What Exactly Are Whole Grains and Whole Grain Foods?

Confused about what these terms mean?

What to look for in a bread label

In 1999, the Whole Grains Working Group of the American Association of Cereal Chemists International defined “whole grains” as “intact, ground, cracked or flaked fruit of the grain whose principal components, the starchy endosperm, germ and bran, are present in the same relative proportions as they exist in the intact grain.” Got that? Maybe? The Food and Drug Administration adopted this definition in 2006 in its Draft Whole Grain Label Guidance. Whole grains can be intact grains (as in brown rice) or intact grains that have been ground and reconstituted into flour that contains all of the original parts (such as the bran and endosperm) in their original proportions (as in whole wheat flour).

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines whole grains as: “whole grains, as well as foods made from them, consist of the entire grain seed, usually called the kernel. The kernel is made of three components – the bran, the germ and the endosperm. If the kernel has been cracked, crushed, or flaked, then it must retain nearly the same relative proportions of bran, germ and endosperm as the original grain to be called whole grain.” Whew!

A 2014 report of a multi-disciplinary panel of experts proposed a definition of “whole grain food.”  This definition was based on nutrition science, consistent with the needs of food product formulation, understandable by the public, and consistent with food labeling. The panel recommended defining “whole grain food” as having at least 8 grams of whole grains per 30 gram serving, without a fiber requirement.

The USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 includes grains as part of a healthy diet. One half of daily grain product consumption should be whole grains. In addition, the 2015-2020 guidelines recommend eating at least 3 ounces (84 grams) of whole grains and less than 3 ounces of refined grains per day.

Many breads claim to be “made with whole grain” or “whole wheat,” but unless they comply with the definition according to the new dietary guidelines they are pretenders. Don’t be fooled by color – all brown bread isn’t whole wheat – and by the sometimes confusing lists of ingredients. Law requires the content to be 51 percent whole grain or whole wheat for a food product to carry that designation.

Ok. So you’re at the grocery store. How do you decide if a loaf of bread is worth eating? For example, I recently bought a loaf of bread that contains 21 whole grains and seeds. The ingredient list begins with whole wheat (which consists of whole wheat flour and cracked wheat flour). The remaining ingredients include (in order) water, cane sugar, 21 whole grains and seeds mix (with the 21 grains and seeds listed), wheat gluten, oat bran, molasses, salt, yeast vinegar, cultured wheat flour, and enzymes. Each serving (45 grams = one slice) has 110 calories, 22 grams of carbs, 5 grams of added sugar (I'd rather have 2 grams), and 5 grams of fiber (excellent).  Clearly, this bread is a whole grain food, has lots of fiber, and appears to be worth eating.

If the first ingredient isn’t “whole grain” or “whole wheat” find another loaf. You might also check the number of grams of carbohydrates and the number of grams of dietary fiber per serving. The bread mentioned above has 22 grams of carbs and 5 grams of dietary fiber per serving. The ratio of carbs to fiber in this loaf is 4.4:1. You want this ratio to be less than 10, but I aim for a ratio between 4 and 7.

Most healthy authorities recommend eating whole grains. The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service publishes a helpful 2-page flier Whole Grains Make a Difference. You can print a copy for future reference. You can also download the 144-page Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 Eighth Edition. Happy, healthful eating!


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