KEEP Healthy

August 12, 2014, 10:06am EDT

Grains: Between the Layers

A healthy diet consists of a variety of foods from different sources. When it comes to grains, there are many different types, and equally as many (if not more!) product claims about these different grains. It can get confusing, so use this guide to help sift out the healthiest grains.

What are grains?

Grains are seeds that have been harvested and formed into food products. They can come from a variety of sources including wheat, rice, maize, spelt, oats and barley. Once grains are harvested, they are used to make food products such as the flour, bread or pastas that you can find on supermarket shelves.

The dietary guidelines recommend that Americans consume 6 servings of grains a day and that at least half of them should be whole grains. This serving recommendation will vary based on individual health needs and any medical conditions, such as diabetes.

Active, larger people may need more servings of grains in their diets and smaller and less active people may need fewer servings.

Whole grains

Whole grains contain all of the parts of grain including the endosperm, germ, and bran. These layers contain fiber, protein, oil, and many other nutrients, making them the healthiest type of grains to eat. They also contain phytochemicals, which are substances that fight diseases.

Whole grains are also higher in fiber which can contribute to feeling full and also help with weight control. Consuming enough fiber and fluid can also help to prevent constipation.

Some examples of whole grains include brown rice, wild rice, whole wheat bread, popcorn, oatmeal, shredded wheat cereal, whole wheat pasta and crackers, quinoa, bulgur, whole wheat rye, farro, bulgur, millet, and buckwheat.

Refined Grains

Refined grains have been processed to remove the outer layers including bran and germ, but leaving the inner endosperm. The inner endosperm is composed mainly of starch but also contains protein and some vitamins and minerals.

Examples of refined grains are: white bread, saltine crackers, processed sugary cereals, white rice, regular spaghetti, doughnuts, and regular pizza crust.

Some of the nutrients that are lost during processing are added back into refined grains to prevent nutrient deficiencies. This process is known as enrichment. Common nutrients that are added back into refined grains include thiamine, riboflavin, and pyroxidine. Refined grains are also fortified with iron and folic acid to help prevent iron deficiency anemia. Consuming an adequate amount of folic acid decreases the likelihood of certain birth defects which can occur during the first month of pregnancy when many women do not even know they are pregnant.

Even though some nutrients are added into refined grains, they still fall short of whole grains because not all nutrients are added back. These missing nutrients include fiber, magnesium, vitamin E, potassium, and phosphorus.

This actually is an advantage for people with very advanced chronic kidney disease who need to limit their phosphorus and/or potassium intake when the kidneys are no longer able to remove them from the body normally.


Multigrains are harder to define. Some multigrain products contain a combination of refined and whole grains and some contain combinations of different grains, such as spelt and wheat. Multigrain foods can also contain a high proportion of enriched grains.

Some examples include: multigrain bread, wheat crackers and pretzels, many wheat bagels, and many cold cereals.

What's on the inside?

At times, looks can be deceiving. Some grains may appear to be whole grains due to their darker color, however, this may be due to coloring ingredients such as molasses or brown sugar instead of the presence of whole grains.

To clear up any confusion about what's really in a "multigrain" food product, your best bet is to look at the ingredient list and the nutrition facts label. Whole grain products usually contain three or more grams of fiber per serving.

There are even package certifications that aim to make it easier to identify whole grain sources. Certain stamps designate foods which contain at least eight grams of whole grains per serving. There are also stamps that highlight foods that contain 100% whole grains, with 16 grams or more per serving. Use these guides when looking at the nutrition label to identify foods made with whole grains.