Whole grains have received a lot of attention during the past few years due to a growing emphasis on nutrition and wellness. However, there are so many options of grains at the supermarket – multi-grain, 12-grain, 7-grain, whole wheat – that it’s no wonder many American consumers are confused as to which is the best choice. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that we make half our grains whole. But in order to do this a better understanding of what are whole grains and how they differ from refined grains is needed.
Whole Grains vs. Refined Grains
As defined by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, “whole grains include the entire grain seed, called the kernel. The kernel consists of three components – the bran, the germ, and the endosperm.” You can find whole grains as a single food item, or in combination with other foods. There are many sources of whole grains such as buckwheat, bulgur, quinoa, millet, oats, brown or wild rice, whole-grain barley, whole rye, whole wheat, and corn. Conversely, refined grains are those that have been milled to remove the bran and germ from the grain, basically stripping away all the nutritional content of the grain as this process removes the dietary fiber, iron, and many B vitamins. The most common type of refined grain available to consumers is enriched grain which is supplemented with B vitamins and iron.
The average person needs approximately six ounces of grains each day which means three ounces should come from whole grains. An ounce of whole grain is equivalent to one slice of bread, 1/3 cup of cooked pasta, rice, or cereal, one half of an English muffin, or one 6-in tortilla. There are many combinations you can use to achieve three daily ounces.
Make sure that you buy foods that specifically state “100% whole grain (wheat, rye, barley, etc.) or that at least contain >50% of total weight as whole grain (8 g of whole grain). It’s also important to look at the ingredient list to verify whole grain content. Look for the words “whole” or “whole grain” as the first ingredient or near the top. Foods that claim to be multi-grain, 100% wheat, or high fiber are not necessarily whole grain sources. Another simple way to identify whole grain foods is to look for the “Whole Grains Council Stamp” on the packaging. These can indicate whether a serving contains one ounce (16g) or half an ounce (8g) of whole grain. General Mills also labels their products with The Whole Grain Guarantee which indicates that every serving of cereal has at least 8g of whole grain.
Studies have shown that eating whole grains instead of refined grains lowers the risk of many chronic diseases. The most well-known benefits include protection against stroke, type 2 diabetes and heart disease as well as achieving better weight management. Whole grains are also excellent sources of phytochemicals, antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and minerals.