5 facts you should know about whole grains

Starting around mid-June into July, this time of year is known as wheat harvest in the Midwest.  Here in the wheat states of Kansas, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas, each hot, windy, dry day is one day closer to when a field of this golden grain will be ready to cut. 

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Anyone who was raised on a wheat farm like knows the buildup of the anticipation and excitement of when wheat harvest begins.  Farm families understand and tolerate the long summer days of harvesting fields of wheat and the joy it can bring knowing you are growing a crop feeding millions around the world. 

But for the vast majority of the country who will never experience this, there are many misconceptions on whole grains such as wheat.  Whole grains have been unfairly vilified in recent years as being unhealthy or to be avoided.  Add to that, much confusion abounds for consumers when shopping for what is considered a healthy whole grain product.  

To help clear up confusion, here are 5 facts all consumers need to know on what distinguishes a whole grain from a refined grain and why whole grains can definitely be part of a healthy diet:

1. What is a whole grain?

Whole grains offer a “complete package” of health benefits, unlike refined grains, which are stripped of valuable nutrients in the refining process.

All whole grains kernels (wheat, corn, barley, rye, rice) contain three parts: the bran, germ, and endosperm.  Each of them house health-promoting nutrients.  The bran is rich in fiber, B vitamins, several minerals, protein, and phytochemicals; the germ is the core of the seed where growth occurs and is rich in healthy fats, vitamin E, B vitamins, phytochemicals, and antioxidants; and the endosperm is the interior layer that contains starch, protein, and some vitamins and minerals.

2. When a grain is refined, what does this mean?

When you see the word “refined” on the ingredient list, it means the bran and germ layers were removed during the milling process, leaving just the starchy endosperm.  Milling is the process of crushing and grinding a whole grain to produce flour.  When the bran and germ have been removed, this means there is a significant loss of both soluble and insoluble fiber, B vitamins, minerals including calcium, iron, and magnesium, and antioxidant compounds.  Basically, milling whole wheat into refined wheat flour such as white flour strips away 70 to 80 percent of its vitamins and antioxidants.

3. How to identify a whole grain food

The best and easiest way to know if you are purchasing a whole grain product is to look at the ingredient list on the package.  Ingredients are listed in descending order of predominance by weight.  The first ingredient listed is the most predominant by weight while the last ingredient accounts for the least weight of the product.  

What you want to see listed as the first ingredient on a grain product such as a loaf of bread, are the words “100% whole wheat” or “whole” followed by the name of whatever grain it may be (such as wheat, barley or corn), then you know you’re buying a whole-grain food.  If it just says “wheat” or “enriched wheat” without the word “whole,” then it is not a whole grain product and does not contain all three parts of the kernel.

4. Are brown rice and oats considered whole grains?

Yes, grains such as brown rice and oats are considered whole and do not need to include the word “whole” to show that.  Other examples of whole grains include buckwheat, bulgur, quinoa, millet, amaranth, and farro.

5. Can labels be misleading making a food sound like it’s a 100% whole grain when it is not?

 The answer is yes.  Labels that most likely contain refined grains include words that may say: multigrain, 7-grain, 9-grain, or 12-grain, wheat bread, stoned wheat, organic flour or enriched or unbleached wheat flour.  “Multigrain” is a common term used that simply means the product contains more than one kind of grain but generally at least one or more of them are refined. The words “wheat flour” on a package, means it contains refined or white flour, not whole wheat.  Any bread labeled as “wheat bread” is unlikely to be whole wheat otherwise it would say so. 

For more information, visit the Whole Grains Council which help consumers understand why delicious whole grain products are a healthy food.  Discover easy ideas on ways to enjoy whole grains plus read about scientific health studies that have been conducted backing up and showing the many benefits whole grains provide.