What Are Grains?Before delving into the differences between whole grains and whole wheat, it is important to first understand what grains are. Grains are the seeds of grass that are cultivated and harvested for food. Grains can come in a variety of different shapes and sizes depending on its variety. A whole grain is comprised of three main elements: bran, germ and endosperm. The outer layer of a grain is known as the bran layer. The bran portion of the grain protects the seed and provides fiber, trace minerals and B vitamins. Inside of the bran layer is the germ, which is the part of the grain that is capable of sprouting a new plant. The germ provides nourishment for the seed and contains vitamins, minerals, oils, proteins and antioxidants. The other interior component of a grain is known as the endosperm, which is the inner, starchy part of the grain that provides carbohydrates and protein. Grains are a common part of many people’s everyday diets and are considered to be a good source of complex carbohydrates that provide sustained energy throughout the day. Grains can also be a good source of key vitamins and minerals and are naturally high in fiber. The high fiber content in grains may help keep you feeling fuller longer and aid in maintaining an ideal body weight. How beneficial the grain is for your body is dependent on the type of grain. Any food that you are eating that is made from wheat, cornmeal, barley, oats, rice or a different cereal grain is considered to be a grain product. Commonly consumed grain products include breakfast cereal, bread, pasta, oatmeal and tortillas. With this understanding in mind, it is now possible to examine the three main groups of grains.
The Main Grain GroupsWhen looking at different types of grains, it is important to understand the three main grain groups and how they differ to know exactly what you are purchasing and how it influences to your overall health. Below is a breakdown of the three main groups of grains and their main differentiating factors.
Whole GrainsAs mentioned above, a whole grain includes all three elements of the grain: the bran, the germ and the endosperm. This is why it is referred to as a “whole” grain. Products with whole grains either have the grain present in its whole form or are made using a flour that is created by grinding down all parts of the seed (bran, germ, endosperm). When compared to other types of grains, whole grains are considered to be the best source of nutrients and fiber. Whole grains are commonly regarded as a better source of iron, folate, selenium, potassium, magnesium and B vitamins. They can also be found as single foods, such as brown rice or popcorn, which means that they are a product in their natural, whole form without any additional alterations. The other common way you will encounter whole grains is as an ingredient used to make a product. Examples of this are when whole wheat flours are used to make bread or buckwheat is used to make pancakes.
Refined GrainsRefined grains are a common grocery store item and are something that many people do not understand. Keeping in mind the anatomy of a grain described earlier (the bran, germ and endosperm), refined grains are milled to have the germ and bran portions of the seed removed. Why would these two integral elements of a grain be removed? The practice of refining grains was developed to extend the shelf life of grains and to give the product a finer texture. Because this process is inherently changing the composition of the grain, it also alters the benefits the grain imparts. Refined grains are stripped of many of the nutrients that are received in whole grains, including dietary fiber. Commonly encountered refined grains include white bread, white rice and white flour. Many products are made using refined grains, including bread, cereals, crackers, pastries, desserts and everything in between.
Enriched GrainsEnriched grains are essentially a hybrid type of refined grain. Because many of the vitamins and nutrients are stripped away during the milling process that creates refined grains, enriched grains have added back in the nutrients that were lost during processing. One of the most common vitamins added into enriched grains are B vitamins. Enriched grains are fortified with nutrients that do not naturally occur in the food. Many refined grains available are enriched grains that have had vitamins and minerals added back in, such as iron and folic acid. It is also important to keep in mind that whole grains may or may not also be fortified with additional vitamins and nutrients.
The Difference Between Whole Wheat and Whole GrainWhile whole wheat and whole grain may sound like they are two different things, whole wheat is merely a type of whole grain. As mentioned above, whole grains include the entirety of the grain kernel, including the bran, germ and endosperm. Whole grain is an overarching category, and within it falls a number of different whole grains, including barley, brown rice, buckwheat, bulgur, millet, oatmeal, popcorn and whole wheat (to name a few). Whole wheat is a subset of whole grains that is limited to wheat products. For example, a whole grain bread can be made using any whole grain kernel, while a whole wheat bread indicates a bread that is made utilizing a whole wheat kernel.
What About Multigrain?With this understanding of whole wheat versus whole grain in mind, it is important to also understand the meaning of another commonly consumed grain term: multigrain. Multigrain must mean healthy, right? Not necessarily. Multigrain products mean at least one type of grain has been used in the product, but it does not mean that any of the grains used are whole grains. In addition, even if a multigrain product is labeled as “made with whole grains,” this can mean that only a very small amount of whole grains were used during the process. This can be very deceptive for individuals looking to incorporate more whole, healthy grains into their diet. To know what you are eating, always be sure to check the ingredient list.
Incorporating More Whole Grains Into Your DietWhole grains can be extremely beneficial when incorporated into your diet, as they may reduce the risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers and other health problems. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that half of the grains you consume during the day are whole grains. Many people are not consuming this amount on a daily basis. However, this can easily be remedied by including more whole grain products into your daily diet. Below are a handful of nutritious whole grains to add into your diet.
- Whole Wheat: Whole wheat is a great whole grain to incorporate into your diet. Make sure that the label says 100% whole wheat when looking for a whole grain product.
- Brown Rice: Many people do not know that roughly 75% of the nutrients that brown rice contains are stripped away in white rice. Brown rice includes all of the antioxidants, magnesium, phosphorus and B vitamins that white rice lacks.
- Freekeh: One of the lesser-known whole grains is freekeh, which is an Arabic grain that is a low-carb form of ancient wheat. Freekeh has four times more dietary fiber than brown rice and also offers vitamins, minerals and selenium.
- Buckwheat: Buckwheat is one of the best sources of magnesium in grains and is high in manganese, which has been linked to improving cognitive functioning.
- Whole Oats: Oats are a wonderful whole grain to include in your daily diet. Looking for the word “whole” on the ingredient list for an oat-based product isn’t as vital as it is with wheat. Oats are high in avenanthramide, which is an antioxidant that may aid in guarding the heart and improving cell function.