Brent Lockridge, CNP
The Whole Story on Whole Grains
Cereal grains are the edible seeds of grasses. Grains (as they are often called) are the most commonly consumed foods in the world. Wheat, rice and corn, in that order, are the three largest crops, other examples are oats, rye, barley Kamut, spelt, millet, teff, triticale, and sorghum. The pseudo grains, seeds of non-grass plants, commonly referred to as grains, and used in the same way, are amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa.
Grains are some of the oldest foods for humans, with knowledge of their use going back 10,000 years.
When looking at the food types in a Whole Food Plant-based diet (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds) I find it is the whole grain family of foods that are not used to their full potential. The majority of people rely heavily on the more refined forms of grains in their diet, and are not familiar with the grains in their most health promoting form.
Proponents of low carb diets point out that the refined grains that 90% of North Americans rely on for their grain consumption are unhealthy foods, and to a large degree they are correct. However, if consumers focused on consuming “true” whole grains, the low carb folks wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.
The true whole grains, in their unadulterated form (see picture below) of fiber rich complex carbohydrates, play a key role in our overall health, our gut health, and are a high-quality energy source for human activity.
These whole grains provide significant amounts of fiber, protein, B vitamins (crucial in the production of energy within the body), along with the minerals, magnesium, zinc, iron, potassium, calcium, phosphorous, copper, and selenium.
But it is their poor cousin, refined grains, that make up the grain component of the overwhelming majority of North American diets. These highly refined grains such as white flour products, white pastas and rice, and even overly processed “Whole Wheat Wonder Bread” (in all it’s sponginess) provide nothing more than a nutrient and fiber deficient version of the real whole grain, and to a large degree acts very similar to sugar when ingested, quickly spiking blood sugar.
To truly understand the superpower of whole grains in our diet it is important to understand the composition of these grains, and what they provide to our health. It is also important to understand how this often-misunderstood food has been altered to fit into the high convenience modern diet.
Whole grains have three primary parts to each kernel or seed – the endosperm, the germ, and the bran covering (see diagram below).
The endosperm is the central core, and makes up 80% - 85% of the seed, it consists of mainly of starch and a small amount of protein. The endosperm does contain small amounts of the B vitamins and some minerals, but these constituents are mainly found in other parts of the seed. The endosperm acts as a source of energy that will nourish the future seed to grow, and when we consume it, it provides a source of energy for our body. When a grain is refined it is stripped down to just the endosperm. White flour, for example, is the endosperm of the wheat seed.
The second part is the germ, which makes up only about 3% - 5% of the seed but is nonetheless the most important portion. This tiny germ is the embryo of the seed, and acts as the future life. The rest of the seed is there to serve the germ, the bran covering to protect it, and the endosperm acts as nourishment.
The germ is the most nutrient rich part of the grain, it contains proteins, healthy oil, and many vitamins and minerals. When the grain is broken apart in the making of flour, the germ must be discarded because the oils within are very sensitive to oxidation (going rancid) when exposed to the elements. This is why grains should be eaten in their whole intact form with the protective bran shell preserving the healthy nutrients within.
The third part of the grain is the bran covering. This bran covering is divided into a number of layers.
The outermost layer is mostly insoluble fiber that contains very few nutrients. This outer layer often contains phytic acid that binds important nutrients such as iron, calcium, zinc and magnesium, stopping their absorption into the body, however this outer bran layer is often soft milled, or hand milled off the grain to expose the more nutrient and protein rich bran layers underneath. These inner layers of bran provide health promoting fiber to our diets.
The fiber component of the whole grain is the biggest difference between the primitive human diet and the industrialized or Westernized diet, and is the likely difference between good health and poor health. The diet of even our recent ancestors (before the industrial revolution) provided several times more fiber than that of the current “refined” diet.
The recommendations for fiber intake is 35g/day for men, and 28g/day for women. Based on consumption patterns in North America it is estimated that 95% of adults are fiber deficient, with the majority of people not even obtaining 50% of the recommended daily amount.
Medical research has shown that a low fiber diet is strongly correlated to many diseases, and that a high fiber diet can reverse those very same diseases. The prevalence of dietary fat (think dairy and meat products) and refined carbohydrates (think white flour) in our modern diet cannot easily be separated from our reduction in fiber intake. These low fiber dietary patterns contribute to colon cancer (and other cancers), constipation, hemorrhoids, diverticulitis, gallstones, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.
Keeping our bowels moving regularly is an important daily step towards good health. A diet rich in whole grains and vegetables goes a long way to achieving this objective.
The nutritional difference between an intact whole grain and a processed grain is monumental, I would go so far as to say that they are different foods that behave differently in our body, the former a fiber and nutrient rich powerhouse of sustained energy, the latter a simple carbohydrate that offers sparse nutritional value in an energy source that acts like simple sugar in our body.
So, is whole wheat flour a whole grain? In Canada, when wheat is milled, parts of the kernel are separated and then recombined to make whole wheat flour. Under the Food and Drug Regulations, up to 5% of the kernel can be removed to help reduce rancidity and prolong the shelf life of whole wheat flour. The portion of the kernel that is removed for this purpose contains much of the germ and some of the bran. However, according to the American Association for Cereal Chemists International definition, it is only when all parts of the kernel are used in the same relative proportions as they exist in the original kernel, that the flour can be considered whole grain.
How do you know if products are made with whole grains? Look for the word "whole grain" on the label and in the ingredient list. Many foods containing whole grains will have the words "whole grain" followed by the name of the grain as one of the first ingredients. Products labelled with the words "multigrain," and "organic" are not necessarily whole grain - the flour or grains in the products may be made with or consist of little or no whole grains.
To best understand the quality of grains for our health it is beneficial to look at them in a hierarchy, or “best quality to worst quality”. Brenda Davis RD, and Vesanto Melina RD, in their book Becoming Vegan, provide a handy “Whole Grain Hierarchy” (see picture below) to guide our decisions. The best quality grains are the least refined, and provide great health benefits, these are shown at the top of the hierarchy. The lowest quality grains are highly refined and provide little if any nutrition.
To insure you are getting the full benefit of whole grains it is best to prepare them in their most unrefined form. Whole grains are an easy addition to a health promoting diet. They can be prepared on their own as per the instructions, rinsed, cooled, and added to salads, soups, stews, or spiced and added as a side dish.
You can find plenty of great recipes for whole grains at:
When you add more intact whole grains to your diet you are getting the real deal in high quality nutrition. Add these powerhouses to your diet and enjoy the same foods that our ancestors thrived on for hundreds of generations.