On Nutrition

Whole grains are good for us. They’re full of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber, some of which feeds the good bacteria in our guts. But despite advice to make at least half of our grains whole, that’s not happening — maybe because many aren’t 100% clear on what whole grains actually are.

In a recent study that asked 169 people to look at 11 grain-based foods in their original packaging and identify which were whole grains and which were refined, there were many cases of mistaken identity. Most participants correctly identified whole-grain bread, crackers and cereal, and refined-grain crackers. But things got fuzzier with oatmeal (a whole grain), refined-wheat bread, refined-grain cereal, elbow macaroni and refined-grain tortillas. Only 30% correctly identified popcorn as a whole grain, and only 40% knew that white rice is refined.

September may be Whole Grains Month, but my pantry is filled with glass jars of whole grains all year. While I have a few definite favorites (einkorn, emmer farro and sorghum), I also love trying up-and-coming whole grains like freekeh. But I’ve found that when talking to friends, family and clients about whole grains, many people get stuck after whole-wheat bread and brown rice.

In a nutshell, whole grains are the edible seeds of certain grasses — except for quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth, which are the seeds of broad-leaved plants. Whole grains contain three parts: the bran, the endosperm and the germ. The bran contains most of the grain’s fiber, the endosperm is mostly starch and the germ contains some fat and most of the nutrients. Whole grains are “intact” until they are ground into flour, but they still are technically “whole” as long as the flour contains all three parts in their original proportions.

Examples of refined grains include the ubiquitous white (“all-purpose”) flour, made from the grain’s starchy endosperm, and any “intact” grains that have had their bran coating removed, including white rice and “pearled” barley. (Pearled grains often retain some bran, but not enough to be deemed “whole.”) Refined grains lose much of their fiber and nutrition, which is why in the U.S., refined-wheat flour must be enriched with the nutrients that were removed during processing, including iron and B vitamins.

One common whole-grain mix-up is thinking that couscous is a whole grain, but bulgur isn’t. Couscous is actually a tiny pasta, which might be made from whole-wheat or refined flour. Bulgur, the basis of the Middle Eastern dish tabbouleh, is made by parboiling, drying and cracking whole wheat kernels. That makes bulgur a whole grain, because it has all of its parts. Another source of confusion? White whole-wheat flour is a whole grain — it’s simply milled from hard white-wheat berries, while all-purpose and whole-wheat flours are milled from hard red-wheat berries.

Yet another frequent misconception is that “multigrain” means “whole grain.” All the “multi” in multigrain means is that the bread, cracker or other product contains multiple grains. They might all be whole, they might all be refined, or they might be a mix of both. So how can you tell the difference? Look at the ingredients: If you don’t see the word “whole” before a grain, then it’s refined. And look for the “Whole Grain” stamp, which tells you how much whole grain is in the product.