. With the loss of the bran and the germ, we also lose a lot of the protein, fiber, and most of the vitamins and minerals that make whole grains a good choice.
Some refined grains are enriched. These will have some vitamins and minerals added back after the milling process (like we saw in some dairy products). But not everything is added back, and the nutritional value still is not the same as in the original whole grain.
What are some whole grains?
Some common whole grains that you might see in the grocery store or on food labels include:
- Oats (including all varieties of oatmeal)
- Rice (brown, wild, or other colors; not white rice)
- Sorghum (milo)
How do I know if I am buying food with whole grains?
This is where reading your nutrition labels is important. The Whole Grains Council developed this label to let you know when a food is made with 100% whole grains. (To be honest, I don’t have any of these labels in my pantry right now.)
I do have this on a box of cereal in my pantry.
So I checked the ingredients label. While the first ingredient is indeed whole grain oats, the second ingredient is sugar. Remember, the ingredients are listed in order of the most to the least (by weight). A cereal with a whole grain listed as the first ingredient will probably have more whole grains than a cereal with a whole grain listed as the fourth or fifth ingredient.
Look for these ingredients
When you’re reading the ingredient labels, look for words like these:
- Whole wheat; whole oats; whole rice (or the name of some other grain)
- Stoneground whole wheat (or another grain)
- Brown rice
- Oats, oatmeal (all types of oatmeal are whole grains)
These are all types of whole grains. A cereal that contains whole wheat, whole oats, and whole rice will list these ingredients separately, so it can be a little hard to figure out what the total amount of whole grains in the cereal is.
Do you typically buy whole grains? Why or why not?