Nutrients in Refined vs. Whole Grains

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Pictured: White rice, brown rice and black wild rice (only the brown and black rice are whole grain)

We actually don’t keep track of any of our food stats whether it’s calories, fat grams, carbs or nutrients. One of the key messages I took away from Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food, is that if you eat a variety of whole foods that’s heavy on plants and reasonable in quantity then the rest will just fall into place. After all the subtitle of his book is “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” And we agree that this philosophy is a whole lot easier than weighing out 4 ounces of salmon for dinner or writing down how many calories we consumed in a day.

Now that’s not to say knowing how nutrients in different foods compare couldn’t be valuable information, which is why I’m sharing the below charts today from the Whole Grains Council. In a recent post about “Understanding Grains” I detailed the difference between some of the most common whole and refined grains, and overall I think most people get the fact that whole-wheat is far more nutritious than refined white flour. But lately quite a few readers have been trying to challenge me when I say brown rice is more nutritious than white rice. So without further ado, below are the exact numbers from the Whole Grains Council that very clearly show you the difference between…

  • The whole grain – In the case of wheat and rice the whole grain versions are whole-wheat flour and brown rice, although other colored rice (like black and red) are also considered to be whole-grain.
  • The refined grain – The refined grain is what you end up with after two of the most nutritious parts of the grain are removed (the bran and the germ…read more about this in the “Understanding Grains” post), which gives the grain a longer shelf life.
  • Enriched grain – Since refining the grain takes out a great deal of nutrition, food scientists try to compensate by adding back in what nutrients they think are missing and most important. The problem is that nature is complex and food science isn’t easy…so the end result, enriched white flour or enriched white rice, is still not as nutritious as the original whole grain.

(Click image to enlarge chart)

(Click image to enlarge chart)

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52 comments to Nutrients in Refined vs. Whole Grains

  • These are excellent, easy to understand graphs. We didn’t need a better reason to eat whole grains, but now we have a clear way to understand why and share our reasons with friends and family. Thank you again for being on the forefront of our family’s nutrition education.

  • I’d love to read about rice versus wheat flour. I read somewhere a long time ago that white rice trumps whole wheat flour since the grain is still intact. I feel like Dr. Weil said it.

    Anyway. Pretty graphs!

    • You can compare all the nutrients of two different foods in the USDA’s nutrient database at http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/search/ to satisfy your curiosity. Keep in mind that a white rice grain is NOT intact — it has had its bran and germ removed. Some people think that all intact grains have a much lower glycemic index than all milled grains. In fact, white rice has an average glycemic index of 73.7, while whole wheat bread has an average glycemic index of 74.3 — pretty much the same. In summary, the whole wheat bread is higher in most all nutrients, higher in fiber, and about the same in glycemic index.

  • sally

    Melissa you are so right on when you make the switch your body will tell you the differance, when I used to eat white rice,four, bread, I would always be bloated and tired and had to take a nap,now that I only eat whole grains or wheat, brown rice, I don’t get bloated and tired and it keeps me full much longer on less food,and I don’t crave more food like when I use to eat the processed white flours,don’t know if you heard this say, The whiter the bread the quicker your dead ,lol

  • Alyssa

    I just finished the book Wheat Belly by William Davis MD. It has convinced me that wheat should not be a part of our current diet. (Except maybe ancient wheats, like eikhorn). I would recommend this book for anyone who has problems with digestion, memory, seizures, fatigue, autoimmune disease, etc. Wheat today is not what our great grandmothers ate. It seems that the current type of wheat that is available to us is not good- whole or not.

    • Diane Jaquay

      I agree with this. I’ve given up grains and sugar and have never felt better in my life.

    • Kelly G in ATX

      There have been quite a few articles and blogs in the GF community about Wheat Belly that have not been wholly positive, that you might want to take a look at those to get the whole picture. I’d be cautious about Dr. Davis’ claims and take what he writes with a grain of salt! For many of us, the issue isn’t necessarily removing wheat, but simply eating more plants and whole foods makes the biggest difference in our health!

  • Gretchen

    While these charts do a good job of showing where nutrients are lost in refined and enriched grains, I think the percentages can be misleading for folks who assume the 100% values listed for whole wheat and brown rice refer to the percent daily values we are used to seeing on food labels. Perhaps listing the amounts in a unit of measure would be less confusing?

  • Ann B

    All of these lovely facts aside, there is only one thing you need to know about rice, white rice rots when it sits underwater, brown rice sprouts, which do you want in your body?

  • Melissa @ The Fresh 20

    These charts are fantastic but the best way to understand the difference is to make the switch and let your body tell you the difference.

  • These charts are fantastic but the best way to understand the difference is to make the switch and let your body tell you the difference

    • I agree! Ten years ago I switched from almost entirely refined grains to virtually all whole grains. Without changing my exercise habits, I lost 25 pounds in three months — a big surprise as I was only trying to eat well, not lose weight. Listen to your body. It will tell you what suits it best.

    • Lea Stretch

      Why would anyone make the switch, as you say, without knowing they should? I think understanding the difference starts with the sharing of knowledge. I still know people who refuse to by whole grain or brown rice because refined is what they grew up with and because they refuse to learn, or don’t have the resources to learn, about why they should make the switch in the first place.

      • Katie Rakic

        This is the problem with my husband and his dad… My MIL and I are trying to quit using refined foods, but they still want them as they say that they taste nicer. I much prefer the unrefined versions now that I have been made aware of the process that the refined food goes through.

  • Ashley

    Thanks, Lisa! I love that you document scientific evidence versus just stating your beliefs. This is extremely convincing and I have already begun eliminating as much processed foods from my life as possible! The one thing I still want to be convinced of is why to avoid sugar. I’ve been following the rules, but am not exactly sure why honey and maple syrup are any better than organic raw cane sugar since it is also a natural unrefined food. I’m willing to cut it out, but want to have a “reason” rather than “just because”.

    • TracyDK

      Ashley, cane sugar is still processed. You can’t pick up a sugar cane stalk and chew on it…well I guess you could, but it would be like chewing a sapling tree. You have to process it to get the sugar crystals. Honey you can eat straight from the hive and maple syrup you can eat straight from the tree. That’s as unprocessed as you can get. It’s like going to the garden and picking up a tomato and biting into it. So, if you’re wanting to eat a whole foods/unprocessed diet, then sugar has to be cut out.

      • Ashley

        Thanks, TracyDK. That makes sense. I guess i was thinking maple syrup was processed to turn it into a syrup from a sap…but after researching that more, I see that it is just boiled down to get rid of water in it. Which i wouldn’t really classify as “processed”. Also the word “raw” in sugar cane makes it seem less processed than it really is. Thanks for the info and I’ll grudgingly give up my sugar except on rare treats. :)

      • Samantha

        You can totally pick up a sugar cane stalk and chew on it! http://www.wikihow.com/Eat-a-Sugar-Cane
        You can’t exactly bake with it, and I guess it’s not really “eating” since you only chew it to get out the sweet juice, so it’s irrelevant, but just thought I’d throw that out there. I have fond childhood memories of my grandpa cutting off a stalk for us kids to eat straight from the field. :)

  • Kimberly Weber

    These are great! I am curious to know what the difference is between whole wheat flour vs. white whole wheat flour? Is it just two different types of wheat? Or is something missing in the white whole wheat flour?

    • Kimberly, I believe from what my mom has told me that white whole wheat flour comes from hard white wheat as opposed to hard red wheat. She used to grind wheat every few days to make bread and while she used both, the hard white wheat was her favorite because the bread wasn’t as dense and our bellies could digest it easier. It’s still considered whole wheat if it’s ground including all the parts. Hope that helps.

    • Your first guess was indeed correct, Kimberly. White wheat is an albino variety of wheat, with a nutrient profile pretty much the same as red wheat. Whole white wheat is lighter in color and milder in flavor, making it a good choice for people whose taste buds are just getting used to the fuller, nuttier taste of whole grains. You can read about white wheat on the Whole Grains Council website at http://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/whole-white-wheat-faq

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