During the production of refined grains, the grain is mechanically milled to remove the bran and germ portions of the seed. This process was developed in order to give the grains a finer texture and to extend their shelf life. However, this process can alter the composition of the grain and as a result, refined grains do not have all the nutrients that whole grains do.
We know that when shopping in the grocery store, walking through the aisles and seeing all the different types of grains can be overwhelming. What are refined grains? What’s the difference between whole grain and refined grains? How do I know if a grain is whole or refined? How do multigrain products and enriched grains fit in?
Now that more people are becoming mindful of the quality of food they are putting into their bodies, it is more important than ever to know the facts. Understand what goes into the food you are eating, know what some of these common grocery store descriptors mean and make sure you are making the best choices possible for your health and longevity.
To help you gain the knowledge you need to make informed decisions about your diet, we have put together an introductory guide that explores what grains are, the process of refining grains, how refined grains compare to other common types of grains and how to integrate healthy grains into your everyday life.
The Basics on Grains
To understand the meaning of refined grains, it is vital to have a foundational knowledge of what natural grains are first before they have been modified. Grains are cultivated seeds of grass that are harvested for food. Grains can come in many different sizes, shapes and forms depending on the variety.
For example, a whole grain is comprised of three main elements: the bran, germ and endosperm. Below is an overview of each part of a whole grain.
- The Bran: The bran layer is the outermost layer of a grain kernel. The bran portion of the kernel aids in the protection of the seed and provides trace minerals, fiber and B vitamins.
- The Germ: The germ is found inside of the grain seed and is the part of the grain that is capable of sprouting a new plant. The germ of the grain helps to provide nourishment and contains oils, vitamins, proteins, minerals and antioxidants.
- The Endosperm: The endosperm is the other interior component of the grain. The endosperm is the starchy part of the grain that imparts carbohydrates and protein.
For many people, eating whole grains is an essential part of their diets. These ingredients have long been considered beneficial complex carbohydrates that can provide lasting energy to help you get through the day without feeling drained. In addition to their energy-boosting properties, grains also are good sources of vitamins, minerals and fiber. Because they are naturally high in fiber, grains can help you maintain your desired body weight by keeping you fuller for longer periods of time.
As with many things in life, there are varying degrees to which a grain can be beneficial, depending on the type of grain you are consuming. While some grains may be vitamin and mineral packed, others may be stripped of the vitamins and minerals they once had, making them less nutritious. Common grain products that are often stripped of their nutritional value include white bread, pasta, oatmeal and tortillas made with white flour.
Grains are available in different forms that can be consumed either on their own or as a base ingredient in a product. To help understand these different types of grains and how they relate to your health, we will provide an overview of the three main forms of grains and their main properties.
The Process of Refining Grains
Now that you learned that refined grains are milled to remove the bran and germ, it’s important to understand what happened during the process of refining the grains.
The process of refining grains inherently changes their composition and alters the potential benefits they may impart, since two integral parts of the grain are stripped away. Refined grains do not possess many of the nutrients that whole grains do. They often lack high levels of fiber, which is one of the major health benefits of consuming whole grains. Refined grains are often used in many different products, including breakfast cereals, desserts, pastries, bread and crackers. Some of the most commonly consumed refined grains are white bread, white flour and white rice. With this understanding in mind, it is now possible to examine how enriched grains relate to refined grains.
Refined Grains vs. Enriched Grains
When looking at different grain products, you may also run across the term “enriched grain.” An enriched grain is a subset of refined grains. As mentioned above, during the refining process of grains, many of the nutrients, vitamins and minerals are stripped away. To counter this nutritional loss, enriched grains were created.
Enriched grains are fortified with nutrients that are not found in the grain naturally. Many refined grains available are enriched grains that have had vitamins and minerals added back into the product. Common vitamins and minerals used to fortify refined grains include iron, folic acid and B vitamins. To have a complete picture of how refined grains relate to other types of grains, it is also necessary to understand what whole grains are.
An Introduction to Whole Grains
Another common grain group that you will likely encounter in the grocery store is whole grains. A whole grain includes the bran, germ and endosperm portions of the seed. When manufacturing whole grain, we use the entire seed in its most natural form and do not discard any parts of the anatomy, hence the name “whole” grain. Products that are labeled as whole grain either are made using a flour that is created by grinding down all parts of the seed (bran, germ and endosperm) or have the grain present in its whole form.
Whole grains are widely considered to be the best source of nutrients and fiber when compared to refined grains and enriched grains. Whole grains are a good source of B vitamins, folate, iron, selenium, potassium and magnesium. They can also be found and purchased as single foods. A single food means that there is nothing else added. For example, if you buy a bag of brown rice, this is a whole grain in its natural, whole form. The other most common way you will encounter whole grains is as an ingredient used to make a product, such as if whole wheat flour is used to make a batch of cookies or a loaf of bread.
The Benefits of Whole Grains
Consuming whole grains in your diet can provide you with a number of incredible health benefits. For starters, whole grains are a great source of dietary fiber, which is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle and balanced diet. Dietary fiber can aid in improving blood cholesterol levels and lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, obesity and type-2 diabetes. Dietary fiber has also been shown to aid individuals in losing weight, as it helps to keep you feeling full longer, which can subsequently will satisfy you with fewer calories. Conversely, refined grains have little to no dietary fiber after the milling process is complete. In addition to the benefits of dietary fiber, whole grains also provide a number of different nutrients, including thiamin (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), niacin (vitamin B3), folate (vitamin B9), iron, magnesium and selenium. These nutrients all aid in essential bodily functions, such as the transportation of oxygen throughout the body in the blood, the regulation of the thyroid gland, the formation of new cells and the maintenance of the immune system.
The Different Types of Whole Grains
While whole grains can be used in a variety of different products, it is important to know what naturally occurring whole grains are so you can start introducing them into your diet as a single food. Below is a list of some of the different types of whole grains.
- Brown Rice
- Kamut Khorasan Grain
- Wild Rice
Being Mindful of Multigrain Products
While multigrain products are commonly considered a healthy choice, the term multigrain can sometimes be misleading. Multigrain means that more than one type of grain has been used in the product. What many people do not know is that multigrain does not mean that any of the grains used to make the product are whole grains. In some cases, if even a small portion of whole grains are used, the product may be marketed as “made with whole grains,” despite the very small amount of whole grains actually used in the product. For individuals looking to make healthy, informed decisions about their food, understanding this distinction is essential for making the right choice for your body's grain intake.
In order to know what kind of products you are getting, always read the ingredient list, and if necessary, research the product before purchasing. By educating yourself on the different types of grains, you will be able to spot the products with the most nutritional value.