Whole Grains: What They Are, and Where to Find Them
Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD
Advice you may hear all the time is to eat more whole grains! That sounds straightforward enough and it’s a term we toss around quite a bit, but what exactly is a whole grain anyway? And how can you be sure that foods you buy are truly whole grain?
First, here is a quick plant anatomy lesson. The grain or seed of a plant has three major parts – the germ, the bran, and the starchy part, called the endosperm. The germ is the plant embryo, and it feeds on the starchy endosperm, which supplies energy to the plant as it grows. The outer bran layer supplies vitamins and minerals to the plant, and also serves to protect the seed until it’s ready to sprout and grow.
A whole grain, then, has all these essential parts and the naturally-occurring nutrients of the intact grain, even if it’s been rolled, cracked or crushed. A refined grain has had the bran and the germ removed, leaving just the starch.
So how can you be sure that you’re buying whole grain? It’s best to check the ingredients list. If you see only the words whole grain, whole wheat (or any other grain like whole rye or whole millet), brown rice or oats, you can be sure it’s 100% whole grain.
But if the label says multigrain, that doesn’t ensure that the food is 100% whole grain. You need to look down the list of ingredients to be sure. Some foods are ‘made with’ whole grain, but may actually contain very little. And ‘wheat flour’ isn’t the same as ‘whole wheat’ flour. It’s usually refined white flour. Don’t judge a product by the color. There are plenty of breads on the shelf that are colored brown so they look like healthy whole grain, but they’re not.
Whole grains are generally good places to find fiber, but the fiber content of whole grains varies quite a bit. So, you can’t judge if a product is whole grain by looking only at the fiber content. You might find high fiber bread that’s made from white flour with bran added to boost the fiber content, but it’s not whole grain.
You might also see products that are made with sprouted grains. The kernels are allowed to sprout slightly, and then they’re milled into flour. Sprouted grain breads have a naturally coarse texture and nutty taste, so you might want to try them for a change. Again, read the ingredients list to be sure. Most sprouted grain products are 100% whole grain, but not all.