Whole grains (also called cereals) are small, hard, dry seeds that grow on grass-like plants. They are staples for most populations around the world. The most widely consumed grains are wheat, rice and corn (botanically, corn is a grain, but from a culinary sense, it tends to be used as a starchy vegetable). Other popular grains are barley, rye, oats, kamut, spelt and millet. Pseudograins such as amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa and wild rice, are similar to grains in both their nutrition and culinary uses, but they are not in the same botanical family.
Are Whole Grains Healthy Foods? Absolutely! Whole grains provide about half of the world’s protein and fiber. They are rich sources of B-vitamins (especially thiamin and niacin) and vitamin E. They are also good sources of minerals, including manganese, selenium, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, zinc and copper. Whole grains contain a variety of phytochemicals and antioxidants.
Are Some Whole Grains Healthier than Others? Yes, there are several considerations when trying to select the healthiest whole grains:
- Type of grain. Like all foods, there are variations in the nutritional value of different grains. Pseudograins tend to be slightly higher in protein and minerals than true grains. Of the true grains, oats, wheat, kamut and spelt are the richest in protein. Whole grain rice is higher in vitamin E than most other grains; kamut is higher in selenium; oats are higher in manganese and copper; spelt is higher in zinc, rye is higher in potassium; wheat is higher in magnesium and wheat and oats are higher in iron. Eat a variety of whole grains to ensure maximum benefits.
- Color of grain. The more colorful whole grains generally contain more antioxidants and phytochemicals. For example, red or black quinoa or rice would contain more phytochemicals than beige quinoa or brown rice.
- Processing of grain. We use whole grains to make many popular food products such as bread, pasta, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, crackers, cookies and snack foods. Generally, the more heavily processed the grain, the lower the nutritional value, and the higher the glycemic index (a measure of how much a food affects your blood sugar after eating). The most nutritious whole grains are called “intact whole grains” (e.g. barley, kamut, spelt and wheat berries, quinoa, wild rice, brown, red or black rice, buckwheat, etc.). Sprouting these grains further increases nutrients and phytochemicals, reduces antinutrients and releases stored forms of nutrients. Cut grains (e.g. steel cut oats, 12-grain cereals, bulgur, etc.) are also healthful choices as they are minimally processed and generally contain no additives such as sugar, fat and salt. Rolled grains (rolled oats, rolled barley, etc.) are also nutritious but are more quickly absorbed into the blood stream than intact or cut grains. Shredded grains are also acceptable choices. Ground grains (e.g. whole wheat flour, oat flour, etc.) should be used less often, and in moderate amounts as foods made with flours tend to contain more additives and are much more quickly absorbed. Flaked and puffed whole grains are more heavily processed, and are best minimized. The whole grain hierarchy below summarizes the least to most healthful whole grains.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why are refined grains less healthful? When grains are refined, most of the fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals are lost. For example, when we turn wheat into white flour, we lose about 80-90% of the fiber, 70-80% of the vitamins and minerals and 90% of the phytochemicals. No one sits down to a bowl of white flour. Before eating white flour, fat, sugar, salt, colors, preservatives and/or flavor enhancers are added, then white flour is transformed into bread, crackers, baked goods, etc. For optimal health, we want to avoid or minimize the use of refined grains (e.g. white flour, white rice, couscous, white pasta, etc.).
How many servings of grains are recommended per day? Many food guides suggest about 5-8 servings of grains per day, at least half of which should be whole grains. Of course, for people needing less calories than most, intakes would be lower, and for those needing more calories than most (e.g. athletes), intakes would be higher. For optimal health, most, if not all grains should be whole, preferably intact, broken or rolled.
Should gluten be avoided? Not necessarily. An estimated 6% of the population is sensitive to gluten. Affected individuals need to minimize their intake, and people with the most serious form of gluten sensitivity (those with celiac disease) must avoid gluten completely. Others can generally include gluten-containing grains without adverse affects. If there is a question, testing can be done.
Aren’t grains “high-carb” foods? Yes, whole grains are high in carbohydrates. Most of the calories (~65-80%) from grains are carbohydrates. This is not a bad thing. In fact, most of the calories from plant foods (with the exception of nuts and seeds) are from carbohydrates. These foods are the foods most strongly linked with disease risk reduction.
Is bran a good choice? Although bran is extremely high in fiber, it can interfere with nutrient absorption. So, for most people eating plant-based diets, it is best to minimize use (except when it is present as part of a whole grain!).
What type of bread is most healthful? Bread is a very popular food around the world. Unfortunately, it is generally flour based and is light and fluffy, hence has a big impact on blood sugar. The good news is that not all breads are equal, and some can be quite healthy. Sprouted breads (bread made from sprouted grains and dehydrated or cooked at a low temperature) such as manna breads are an excellent choice. Breads made from sprouted grain flours are preferable to regular flour breads but still can be quite light and fluffy. Generally, the denser the bread, the more slowly it is absorbed, and the more healthful it is. Breads containing intact grains, nuts and seeds are better choices. Very heavy breads (e.g. breads you can practically stand on) are best. Sourdough bread is less likely to cause food intolerance, and is more slowly absorbed than reduced.