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Whole Grain Benefits


Health experts advise everyone that grains are a healthy necessity in every diet, and that it’s important to eat at least half our grains as “whole grains.”

But what’s a whole grain? And why does it matter?
Whole grains include grains like wheat, corn, rice, oats, barley, quinoa, sorghum, spelt, rye – when these foods are eaten in their “whole” form. Whole grains even include popcorn! Eating whole grains has been shown to reduce the risks of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and obesity. Yet even consumers who are aware of the health benefits of whole grains are often unsure how to find and prepare them.

What are Whole Grains?
In their natural state growing in the fields, whole grains are the entire seed of a plant. This seed (which industry calls a “kernel”) is made up of three key parts: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm.


The bran is the multi-layered outer skin of the kernel, and is tough enough to protect the other two parts of the kernel from assaults by sunlight, pests, water, and disease. It contains important antioxidants, B vitamins and fiber.

The germ is the embryo which, if fertilized by pollen, will sprout into a new plant. It contains many B vitamins, some protein, minerals, and healthy fats.

The endosperm is the germ’s food supply, which provides essential energy to the young plant so it can send roots down for water and nutrients, and send sprouts up for sunlight’s photosynthesizing power. The endosperm is by far the largest portion of the kernel. It contains starchy carbohydrates, proteins and small amounts of vitamins and minerals.

Whole grains contain all three parts of the kernel. Refining normally removes the bran and the germ, leaving only the endosperm. Without the bran and germ, about 25% of a grain’s protein is lost, along with at least seventeen key nutrients. Processors add back some vitamins and minerals to enrich refined grains, so refined products still contribute valuable nutrients. But whole grains are healthier, providing more protein, more fiber and many important vitamins and minerals.

Whole grains may be eaten whole, cracked, split or ground. They can be milled into flour or used to make breads, cereals and other processed foods. If a food label states that the package contains whole grain, the “whole grain” part of the food inside the package is required to have virtually the same proportions of bran, germ, and endosperm as the harvested kernel does before it is processed.

Whole grains currently make up about 10 percent of grains on supermarket shelves. At a time when health professionals urge consumers to eat at least half of their grains as whole grains, it’s a challenge for consumers to find these healthier whole grains in a sea of refined grain foods.

What are the Benefits of Whole Grains?
Consumers are increasingly aware that fruits and vegetables contain disease-fighting phytochemicals and antioxidants, but they do not realize whole grains are often an even better source of these key nutrients. Moreover, whole grains have some valuable antioxidants not found in fruits and vegetables, as well as B vitamins, vitamin E, magnesium, iron and fiber.

The medical evidence is clear that whole grains reduce risks of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and obesity. Few foods can offer such diverse benefits.

People who eat whole grains regularly have a lower risk of obesity, as measured by their body mass index and waist-to-hip ratios. They also have lower cholesterol levels. Because of the phytochemicals and antioxidants, people who eat three daily servings of whole grains have been shown to reduce their risk of heart disease by 25-36%, stroke by 37%, Type II diabetes by 21-27%, digestive system cancers by 21-43%, and hormone-related cancers by 10-40%.

What Counts as a “Serving?”
The USDA defines a grain serving as a grain product containing 16 grams of flour. As a result, three servings would be 48 grams of whole grain ingredients.  The USDA recommends meeting the daily requirement by eating three ounces of breads, rolls, cereals or other grain foods made with 100% whole grains. A slice of bread or a serving of breakfast cereal usually weighs about an ounce. 

How can consumers know if a product is whole grain?
First, check the package label. Many whole grain products will say so outright. Look for claims like “Good Source of whole grain,” Excellent Source of whole grain” or “100% whole wheat” as producers sometimes print “whole grain” on products containing only miniscule amounts of whole grains.

Words you may see on packages:

  • whole grain [name of grain]

  • whole wheat

  • whole [other grain]

  • stoneground whole [grain]

  • brown rice

What they mean:  Contains all parts of the grain with all the nutrients of the whole grain

Words you may see on packages:

  • unbleached flour

  • wheat flour

  • semolina

  • durum wheat

  • organic unbleached flour

  • enriched flour

  • degerminated (on corn meal)

  • bran

  • multigrain (may describe several whole grains or several refined grains, or a mix of both)

What they mean: These words are accurate descriptions of the package contents, but because some parts of the grain may be missing, you are likely missing the benefits of “whole grains.”

Second, check the list of ingredients. If the first ingredient listed contains the word “whole” (such as “whole wheat flour” or “whole oats”), it is safe to assume the product is predominately whole grain. If only the second ingredient listed is a whole grain, the product may contain as little as 1% or as much as 49% whole grain (in other words, it could contain a little bit of whole grain, or nearly half).

A word about fiber. Fiber varies from grain to grain, ranging from 3.5% in rice to over 15% in barley and bulgur. What’s more, high-fiber products sometimes contain bran or other added fiber without actually having much if any whole grain. Both fiber and whole grains have been shown to have health benefits. But they’re not interchangeable. So checking the fiber on a label is not a very reliable way to guess whether a product is truly whole grain.

Easy Ways to Add More Whole Grains
Consumers can easily add whole grains to their meals, often using favorite recipes they’ve always enjoyed. Try some of the following:

  • Substitute half the white flour with whole wheat flour in your regular recipes for cookies, muffins, quick breads and pancakes. Or be bold and add up to 20% of another whole grain flour such as sorghum.

  • Add half a cup of cooked bulgur, wild rice, or barley to bread stuffing.

  • Add half a cup of cooked wheat or rye berries, wild rice, brown rice, sorghum or barley to your favorite canned or home-made soup.

  • Use whole corn meal for corn cakes, corn breads and corn muffins.

  • Make risottos, pilafs and other rice-like dishes with whole grains such as barley, brown rice, bulgur, millet, quinoa or sorghum.

  • Enjoy whole grain salads like tabbouleh.

  • Try whole grain breads. Kids especially like whole grain pita bread.

  • Buy whole grain pasta, or one of the blends that’s part whole-grain, part white.

  • Look for cereals made with grains like kamut, kasha (buckwheat) or grano.

There are also several excellent cookbooks dedicated to whole-grain cooking, with a great many delicious and simple recipes.

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