Grains 101: Part 1

Grains 101 P1We all hear “eat more whole grains” and “make sure half of your grains are whole” and so on…

But, what makes a grain a whole grain?

Whole grain: made up of germ + endosperm + bran

Basically a whole grain is well, whole. It’s made up of all the pieces it started out with. A grain is refined if it has been processed in any that removes one or more of these components (typically the germ and bran).

That’s all well and good but, what grains are whole grains?

You probably think of ‘whole wheat’ when you hear whole grain, and this is the most commonly consumed whole grain. But, there are SO many more whole grain options out there!

And what about gluten free? Gluten free does NOT mean grain free. There are plenty of whole grain gluten-free options as well. These lists are not exhaustive but do include some of the most common whole grains.

Whole Grains with Gluten

  • Barley
  • Rye
  • Triticale
  • Wheat & wheat varieties: spelt, farro, durum, kamut, bulgur, cracked wheat, wheatberries)
  • *Oats

Gluten Free Whole Grains

  • Corn
  • Millet
  • Brown Rice
  • Wild Rice
  • Sorghum
  • Teff
  • *Oats
*Oats are included in both lists because although oats are naturally gluten free, they are commonly processed in the same facility as gluten-containing products. If you need to follow a gluten free diet, be sure that the oats are certified as gluten free. If not, purchasing any whole oats is fine. Even instant oats are whole grain!

Now that you have a list of whole grains, you’re ready to go shopping! But wait — how do you know if it’s whole or refined?

You’ve heard it before but I’m saying it again – read the label! It’s the only way to know you’re truly getting a whole grain product. This is easy enough with single ingredient items: oats, brown rice, barley, etc.  When it comes to buying a packaged grain product (bread, crackers, cereal) it can be a bit tougher. Here are some common terms to look out for.

Watch out for “Food Fake-Outs” = marketing terms that imply “healthfulness”
  • Multi-Grain: doesn’t mean all (or any) of the grain is whole, just that there are more than one
  • 100% Wheat: may be 100% whole wheat or simply just made of all wheat, some or all of which could be refined
  • Stone Ground: a fluffy term that really doesn’t mean anything. Makes it sound artisanal and homemade doesn’t it? Read the ingredient statement.
  • “Made with” or “Contains” Whole Grain: just because it contains whole grains doesn’t make it a wholesome product. You can have a high fat high sugar cookie that ‘contains’ whole grains. Again, read the label.

The problem is that these terms are very broad. The best thing you can do is turn the package around and read the ingredient statement and nutrition facts panel. It’s the only way to know and it will only take a few more seconds of your time. This may mean a lot, as seconds are becoming more precious these days. But I promise you it’s worth it to invest in your health!

Here are some quick tips for reading the ingredient statement.

Ingredient Statement: Whole Grains

  • Look for “100% whole” before the grain name (i.e 100% whole wheat or 100% whole grain barley)
  • In packaged foods, make sure whole grains are the first ingredient. And don’t forget to read the rest of the label – the other ingredients in that food matter too! If you don’t recognize an ingredient, {ask me} about it!
  • This may seem obvious but, for single ingredient foods (i.e. brown rice or oats), it may not say “100%” but typically will say “whole”. Since it is the only ingredient in the product, 100% is implied!


#1 Tip to eating more whole grains: Choose whole grains when ever you’re preparing meals and snacks at home. Many of us eat meals out occasionally or have to grab a quick bite during a busy day and whole grains are often not an option. By sticking to this rule, it will be much easier to meet the “make half of your grains whole” guideline.

For more information on the grains listed and how grains are great for your health, be sure to check out AND stay tuned for Grains 101 Part 2: “Pseudo-Grains”!

Not sure what that is? You’ll have to stay tuned! But for now, one popular example= quinoa

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