What Are Grains?

As a food group, grains include oats, barley, wheat, rye, brown rice, amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, and sorghum. All these grains—some are “pseudograins”—are eaten whole or processed into the various cereals, pastas, tortillas, and breads you eat.

Because of their inherent fragility, plants and their remains vanish over time. But one research group in an Israeli dig found solid evidence—well-preserved plant remains—dating back tens of thousands of years, suggesting that early man ate a variety of wild cereals and grasses. This suggests that cultivating various grains were the earliest attempts at farming.


A pseudograin is a seed or kernel that is not a member of the grass family but is treated like a grain in the kitchen. According to the Wheat Foods Council, these include amaranth, flaxseed, quinoa, and buckwheat.

Refined Grains

As widely reported, grain products are divided into two categories: refined and whole grain. Food manufacturers refine whole grains by milling them and removing the bran, the endosperm, and the germ of the grain. Refining does yield a product with a finer texture and a longer shelf life, but during the milling process, many of the whole grains’ nutrients and fiber are discarded.

After processing, manufacturers enrich the refined product by adding back some vitamins and iron, but the end result does not compare nutritionally to the original whole grains. You will find many refined-grains products in the marketplace, including flours, cereals, and pastas.

Whole Grains

Whole grains are just that: whole, with the bran, germ, and endosperm intact. Examples include brown rice, whole wheat flour, oats, and corn and whole cornmeal. For more information about whole grains, visit the Whole Grains Council website.

You don’t have to hunt far to discover the benefits of keeping whole grains in your diet. As studies suggest, whole-grain foods are a rich source of B vitamins that provide energy to keep you active, plus other nutrients and fiber to enrich your health: they reduce the risk of heart disease, lower cholesterol, and protect against assorted diseases, including several chronic diseases. In addition, a recent study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that men who ate a diet high in whole grains reduced their risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Refined Versus Whole Grains

To understand the nutritional differences between whole wheat flour and refined and enriched white flours, study this chart from the USDA’s 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Of course, whole wheat flours are not ideal for, or even suited to, baking fine pastries and cakes, but for everyday baked goods, using whole wheat or white whole wheat flour makes good nutritional sense:


  100 Percent Whole-Grain Wheat Flour Enriched, Bleached, All-Purpose Flour
Calories, kcal 339.0 364.0
Dietary Fiber, g 12.2 2.7
Calcium, mg 34.0 15.0
Magnesium, mg 138.0 22.0
Potassium, mg 405.0 107.0
Folate, DFE, mg 44.0 291.0
Thiamin, mg 0.05 .08
Riboflavin, mg 0.2 0.5
Niacin, mg 6.4 5.9
Iron, mg 3.9 4.6

Source: Agricultural Research Service Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 17.

But using refined grains, particularly wheat, in the kitchen does have some practical implications: for one, white flour without the fatty germ doesn’t tend to turn rancid, hence it lasts longer. Also white-flour products, especially breads and baked goods, have a finer texture; breads, in particular, tend to rise better without the germ and the bran.

What Grains Are You Eating?

Sadly, reports the USDA, while many Americans eat plenty of grains each day in the form of breads, tortillas, breakfast cereals, and pastas, few eat enough whole-grains foods. According to their standards, at least half of the grains—three ounces for a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet—eaten daily should be whole grains. That should include at least 28 grams of fiber daily, the amount recommended by the National Academy of Sciences/Institute of Medicine.


September is cited as whole-grains month, and to celebrate the occasion, the Whole Grains Council includes such events as a Whole Grains Challenge and a Whole Grains Giveaway. The focus of the council is to make Americans more aware of the health benefits of including whole grains in their diet.

If you are unsure of the whole-grain status of the foods you are buying, read the label. According to the FDA’s labeling guidelines, for a product to be considered “whole-grain” it must contain at least 51 percent of whole-grain ingredients—in other words, “whole grain” comes first on the list. Similarly, a “100-percent whole-grain” product is labeled falsely if it contains other ingredients besides whole grains.

Adding Whole Grains to Your Diet

Embracing a whole-grains diet means keeping an eye on what goes in the grocery cart, and you can make simple changes without much effort. The first step: Whenever possible, pick up whole-grain products, including cereals, brown rice, and whole wheat pastas. Select whole-grain breads; make your own whole-grain or whole wheat baked goods; use whole grains as the basis for pilafs and stir-fries; and snack on whole-grain cookies, chips, or even popcorn, preferably unbuttered.


Want to know how many whole grains to fit in your diet? To find out how much is enough, study the USDA recommendations at this site.

Tips for Cooking Whole Grains

As with every other food group, whole grains in their natural state require some kitchen prep before getting to the cookpot. First, grains need rinsing in cold water to remove any dust or other particles; rinse until the water runs clear. Then, some sturdy whole grains such as farro, a wheat grain, benefit from soaking before cooking; the soaking of farro should last for about one hour, though some cooks tell you to soak farro overnight. Check your recipes for other soaking times.

In the cookpot, whole grains can steam, stir-fry with some liquid added, or boil then simmer to achieve their doneness. Many whole grains retain some chewiness when done. For cooking whole-grain products such as pasta, follow the package directions, being careful not to overcook the ingredient to the point of mushiness. Whole grains probably double in volume after cooking, thus yielding more than twice their original uncooked volume.

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