The Whole Scoop on Whole Versus Refined Grains

It can be hard to know whether to eat that slice of bread, bowl of cereal, or plate of pasta. In an era of low carbohydrate (carb) diets and 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 a person needs to do is cut back on refined grains and eat more whole grains. Here is why.

The Facts About Refined Grains

The grains that make up the typical American diet are very refined. The refining process causes a loss in vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber. This means that the most nutritious part of the grain is taken out during the milling process. This also strips grains of disease-fighting things like B vitamins, iron, vitamin E, selenium, and fiber. Examples of refined grain products are:

  • 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. This means that some of the nutrients are added back. However, this does not restore dietary fiber and other nutrients that are lost during milling.

Why Whole Grains Are More Wholesome

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

Whole grains can help:

Choosing Whole Grains

Examples of whole grains are:

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

It can be hard to know whether a product has whole grain. Do not rely on the name or the way the product looks. Bread may be brown because it has molasses, brown sugar, or food coloring, not because it is whole wheat. These products may still be made with mainly white, refined flour. The best way to find whole grains is to learn how to read labels.

Look at Ingredients

Look at the ingredient list on the product. It should list 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, it has 100% whole grains. But don't dismiss products that have these options listed further down the list. They can still count towards a person's overall whole grain count.

Do Not Be Fooled

Do not be fooled by the list of ingredients or advertising on the product labels. Here are some things that may be found 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. It may still be found near the bottom of the ingredient list.

Eating More Whole Grains

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

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) dietary guidelines from 2015 recommend consuming a minimum of 3 to 5 ounces of whole-grain products per day for adults. At least half of a person's total intake of grains should be from whole grains.

A pantry should be stocked with whole grain cereals, brown rice, whole grain bread, and whole wheat pasta, crackers, breads, and rolls. A doctor or dietitian can help a person get started.

RESOURCES:

Choose My Plate—US Department of Agriculture
https://www.choosemyplate.gov

Eat Right—American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
https://www.eatright.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES

Dietitians of Canada
https://www.dietitians.ca

Health Canada
https://www.canada.ca

REFERENCES:

All about the grains group. Choose My Plate—US Department of Agriculture website. Available at: https://www.choosemyplate.gov/eathealthy/grains. Accessed August 26, 2020.

Dietary considerations for cardiovascular disease risk reduction. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:https://www.dynamed.com/prevention/dietary-considerations-for-cardiovascular-disease-risk-reduction. Accessed August 26, 2020.

Dietary considerations for patients with type 2 diabetes. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:https://www.dynamed.com/results?q=dietary+considerations+for+patients+with+type+2+diabetes. Accessed August 26, 2020.

Dietary guidelines for Americans 2015-2020. US Department of Agriculture and US Department of Health and Human Services. Available at: https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2019-05/2015-2020_Dietary_Guidelines.pdf. Accessed August 26, 2020.

United States Department of Health and Human Services, United States Department of Agriculture (DHHS/DA). Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, 8th edition. DHHS/DA 2015.

What is a whole grain? Eat Right—American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website. Available at: http://www.eatright.org/resource/food/nutrition/dietary-guidelines-and-myplate/what-is-a-whole-grain. Accessed August 26, 2020.

Whole grains: Tips, advice, and guidance for moms. USDA Food and Nutrition Service website. Available at: http://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/WholeGrainsTipAdviceGuidance.pdf. Accessed August 26, 2020.

Last reviewed March 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review BoardDianne Scheinberg Rishikof MS, RD, LDN  Last Updated: 3/2/2021