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Getting to Know Whole Grains

Whole Grain 
If you’re visiting this website, you’re probably familiar with the trending conversation about whole grains, but what exactly are they? Basically, a whole grain, compared to a refined grain, contains all the parts and pieces that together make up the seed. Whether the reference is to wheat, rye, or oats, the same rules apply.

Three Parts
A whole grain is composed of three major components: the bran, endosperm, and germ.

whole grain
Source: The Nutrition Source: Whole Grains. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The bran is the seed coat, the outer shell that protects the endosperm and germ and supplies healthy fiber to those who eat it. The bran fiber may reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases, in particular cardiovascular disease (CVD), metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. 

The germ supplies healthy fats, vitamins E and B, and phytochemicals – natural chemical compounds linked to disease prevention.

The endosperm is the starchy middle layer, and it’s this part, composed chiefly of carbohydrates with small amounts of protein and vitamins, that feeds the sprouting seed. The endosperm, stripped of the bran and germ in the milling process, becomes the baker’s ubiquitous white flour. As bakers know, the starches and proteins in the endosperm allow the dough to rise and retain shape, while the germ and bran provide the nutrition and flavor.

“Food in its most natural state is when it's at its healthiest.” - Valerie Machinist

Identifying Whole Grains

Walking through grocery store bread aisles will take you past an overwhelming assortment of options. Names like Honey Wheat, Multigrain, Enriched Wheat, and 12 Grain are further complicated by labels proclaiming varying amounts of fiber or whole grains per serving. According to the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 98 percent of us consume less than the recommended quantity of whole grains, but 74 percent exceed the recommended intake of refined grains. The recommendation for all is to “make half your grains whole grains,” but it can be challenging to know which foods to choose. The chart below offers some helpful hints.

what are whole grains

Ingredients List
The nutrition facts label shows the amount of fiber in a product, but the real clue to whole grain content lies in the ingredients list. Because ingredients list in descending order by weight, to be a whole grain product, the first ingredient should include the word “whole” or “100%” followed by the name of a whole grain such as oats, barley, or rye.

Whole Grains Stamp
The industry group, The Whole Grains Council, created the Whole Grain Stamp to help guide consumers toward products made with the entire grain kernel. This image appears on many packaged foods made by large companies. Whole-grain foods from smaller companies may not carry this label but are no less nutritious and may contain less sugar.

whole grain stampExamples of whole-grain stamps from the Whole Grain Council website

Consumer Perceptions
Studies of whole-grain consumption report that Americans are less aware of the health benefits of whole grains than of other foods proven to reduce disease risk. Without knowledge of nutritional information, many consumers opt for refined grain products simply because they are familiar and often less expensive than whole-grain products. However, people are more likely to enjoy the taste and texture of whole-grain products if they are made from grain varieties bred for flavor and functionality and if the flour is fresh (milled and used soon thereafter). This is an avenue of discovery for many of us – the fact that fresh whole-grain flour contains subtle nuances of flavor determined, in part, by the freshness of the flour. The fact is, flour is perishable like milk. As flour ages, the flavors (and nourishment) dissipate, and a bitter aftertaste may be detected. Fresh flour is produced by milling in-house – mills range from KitchenAid attachments to industrial mills that require a separate room and ventilation – or by locating an artisan miller in your community or region. This is easier than it was twenty years ago; the number of local and regional mills is proliferating across the U.S. and other parts of the world.

More information on identifying whole grains can be found on the Whole Grains Council website.

More information on finding an artisan mill in your neighborhood can be found in the Grain Guide’s Resources and in the chapter on milling.