Nutrients in Refined vs. Whole Grains

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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50 thoughts on “Nutrients in Refined vs. Whole Grains”

  1. Growing up we usually ate converted, or parboiled, rice. How does that compare? My mom says that it is more nutritious than white, but almost as nutritious as brown but can store longer without going rancid. Any thoughts?

  2. I have a question regarding Brown Rice Flour. We are gluten free due to my husbands allergy but in keeping with the Whole Grain theme I try to replace any whole wheat flour with brown rice flour. Is that considered a Whole Grain?? It’s just confusing!!

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Lorrie. Nope, we aren’t a gluten free blog. The Leakes enjoy a wide variety of whole grains. Some, like brown rice, are gluten free. ~Amy

  3. Important to note that all “whole wheat” is not really what it sounds like… It’s usually unbleached flour with germ and bran added back to it, but other nutrients still depleted. Once grain is ground it must be baked very quickly to retain nutrients. Grinding your own wheat is not as big a deal as it sounds work wise…

  4. There is one very good reason they are both being enriched with folate an those super high levels. I agree nature does do it right but since they enriched folate in flour ect. the amount of babies born with neural tube defects (Spinabifida) has gone down significantly. Yes, you can find it in nature but as a whole this has been a large population health improvement. SO you can’t bash enriching completely (yes, I am a food scientist and proud)

    1. Although that is true, I think pregnant women would be getting all the folic acid they need if they were eating more healthy. Scientists started adding large amounts of folate because they realized these women were only eating out of boxes or packages. If they were eating a balanced diet rich in whole foods, they wouldn’t need to have any enriched food. Adding the folate is a solution, yes, and it has saved many lives and babies, but it doesn’t address the real problem.

  5. I’ve been playing around with subbing almond flour in recipes that call for white flour. Some work better than others, but I am curious now if almond flour is really better for me.

  6. I just wanted to share the biggest bummer of my week. Rice has arsenic in it! I guess rice from the south is worse because of the pesticides that used to be used. Baby rice cereal has 15 times the arsenic that is allowed in our drinking water. http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2012/09/19/161403235/fda-weighs-federal-standard-to-limit-exposure-to-arsenic-in-rice
    There is a movement to have better regulations on our rice products. I hope it works. I was horrified that mybaby’s first food contained carcinogens.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Teresa. I’m not sure if you saw the suggestions that came along with this report. One was to have a varied diet. It suggested rice cereal no more than one time a day. You could consider oatmeal cereal instead – my kids ate that and preferred it over the rice. When preparing the rice, one report said that if you 1. rinse the rice before cooking it and 2. cook it in more water (6 to 1 ratio) and drain the excess water that you can reduce the arsenic by 30%. In addition, my understanding is that the FDA is doing a study to determine if, in fact, the levels uncovered are dangerous, but, I thought I heard that could be another year or so before it’s completed. Best of luck to you…hope this helps a little. Jill

  7. I know that you are suppose to store Whole Wheat Flour in the fridge or freezer, is this also true for Brown Rice? What about Whole Wheat Pasta?

      1. Brown rice contains some oils which will eventually go rancid. Some people keep it in the fridge for that reason. However, it takes maybe a year for this to occur, and you will know if it goes bad. The main reason for cold storage of flours is to prevent grain moths from hatching, but whole wheat can also eventually go rancid at room temperature due to oils in the bran layer.

  8. Thank you for posting this. I had read an article in Mother Earth News about the differences in whole wheat vs processed, and it totally changed the way I thought about flour. Also the diminishing nutritional values in the mass produced grains and veggies as we push up production.
    @TJ, thank you for sharing the einkorn wheat. I learned a bit about it and when I get a little extra money, I’m going to treat myself. I was very surprised to learn that people with mild allergies don’t necessarily react to it. My mom is sensitive, and I can’t wait to try this with her!

  9. So I made Lisa’s easy Whole Wheat Bread in the bread machine and my family said it was ok, but NOT for sandwichs….now what do I do?

    1. 100 Days of Real Food

      Did you check it during the kneading process to make sure it looked okay (not too sticky) before it baked?

  10. In defense about wheat … I would never give it up. I grind and make my own daily bread and have for years and gave up all white processed at the same time. I lost 60 pounds got to a normal weight, regained my health and vigor all while eating my wheat bread every day. IMHO giving up fresh whole wheat is ridiculous. Can’t say there is a wheat belly on me!

  11. Thank you for sharing this valuable information. I’ve found it very helpful. I always knew all “wheat” wasn’t equal at the grocery store. This article and chart(s) gives me easy to digest facts.

  12. Charlotte Locavore

    This is a great resource! It’s an easy to understand source of information that will be a great thing to pull out the next time I’m asked by a family member about refined vs. whole grains and rice. Thanks for sharing!

    Btw, I have added you to the blogroll on my website.

  13. Thank you for the charts! All I had to do was simply turn my laptop and show them to my Fiance and say, “This is why we are eating whole grains.” Man friendly lol!

  14. “Wild rice” is technically not a rice like we think of it. It’s a completely different plant. The grains are produced by a type of aquatic grass.

    We’re a no-wheat household (I do use einkorn wheat when I can find it) and a mostly-no-grain household. One benefit is that that alone has cut way down on our processed food consumption because “they” put wheat in seemingly everything! I rarely stray from the perimeter of the grocery store anymore.

    As others have already mentioned, I highly recommend the books Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis, Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It by Gary Taubes, Sugar Nation by Jeff O’Connell, and the movie Fat Head (Tom Naughton).

    A lot of people have asked about meat. We have a deep freeze and a couple of times in the past, we’ve bought meat from the farm “by the cow” (had to drive a couple hours away to do so, though) and are looking to buy another one soon. Meat will stay good in the freezer for about a year.

  15. I’ve got In defense of foods on the way to me and I’m so excited to read it. I’m a foodie who loves to make things healthier and educate people on health and fitness.. eating healthy isn’t boring, tasteless or nasty as so many still think it is.. I love eating whole grains, organic and all the colors of the rainbow.. I’ve been watching a lot of documentary’s lately and the most recent being Forks over Knives.. it’s amazing.. it’s on Netflix instant if you have that. I highly recommend it.. I just haven’t gotten to the point of giving up my meat.. I don’t eat a lot of it and when I do it’s mostly organic and grass fed, free range.. it’s a process.. like I always say Knowledge is power, so educate yourself!!

    1. From my research Sherice, you don’t need to give up meat. Eating it in moderation and eating the good kind – which is what you are doing – is very good for you.

  16. 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?

    1. 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.

    2. 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

  17. 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”.

    1. 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.

      1. 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. :)

      2. 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. :)

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

      1. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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?

  20. 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?

  21. 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.

      1. I’ve read “Wheat Belly” as well and have also given up grains. I’ve lost 23 pounds in 4 months and feel great.

    1. 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!

  22. 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

  23. 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!

    1. 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.

  24. 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.

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