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Confused about what is and isn't whole-grain?



I doubt it will come as a surprise to know that regularly including whole-grains in your diet has a number of health benefits, from helping to reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer to feeding your ‘friendly’ gut bacteria and helping maintain a healthy weight by making you feel fuller for longer(1). Yet with so many ‘refined’ products in our shops, many of us just aren’t eating enough whole-grains.


Grains are the seeds/kernals of cereal plants (members of the grass family grown for their edible starchy seeds).

All grains start life ‘whole’. Their inedible hard shell, which protects the seed within from weather and pests, has to be removed but if no further processing occurs, leaving the three edible parts of the grain fully intact;

1. The multi-layered outer fibre-rich skin – the bran

2. The middle central starchy part – the endosperm

3. The nutrient-packed core – the germ

This constitutes a 'whole-grain'.


However, when making ‘white/refined’ versions, the grain's bran and germ are also removed during the milling process, illustrated in the picture below.


As whole-grains contain all three of their layers, they are particularly nutritious and great providers of a number of different nutrients, including:

· Fibre

· B vitamins and folic acid

· Essential fatty acids (omega 3 fats)

· Protein

· Antioxidants including vitamin E, selenium

· Micronutrients like copper and magnesium


In comparison, white/refined versions may contain up to 75% less nutrients than their whole-grain version (2).

***In the UK, it is a legal requirement for manufacturers to replace the iron, calcium, thiamine (B1) and Niacin lost through the milling process, in white and brown wheat flours (this doesn't include spelt).


Let’s now take a closer look at some different whole-grains:

  • Amaranth

One of six ‘pseudo-cereals’ that are considered whole-grains, due to their similar nutritional profile and culinarily uses, but actually aren’t part of the cereal family. Amaranth is a complete protein with good amounts of iron, magnesium, phosphorus and manganese, among other nutrients. It’s also gluten-free, so is a great option for those with coeliac disease and is becoming more widely available.

  • Whole/hull-less or hulled Barley

One of the earliest cultivated grains. It's not easy to remove its indigestible thick outer hull, whilst still preserving the inner bran layer, so a hull-less variety, with hulls so loosely attached they usually fall off during harvesting, have also been cultivated. Both of these unprocessed versions are classed as 'whole-grains'. Nevertheless, much of what you currently find in supermarkets is ‘pearl barley’, although you may have seen 'pot barley' on the internet or in health food stores. Technically, neither of these are whole-grain, as both have been put through a pearling machine (removes the inedible hull and polishes the kernel). Pot barley (left in below picture) is 'pearled' for a shorter time period, so some of the bran remains intact, while pearl barley (right in below picture) is polished for longer, removing more or all of the grain's outer edible fibrous bran layer.


Barley flakes can be made by steaming kernels, rolling them, the drying them, although they can be created from both whole-grain and pearl barley, with the latter possibly more likely found in our shops.


Gram for gram, whole-grain barley provides more fibre than other whole-grains. It also contains high levels of the beneficial beta-glucan (see oats for more info). Check labels for whole, hulled, or hull-less barley, however, if you only have access to the more refined versions, don't worry. As the fiber in barley is distributed throughout the whole grain and some of the bran may still be present, they are more nutritious than other refined grains.

  • Buckwheat

Buckwheat kernals are gluten-free and provide good amounts of magnesium, copper and manganese. You can also find it in flour form although it's still more-often used as crop cover, to protect soil between planting seasons, to attract appropriate wildlife or as compost.

  • Bulgar wheat

When wholewheat kernels are cleaned, boiled, dried and ground, the result is bulgur. It’s still a whole-grain, just broken into smaller pieces and as it’s been pre-cooked, it’s quick to prepare. For more information, see wheat below.

  • Whole-grain Corn

Known as “maize” in some parts of the world, it has a wide range of uses and whilst sweetcorn (the “ear”) is classed as a vegetable, dried field corn (made into cornmeal) and flint corn (which creates popcorn) is classed as a carbohydrate.

Cornmeal (ground, dried corn, typically yellow), can be found in both wholegrain (top picture below) and refined (degermed) forms (bottom picture below).

As manufacturers can sell the corn oil harvested from the corn's germ, if removed and in doing this, the shelf-life is increased (the oil in the germ will turn rancid over time, so it's more perishable), most of what you find in our stores today is not whole-grain. Ensure you check the label when searching for a 'whole' version. If you are unsure, there are a few other telltale signs that can help - if the oil containing germ is intact, fat per 100g should be very slightly higher (around 4g per 100g versus around 1.7g per 100g for degermed versions, although this is only based on those I had access too). Also due to how it’s milled, those labelled "stone-ground" are more likely to include the germ and bran but this isn't always the case. Lastly, if it's instant/quick cook polenta, that takes only minutes to make; it's made from refined cornmeal that’s been parcooked and then dehydrated for speed.


Fine, medium, and coarse cornmeals can be found and which you choose is down to preference. Medium and fine versions are most often used in baking as they produce a lighter/finer texture, whilst the coarsest grind is typically reserved for polenta, although will still work for cornbread if you like a grainer finish (N.B. some manufactures label the coarse varieties polenta instead of cornmeal and the fine varieties; corn flour).

  • Freekeh

Freekeh is hard wheat (often durum) that’s been harvested when the plant is still young and green, then roasted and rubbed. According to the whole-grains council(3), “freekeh was discovered when an ancient village in the Eastern Mediterranean hurriedly picked young wheat before an attack on their city. Fire from the attack burnt the young wheat, but the people found that not only was this roasted young wheat fit to eat, it could be quite delicious”. When you see freekeh on an ingredient list (including cracked freekeh) it is almost always whole-grain.

  • Millet

The name doesn’t just refer to one grain but several small related gluten-free grains, of which Teff is one (see below). They are very versatile and can be cooked in their natural form, ground as flour or prepared as polenta in lieu of cornmeal.

  • Oats

They’re cheap, quick to make and very versatile (see my recipes page for some ideas). Oats are particularly high in a soluble fibre called β‐glucan (1.5g per 40g raw oats), which not only helps us feel fuller for longer but has also been found to have a positive effect on blood pressure, cholesterol and our gut health. It seems 3g per day is the magic number of beta-glucan to help lower cholesterol(4). It works by forming a gel in the gut which can bind with cholesterol, stopping it from being absorbed in the body. Oats are high in thiamine (vitamin B1), phosphorous, copper, magnesium and polyphenols. All oats begin as groats (or kernels, which have been cleaned and hulled) and are later processed into different varieties of oats. Steel cut oats are whole oats that are cut roughly into thirds. Rolled oats (also called old fashioned or traditional) are groats that have been rolled and streamed. Quick oats are rolled oats, which are then simply cut into slightly smaller pieces so they cook faster. Oatmeal is the American name for porridge. Rolled oats can be eaten raw as they have been cleaned and heat treated during the milling process. Whether rolled or steel cut, oats almost always are in their whole grain form.


  • Quinoa

Another pseudo-grain, as it's technically a member of the same family as Swiss chard and spinach. Its white/ivory version is typically found in most supermarkets but red and black versions also exist, as does quinoa flakes and flour. Quinoa is a complete protein, providing good amounts of phosphorus, manganese and folate.

  • Brown, Black and Red Rice

A staple for many parts of the world. After its inedible hull is removed, the whole-grain (often brown) rice kernel is left. If milled further, white rice is produced. The term brown rice is always whole-grain, as are most other coloured rice, such as black or red rice. Rice, which is a gluten-free grain, is often further classified by size and texture i.e. long-, medium- and short-grain.

  • Whole-grain Rye

Once considered a weed, farmers began to realise it grows more rapidly than wheat, can withstand submersion during floods and continues to thrive during droughts(3). Whilst the fiber in most grains is concentrated almost solely in the bran layers, some of rye’s fiber is also within the endosperm. Whole rye kernels are often termed rye berries, knibbled, cracked or chopped rye are whole kernels, which are cut into smaller pieces and rye flakes are made like rolled oats. When it comes to rye flour, it seems all kinds of terms are used so look for 'whole-grain' on the ingredient list – just because something is labelled “rye bread” doesn’t guarantee it’s whole-grain. Pumpernickel bread is traditionally made from coarse, whole-grain rye flour but this may not always be the case today.

  • Whole-grain Spelt

Another variety of wheat widely cultivated until the wide-spread use of fertilisers and mechanical harvesting favoured wheats more compatible with industrialisation. Spelt is a hulled wheat, who heritage lies in crossing Emmer (a type of hulled wheat) with wild grass. It can be used in place of common wheat in most recipes but like other varieties, spelt can be found in both whole-grain and refined forms; pearled spelt, made by bouncing the grain over rotating stones to remove the outer layer of bran and refined spelt flour). Look for the words ‘whole-grain spelt’ on an ingredients list.

  • Teff

A type of millet and key source of nutrition for many Ethiopians, who make it into the spongy flat-bread. It grows in three colours: red, brown and white and the name is thought to come from the word “lost” in Amharic because of its tiny size. Gram for gram, Teff has the highest calcium and iron levels, however, it’s now know the iron comes from the soil mixed with the grain after it’s been threshed on the ground, as opposed to the grain itself. It’s also another example of a gluten-free grain, that can also be purchased as flour, which can be used to make many baked goods.

  • Whole-grain Wheat

Probably the most well-known of all, due its high gluten content (a stretchy protein), which allows bakers to make good-quality risen breads. The two main varieties are durum wholewheat, which is ground into wholewheat semolina flour and used to make wholewheat pasta and wholewheat couscous and bread wholewheat, used for most other wheat foods. Bread wheat is also sub-classified into “hard” wheat, which has higher protein levels and is used to make bread and “soft” wheat, which has lower protein levels and is used to make “cake flour”. As there are a lot of refined versions of wheat-containing products in our food chain, look for ‘wholewheat’ on the label. Just plain ‘wheat’ refers to refined wheat. Some breads and flour are classed as wholemeal (whole-grains that have been milled to a fine texture, giving a plain brown appearance. Whole-grain bread has a wholemeal flour base as well as lots of added grains and seeds). Wheatberries (above picture) are wholewheat kernals/grains and cracked wheat is wheat berries that have been split open. Some stores also sell wheat flakes, which have an appearance similar to rolled oats.

  • Wild Rice

Technically not a rice at all but a gluten-free seed of aquatic grass. Although it can be quite black in colour, it is not the same as black rice (which is actually from the rice family and shorter and thicker in shape). Due to its strong flavour and price tag, it’s often blended with other rice or grains. Wild rice has twice the protein and fibre of brown rice, but less iron and calcium.


There is currently no UK advice on the amount of whole-grains to eat but many experts in other countries say to aim for three servings a day. Why not try choosing oats or wholewheat cereals such as Weetabix, Shredded Wheat, puffed whole-grains, whole-grain muesli (without added sugar and salt) for breakfast, wholemeal, whole-grain or rye bread, pittas, crackers or crisp-breads for lunch and use the afore-mentioned grains in casseroles, curries, soups and salads in the evening and/or oat cakes, whole-grain rice cakes, popcorn or crackers as possible snacks.


NB: Multigrain is not the same as whole-grain – it simply means that the product contains more than one different type of grain but these are not necessarily 'whole'.


You may have also come across terms, like sprouted or malted grains. These are generated when grains (dormant seeds, like those you might plant in your garden) are provide with the right temperature and moisture to activate the growing process. However, in these circumstances, the process is quickly stopped, soon after a new small sprout appears. The popularity of these methods continues to expand, as they may help to increase the availability of certain nutrients, by degrading natural inhibitors found within plant foods. As all three parts of the grain is essential for growth, these types of grains should be 'whole', although it seems no clear definition exists in industry. They can be ground into flour, added to other flours (often refined) or used to make products like bread.

References:

1. British Dietetic Association (2019) Wholegrains: Food Fact Sheet. Accessed 28/06/20 from https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/wholegrains.html

2. Food Standards Agency (2002) McCance and Widdowson’s The Composition of Foods, Sixth summary edition. Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry

3. Oldways Whole Grains Council (2020) Wholegrains 101. Accessed 28/06/20 from https://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/whole-grains-z

4. Heart UK - The cholesterol charity. UCLP© Step 3: The Four UCLP© Foods. Accessed 28/06/20 from https://www.heartuk.org.uk/ultimate-cholesterol-lowering-plan/uclp-step-3