The Whole Scoop on Whole Versus Refined Grains

Are you hesitant about having that slice of bread, bowl of cereal, or plate of pasta? In an era of low carbohydrate diets and numerous warnings about the role of grains in weight gain, it is easy to see why. The good news is that there is only a grain of truth to the bad press about grains.

What you need to do is cut back on refined grains and eat more whole grains. Here is why.

Crude Facts About Refined Grains

The grains that make up the typical American diet are highly refined. The refining process results in the loss of vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber. What this means is that the most nutritious part of the grain is removed during the milling process. This process also strips them of disease-fighting components like B vitamins, iron, vitamin E, selenium, and fiber. Examples of refined grain products include:

  • White breads
  • Baked goods made with white flour
  • White pasta
  • Crackers
  • White rice
  • Some cereals on the grocery shelf

Many refined grain products are enriched, which means that some of the nutrients such as niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, and iron, are added back. However, enrichment does not restore important dietary fiber and other nutrients that are lost during the milling process.

Why Whole Grains Are More Wholesome

Whole grains are what they are called. They include all 3 parts that make up the entire grain: the bran, the endosperm, and the germ. Because they have not gone through the refining process, they are good sources of dietary fiber, B vitamins, iron, zinc, magnesium, vitamin E, and selenium.

Whole grains can help with the following:

Choosing Whole Grains

Examples of whole grains include the following:

  • Whole wheat
  • Barley
  • Brown, wild, or whole grain rice
  • Bulgur
  • Corn
  • Whole oats
  • Quinoa
  • Rye
  • Amaranth
  • Buckwheat
  • Millet
  • Spelt

How do you know if a product has whole grain? Do not rely on the name or appearance of the product. Bread may be brown because it contains molasses, brown sugar, or food coloring, not because it is whole wheat. Product names that conjure up images of health can still be made with mainly white, refined flour. Your best chance of getting whole grains is to learn to be a shrewd label reader.

Look at Ingredients

Look at the ingredient list on the product. You should find whole grain or whole wheat. Note that ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. So the higher up on the list the more whole grain is in the product. If white flour is the first ingredient, that means that, by weight, there is more white flour than any other kind of flour in the product. If whole grain or whole wheat is listed first, you have a product with 100% whole grains, but don't dismiss products that have these options listed further down the ingredient list. They can contribute to your overall whole grain count.

Don’t Be Fooled

Do not be deceived by the list of ingredients or advertising on the product labels. Here are some things that you may find on a label, but they may not be whole grain products:

  • Wheat flour
  • Stoned wheat
  • Made with whole wheat
  • Made with whole grain
  • Made with oatmeal

This does not tell you how much whole wheat, whole grain, or oatmeal is in the product. You may find that it is near the bottom of the ingredient list.

Eating More Whole Grains

There are many benefits to eating more whole grains. They’re more nutritious, healthful, and filling than refined grains, and have more texture and flavor.

The USDA dietary guidelines from 2010 recommend consuming a minimum of 3-4 ounces of whole-grain products per day for adults. At least half of your total intake of grains should be from whole grains.

Stock your pantry with whole grain cereals, brown rice, whole grain bread, and whole wheat pasta, crackers, breads, and rolls. If you have trouble getting started, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian.


Choose My Plate—US Department of Agriculture
Eat Right—American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics


Dietitians of Canada


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Last reviewed July 2016 by Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 10/22/2014

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