Whole and refined grains affect your health very differently. Here’s how to tell the difference.
Grains come from plants and therefore must provide fiber and valuable nutrients—right? Well, some of them do! The fact is there’s a big difference between whole grains and refined grains. Knowing the difference between them can determine whether you’re eating a healthy grain or one that supplies nothing more than empty calories.
Whole grains have loads of fiber, minerals and antioxidants in them. These grains are healthy and should not be avoided, unless there is a specific reason for doing so, such as an allergy or intolerance. Refined grains, on the other hand, don’t have much, if any, of these valuable nutrients. They only have carbs and can spike blood sugar, but don’t provide much else. So it’s best to limit the amount of refined grains you eat.
So how do you tell the difference?
A whole grain is an intact seed of a plant. The kernels of these seeds have the bran, endosperm and germ still intact. The bran is the hard outer shell and it is where most of the fiber, minerals and antioxidants reside. The endosperm is the middle layer, and it’s made up mostly of carbs. The germ is the innermost layer, and this also has vitamins, minerals and other plant compounds.
Refined grains come from processing the whole grain until only the endosperm—the part with only carbs and little nutritional content—is left. Although some refined grains are then enriched to add vitamins and minerals back in, they’re not nearly as nutritious as the original whole grain.
Unfortunately, most grains used in processed foods are made with refined grains because it increases their shelf life. But by milling the whole grain, the majority of essential nutrients are also lost. Examples of refined grains are white flour, white rice and cereals, breads, crackers, cookies and pasta made with white, enriched or bleached flour.
Types of Whole Grains
Common types of whole grains include:
- Brown rice
- Whole rye
- Whole wheat
- Wild rice
How to Identify Whole Grains
It can be hard to tell if a product contains whole grains or if it just looks like it does because marketers use a variety of whole grain claims that can be misleading. Be especially aware of claims like “multigrain”, which may not have any whole grains at all, but only a variety of different grains that have been stripped of their bran and germ. The Whole Grains Council has created an official Whole Grain Stamp that helps consumers identify whole grain products, but this stamp is not on all foods yet.
The only way to know for sure if a product is made with whole grains is to read labels carefully. Look in the ingredients list for the word “whole” or “100% whole” before any grain included in the product, such as whole wheat or whole rye. Some whole grains may not have the word whole in front of it, such as brown rice, oats, quinoa or wheatberries.
If an ingredient has words like “refined” or “enriched” in front of the grain, it is not a whole grain and has been stripped of most of its nutrients.
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Date Last Reviewed: July 22, 2022
Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor
Medical Review: Jane Schwartz, RDN, CLT