Understanding grains (corn, wheat, multi-grain, etc.)

First and foremost I must get something off my chest. Just because a box of something at the grocery store or even a bagel at the bakery says “multi-grain” does not mean it is a healthy alternative. Multi-grain simply means the food is made with more than one grain and has absolutely nothing to do with whether any of those grains are actually whole grains or not (which is what is really important).

Awhile back I did an in-depth post on understanding whole-wheat and what should be in your sandwich bread. What you know about wheat can easily be applied to many other grains as well. In summary, the wheat berry has 3 parts (germ, bran, endosperm) and when whole-wheat flour is made all 3 parts are included. When highly processed (a.k.a. refined) white flour is made you are only left with the endosperm, which is basically high in calories and low in nutrients (which reminds me a little too much of sugar). Here are a few other popular grains and how this same thought process can be applied…

  • Corn

I know corn easily gets a bad rap because it is so highly subsidized by the government and included in countless additives that you will find in most highly processed foods, but straight-up whole corn by itself is actually a healthy food. Not only is corn considered to be a whole-grain, but it is also sometimes considered a vegetable (that according to the Whole Grains Council “has the highest level of antioxidants of any grain or vegetable.”). Just like wheat though, you want to make sure you only buy the most nutritious whole-grain corn products that include all the parts of the kernel (the germ, bran, and endosperm). Here’s what to look for:

– Whole grain corn, whole grain cornmeal, whole grain flour (also called masa harina), and even popcorn = whole grain

– Corn meal, enriched corn meal, corn flour, degerminated corn, grits, and corn starch = refined

  • Oats

I think that oats are one of the most fabulous grains solely because it is so easy to understand and ensure you are purchasing the whole grain. According to the Whole Grains Council “oats almost never have their bran and germ removed in processing. So if you see oats or oat flour on the label, relax: you’re virtually guaranteed to be getting whole grain.” This rule of thumb applies to rolled oats, instant oats, quick cooking oats, steel cut oats, you name it. Whew! That certainly makes things easy and in summary…

– All oats = whole grain

  • Rice

Rice is thankfully almost as easy to understand as oats. There are just two simple things to know…

– Brown (and other colors like black & purple) rice = whole grain

– White rice = refined (since the germ and bran are removed)

Once again this applies to all brown/colored rice whether it is quick cooking, parboiled, brown rice flour, etc.

  • Wheat

Back to something that often seems as complex and tricky as corn, but really can be looked at simply…

– Whole-wheat = whole-grain

– White flour, something labeled as just “wheat”, enriched flour = refined

One of the reasons this one can be tricky is that a lot of products simply say “wheat” which means it has been refined. If you are after the whole-grain it must (and will) say something like whole-wheat or whole-grain wheat if it truly is the whole grain.

One last important note on the subject of grains….I love the Whole Grains Council. You may have heard of them or at least recognize their stamp (pictured) on some packaged foods. They are what I consider to be the experts when it comes to understanding grains. I call them frequently, and they are always so friendly and knowledgeable when answering my questions. I have one tip though when it comes to looking for the Whole Grains stamp… there is both a basic stamp and a 100% stamp. The basic stamp tells you how many grams of whole grains per serving are contained in that product (and usually indicates the product also contains some refined grains). The 100% stamp means the product contains only 100% whole grains and therefore contains no refined grains at all. So the next time you are shopping at the supermarket, don’t be misled by some of the “whole-grains” health claims on the front of the package. Instead, do a little investigating yourself to ensure you are buying products that contain 100% whole grains (although consuming any amount of whole grains would certainly be better than none!).

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  • Comments

    1. Kassi |

      What can I use as a substitute for cornstarch. My husbands favorite dinner includes cornstarch as a thickening agent.

    2. |

      I want to try this but got so sick from the granola, nuts and seeds. I was reminded that I most likely have IBS and can’t eat those or any corn or whole wheat. What do I do? I want to cute our processed foods, but these items make me sick.

    3. Tiki |

      Was at a chain bakery (Sunflower Bread Company) that listed “high gluten flour” first in all their products. Some products went on to list whole grains, nuts, and seeds (their 9 grain bread for example) – others listed enriched white four (white bread).
      I understand high gluten flour is used to make bread more chewy – my question is:
      When listed as an ingredient, is high gluten flour always white/processed flour?
      Thank you!

      • Assistant to 100 Days (Amy) |

        Hi Tiki. It is white processed flour and is often added to artisan breads that contain many whole grains, nuts, and seeds in order to bind it and add to it’s elasticity. ~Amy

    4. Susan |

      In regards to corn being considered a whole grain, it needs to be kept in mind that the niacin in corn cannot be digested as is. Native Americans always soaked corn in a limewater solution which released the niacin.

    5. Karen |

      I am in Australia and have trouble finding Whole Grain Flour or bread, we do have wholemeal though, is it the same thing? Thanks

      • Assistant to 100 Days (Amy) |

        Hi Karen. It is the same. ;)

    6. Howard |

      Hi… Is stone ground corn a whole grain or refined grain?

      • Amy Taylor (comment moderator) |

        Hi Howard. Just be sure it also says whole grain along with stone ground. Check the ingredient list if it isn’t obvious on the label. :)

    7. Jessica |

      I am trying how to do real food with a daughter that has to be gluten and lactose free. Is her pasta I use considered whole food? It has brown rice, rice bran and water. Is there a guide somewhere with gluten free flours? I make her own bread most of the time, but usually it has potato starch or tapioca flour in it. Thanks for any advice or links that could help me figure out how to do this.

    8. sara |

      When baking with flour, what should be used to keep it “real”? And how would you adjust that in recipes calling for all purpose flour. I have tried substitutions before and can’t seem to get it right! Thank you! On our last few transitions to “real food”!

    9. Sidney Sterling |

      What about the pasta question? Is pasta a whole food? In particular, I would like to know your take on orzo. Thanks.

    10. Margaret |

      My family is taking the real food challenge! One question about rice. A few months ago, we switched from eating brown rice (for the past several years) back to white rice. I read the nutritional benefits of the germ and endosperm on brown rice are not actually realized in the body because they can not be broken down an absorbed by the body. In addition, from what I understand, brown rice has been shown to have significant amounts of arsenic. Have these factors been taken into account in your recommendation to eat brown rice instead of white? Thank you.

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