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 the whole grain 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 three parts (the germ, bran, and endosperm) and whole-wheat flour includes all three of these parts. When highly processed (a.k.a. refined) white flour is made the nutritious bran and germ are removed and only the endosperm is left, which is basically high in calories and low in nutrients. I don’t know about you, but this reminds me a little too much of sugar. This “white” flour is still made from the “wheat” plant, but it is considered to be highly processed. 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 decent food. Not only is corn considered to be a whole-grain, but it is also sometimes considered to be 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 = Whole grain corn, whole grain cornmeal, whole grain flour (also called masa harina), and even popcorn

Refined = Corn meal, enriched corn meal, corn flour, degerminated corn, grits, and corn starch

Oats

I think that oats are one of the most fabulous grains solely because it is so easy to 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…

Whole Grain = All oats

Rice

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

Whole Grain = Brown and colored rice (like black or purple)

Refined = White rice or just “rice” when listed as an ingredient (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 let’s try to simplify it…

Whole Grain = Whole-wheat, whole-grain wheat, whole durum wheat (it MUST say the word “whole”)

Refined = White flour, wheat, wheat flour, enriched flour, semolina

One of the reasons this one can be tricky is that a lot of products simply say “wheat,” which means it has been refined. For some reason our society has nicknamed “whole-wheat” products as “wheat” and they are actually two very different things. 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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116 thoughts on “Understanding grains (corn, wheat, multi-grain, etc.)”

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  1. What happens when a package of spaghetti lists its only ingredient as “100% whole durum wheat semolina”? Is this pasta safe to eat if avoiding processed grains because it says whole wheat, or not okay because it includes the word semolina as noted in your list?

  2. Hi Lisa; I’m enjoying the posts but I disagree with the statement that whole wheat products have all 3 parts of the grain. In order to be shelf stable, the germ must be removed because that’s where the life is. If you want whole wheat flour, you need to either grind your own or buy “whole wheat” flour and a jar of wheat germ and mix them together; I believe the ratio is 1/4 cup germ to one cup flour. The wheat germ should be kept either in the fridge or the freezer.

  3. I’m actually stunned that you’re not aware that grains are the cause of digestive disorders, food allergies and diseases such as Type 1 Diabetes.
    Grain proteins are, as far as digestion is concerned, indestructible. If they find their way into the bloodstream the body creates antibodies to attack them (just like bacteria and viruses).

    Food allergies are caused by the immune system mistaking other food proteins for the grain proteins; and even worse it can mistake proteins that are a part of us. For example, if it attacks the pancreas and damages it or destroys it this leads to Type 1 Diabetes.

    We’re not designed to eat grains. They don’t want to be eaten and so have defenses which are toxic not nutritious! The demise of the human race began with Agriculture no matter what the Whole (profit) Grains (money) Council tells us.

    1. Some cultures have traditionally lived off grains such as rice, almost entirely. Those same cultures have very low incidence of disease an allergies compared to our modern, Anerican diet. What evidence supports your claim?

      1. Val – read Wheat Belly.
        [also] Other countries don’t have GM grains in their diets. I buy whole grains from foreign sources.

      2. So you should have said from the beginning that the problem is GM foods, not grains in particular. But you’re right that the grain culture (processed cereals) was introduced by corporations to the masses, to control/tame/kill them gradually.

      3. food allergies seem to be caused by toxins/chemicals that we were never meant to ingest or inject. That is what has weakened our immune system…

  4. Wondering if you have a list of whole grain options (or brands that you choose) when it comes to flour, breads, pasta, crackers etc… ?

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hello Jaimi. Lisa uses King Arthur flour, makes her own or buys Great Harvest bread (Ezekial is a good store bought option), pastas vary, and she buys whole wheat matzo crackers or Ak Mak and occasionally Crunch Master brand. :)

  5. Sorry if this has already been answered, but what are the thoughts on Ezekiel bread? I know it has more than 5 ingredients but also appears to be just organic sprouted grains, yeast, and salt at the end? Thanks!

    1. Thanks for asking that! I was wondering the same thing. I started eating healthier a while back but just recently found this site and it’s helped me a lot become more aware of ingredients!

  6. I may have missed this in other comments, but what is the difference in whole wheat and white whole wheat. I use King Arthur’s white whole wheat (after seeing it on this website), but I honestly don’t know what the difference is.

    1. They are just from different types of wheat. The whole white wheat is a milder variety and the taste is more like traditional white flour (but not exactly). It tastes less “hearty” than the traditional whole wheat, making it better for pastries, etc.

  7. My local grocery store doesn’t sell a single brand of whole grain cornmeal. (At least not where I looked for it near the regular corn meal.) Any suggestion what I could use besides cornmeal in recipes (like cornbread) or am I going to have to find a different store? :)

  8. What about spelt flour – I found an organic very low ingredient sourdough spelt bread at my health food store and was hoping it meets the real food criteria.

  9. Good article. I would just add that the levels of pesticides on wheat are very high. So if you go with whole wheat, you should really go organic. A recent study shows that gluten intolerance is likely linked to pesticides instead of the grain itself.

  10. Hi, I am sorry if I am asking something that has already been answered, but what about using wheat germ in recipes? Would that be ok? Thanks!

  11. I have been following your blog since the spring and it has inspired me to slowly make the switch over to eating real food! It is still a work in progress! One question that I have is about buying certified organic wheat flour…. do you recommend buying “organic” whole wheat flour or is regular whole wheat okay? I have been buying Bob’s Red Mill whole wheat flour and recently found a store in my area that sells the certified organic version but it is double the price… I have not found a lot of information when trying to research this so I wanted your opinion…. Thanks!

  12. Hello –

    Some bread recipes I have call for adding wheat gluten. Is this considered a whole food – or something I should try to avoid?

    Thanks!

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Jen. It is often added to whole grain breads to help them rise. Lisa does not use it but it is difficult to avoid it in store bought whole grain loaves. ~Amy

  13. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

    Hi Caitlin. A 100% whole grain bread is better than one that is not, for sure. It is, however, very difficult to find a low ingredient bread at a conventional grocery store and even at health food stores. One brand that you can usually find in the frozen section is Ezekial which is a low ingredient sprouted whole grain bread. Typically, we get our breads from a local bakery or bake it ourselves. I have found a lower ingredient organic whole grain at Trader Joes, too, but it does not technically fit within the pledge parameters. :) ~Amy

  14. Hi there! I’m new to the site and am desperately trying to learn all I can before actually starting to make the switch. I went to the Whole Grain Counsel website and looked at only those breads with the 100% stamp. The thing I’m curious about though is when I look up the ingredient lists for the breads with the 100% stamp, they still seem to have a crazy number of ingredients listed! So… if it has the 100% stamp, it’s better for me, right? Is it a better solution if I don’t feel up to baking my own bread and there isn’t a dependable bakery around here? Or should I keep looking?

  15. My pasta says for ingredients: whole durum wheat flour as it’s only ingredient. I can’t tell if this is a whole food or not. Can you assist?