Enjoying Whole Grains


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Learn More About Whole Grains

A Guide to Whole Grains


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Whole grains are being recommended by health professionals in television commercials, newspapers, magazine ads, and radio commercials. Claims of whole grain are showing up on cereal boxes, crackers, breads, and granola bars.


"Whole grains" are the new buzz words in nutrition. However, consumers are left with questions. How do they affect health? Are they important to include in a daily diet?


What is a whole grain?


Grain kernels are made up of three parts: the bran, germ, and endosperm. Each of these three parts offers different nutritional benefits.


The bran is the protective outer shell of the grain and provides fiber, B-vitamins, and 50-80% of the grain's minerals such as iron, copper, zinc, and magnesium, as well as phytochemicals. 


The endosperm is the middle layer and largest part of the grain by weight. It is low in vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals but provides most of the protein and carbohydrates. 


The germ is the smallest part of the whole grain kernel and is concentrated with vitamin E, B-vitamins, essential fatty acids, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. A whole grain is one with all three parts of the kernel intact. A refined grain, however, has its germ and bran layers removed, thus removing large amounts of nutrition from the final product.


How to know if products are whole grain


Many people believe they can tell if they are eating whole grains from the color of the product; if a bread or grain is brown, it is often assumed that the product is a whole grain. Pumpernickel bread, for example, is made with rye and wheat flours, but in the United States, whole grain flours are not typically used. On the other hand, a food made from oats may be a light color and be considered a whole grain. 


It is important to check labels when looking for whole grain. The word "whole," followed by the grain, should be the first ingredient listed on products.


Products that contain 51 percent or more of whole grain ingredients by weight may make an FDA-approved health claim: "Diets rich in whole grain foods and other plant foods, and low in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers." 


Consumers can often tell if the product they are buying is whole grain if this claim is on the label or if the words "whole grain" are in large letters on the front of the package. 


Many labels may look like they are healthful whole grains when in fact, they may be no healthier than the white bread on the shelf next to it. Examples include 100 percent wheat, stone ground, 12-grains, and multi-grain. One hundred percent wheat indicates that the product has only wheat in it, not necessarily whole wheat. Stone ground grains typically have the bran removed, and 12-grains or multi-grain indicates that the product has a variety of grains in it but may not contain any whole grains. (1)


There are a variety of whole grains to choose from and experiment with. These include not only the familiar whole wheat bread but also popcorn, brown rice, wild rice, oatmeal, buckwheat, quinoa, whole grain corn, spelt, teff, triticale, amaranth, kamut, whole rye, millet, and cracked wheat.


Whole grains can be substituted for refined grains; use whole wheat pasta instead of white pasta when making spaghetti, consider quinoa as a grain in a salad, use brown or wild rice instead of white, snack on popcorn instead of refined crackers, make a casserole with whole grain corn tortillas instead of flour tortillas. 


The U.S. Department of Agriculture, American Dietetic Association, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services all recommend including at least 3 servings of whole grains daily to achieve health benefits.


What are the health benefits of eating whole grains?


Research has shown that consuming whole grains may help to reduce the risk of a growing number of diseases and conditions. These include not only heart disease and many types of cancer, but also diabetes, weight management, constipation, and diverticulosis. 


A study published by the American Heart Journal reported that when women ate six or more servings of whole grains weekly, artery clogging appeared to slow down.(2) In a review of 19 studies, investigators found a decreased risk of 18 cancers in people who regularly consumed whole grains.(3) The decreased risk was strongest for gastrointestinal cancers but there was also a decreased risk for liver, rectum, and pancreatic cancers.


There is increasing evidence that the quality of carbohydrates eaten, such as those found in whole grains, may help to prevent type 2 diabetes. When type 2 diabetic subjects were given bread with whole grain flour versus milled flour, blood glucose and insulin levels dropped.(4) 


From the Nurses Health Study, researchers have learned that women who consume more whole grains consistently weigh less than women who do not consume whole grains on a regular basis.(5) 


Whole grains can also help decrease transit time through the gut. This helps with constipation, diverticulosis, and possibly helps with decreasing the risk of certain cancers.


Research is ongoing into the benefits of whole grains, but we know now that the benefits of consuming whole grains can not be attributed to just one part of the whole grain, such as fiber. Research has shown that the fiber, antioxidants, B-vitamins, essential fatty acids, phytochemicals, and other healthful components of the whole grain all work together to reduce risk of disease. The "whole" works better than all the "parts" when it comes to whole grains. Identifying whole grain products and incorporating these products daily can offer health benefits for a lifetime.



  1. Whole grains: the whole truth.  What to look for in food labels to ensure health benefits.  Heart Advis. 2005 Mar; 8(3)6-7.
  2. Whole grains.  American Heart Journ 2005;150:94.
  3. Chatenoud L, Tavini A, La Vecchia C, Jacobs DR, Negri E, Levi F, Franceschi S. Whole-grain food intake and cancer risk.  Intl J Cancer.  1998; 77: 24-28.
  4. Jenkins DJ, Wesson V, Wolever TM, Jenkins AL, Kalmusky J, Guicici S, Csima A, Josse RG, Wong GS.  Whole-meal versus whole-grain breads: Proportion of whole or cracked grain and the glycaemic response.  BMJ.  1988;297: 958-60.
  5. Liu S, Willett WC, Manson JE, Hu FB, Rosner B, Colditz G. Relation between changes in intakes of dietary fiber and grain products and changes in weight and development of obesity among middle-aged women. AmJClin Nutr.2003;78: 920-927.