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.

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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…


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


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 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.


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. Stephanie Richey

    I am having a hard time finding an organic masa harina (or at least one that is non-GMO). Is there such a brand out there?

  2. This is a fantastic blog! It is what I live for. My family has already cut out food additives, preservatives and dyes. We have also cut out wheat, rye, barley, spelt, and malt – completely. There is a fantastic book called Healthier Without Wheat by Dr. Stephen Wagen that is a must read for any family suffering with symptoms that the Drs. can’t diagnose or, when they do, they just give you a drug to manage it. It is unbelievable the symptoms that Americans have that are related to eating wheat! I encourage you to check it out!

  3. Hi! So I am not sure if anyone can answer this but I read this article and then went to buy pasta today. The brand I normally buy lists “whole wheat semolina”…so I am really confused because based on the article saying whole wheat would be good, but the semolina makes it bad…so it is bad or good?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Jen. It can be confusing. There is also 100% whole durum wheat semolina which I believe is considered a whole grain pasta. ~Amy

  4. I am so confused about wheat. I just saw another video that talks about foods to eliminate from diet to lose weight and that are unhealthy (artificial sweetners, orange juice, soda and wheat.)
    I mainly want to be healthy but trying to lose the remaining baby weight that is hanging on me. :)
    You obviously eat a lot of wheat so I’m just really confused if I should eat it or not. So much information out there.
    On another note, I love your blog!

    1. Hi Holly,
      You will not be healthy eating, or lose weight eating Artificial sweeteners. They set you up to eat more sweets, and also cause stomach cancer etc..

      Orange juice, is a processed food and not healthy unless you juice it your self. Its also has allot of sugar calories.

      Sugar free soda, or regular soda, is a weight gainer, without any nutritional value, and also sets you up to want to eat more soda, and sugary starchy foods. Soda is also a diuretic ,which robs your bones of calcium as soda does also.

      I had a women that worked for me. She had a stomach By-pass surgery. After that she never brought soda into her house. 3 months after her husband lost 60 pounds, from just not drinking diet soda. He drank water, and lemon water.
      Lemon water Alkaline food. Not acid. It is healthy to drink all day..

      Be careful with wheat. It is a Acid food..Our body are suppose to be 80% Alkaline & 20% acid.
      You can wrap your sandwiches in romaine leaves..Yumm

      Take Care,

      1. Hate to burst your bubble, but lemon juice is acidic. This is why it’s added to many canning recipes to lower the pH to make it safe to can in a water bath (as opposed to pressure canning). All citrus is acidic to some extent. That’s also why they started creating “low acid” orange juice.

    2. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Holly. We believe in eating everything in moderation and only eliminating a specific food group if there is a reason to do so. Ultimately, you’ll need to make the call in terms of what is right for you. Jill

  5. I thought after reading ,”Wheat Belly”, Dr.Davis. There is Not any type of wheat/ grain to eat?
    I see here allot of you are eating Grain!!

    I have been using to bake,Organic Coconut Flour, and Almond Flour..
    I got off the web a Banana bread, that I use Coconut flour. We think it is very good, and healthy.
    There is No Sugar in this bread.Only a few healthy ingr. you throw into one bowl, beat & bake..
    If anyone wants the recipe, let me know?

    There is a bakery called, Julian Bakery that sells:
    Paleo Bread –
    Almond bread is Gluten Free, Grain Free, Yeast Free, Soy Free, GMO Free, High Protein, Low Carb and best of all delicious.
    Paleo Bread -Almond loaf contains six simple ingredients: Purified Water, Blanched Almonds, Egg Whites, Psyllium, Organic Apple Cider Vinegar, and a pinch of Baking Soda.

    Here is there website:http://www.julianbakery.com
    I Live in California , it is sold in many Health Food stores, and Whole Foods.

    Take Care,

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Annie. Yes, there is a lot of discussion about wheat…we choose to eat everything in moderation and only avoid foods if we have a specific reason to do so (i.e. allergy). Jill

  6. I hastily bought flour today that is organic sprouted spelt from whole foods. It doesn’t say whole though. Would that be whole grain? It looks like whole wheat flour but I am not sure. Any insight would be appreciated!! Thanks!

  7. I agree with the comment about Monsanto. I think it’s an extremely important point to note that corn is actually very far from healthy, if not organic. Also, arsenic in rice makes it something to, unfortunately, limit as well. If you haven’t heard about it, look it up. Just wanted to throw that out there for the people coming to this site trying to get healthy. :)

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Sarah. If I understand your question correctly, the whole wheat flour has already been milled (ground) whereas the whole wheat has not. Jill

  8. Lisa,
    Thanks for reposting this recently. The first time I read it I must not have caught that semolina is processed. I’ve been buying the Barilla Plus thinking I was getting a whole food with added protein from legumes. It is so frustrating trying to feed my family good wholesome food when the food industry makes it so difficult to do so. Thank you so much for all your hard work informing us on better choices we can make.

  9. Hello-I am totally new to the sceen of whole foods and trying to learn. It all makes sense, I love this site. Taking a litte in at a time. Even after all this information, I’m still confused on the different between whole wheat and whole grain? And why some white bread would be better than brown?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      A good rule of thumb is to look for things that say “100% whole wheat”. Whole grain may contain whole wheat, but, it’s probably only a “part’ of what’s included. So, again, I just look for things to say 100% whole wheat and then look to the ingredients to decide. Hope that helps. Jill

    1. Megan – The stamp is not automatic, they have to opt-in somehow so just because they don’t have the stamp doesn’t mean the product isn’t whole grain.

  10. After doing some reading on durum semolina I’m not so sure my Whole-Wheat dried pasta that I’m getting at the grocery store is an unprocessed food. I understand you make your own whole wheat pasta but do you ever buy whole wheat pasta from the store?

  11. I was wondering what the difference is between the 100% whole wheat flour and the unbleached white whole wheat flour. I bought the 100% whole wheat first because it was cheaper, but you recommend the other in so many of your recipes that I spent the extra 69 cents and tried the unbleached white WW and it was SO MUCH better. Can you explain the difference?

    1. 100 Days of Real Food

      They are both whole-wheat they are just made from different varieties of wheat…that’s all really! I find the “white whole wheat” to have a more mild flavor.

  12. Today I cam across some bakery bread that listed its first ingredient as organic patent flour. Do you know if patent flour is good for you? Is it something that would be ok to eat during the 10 day pledge?

  13. Monsanto has pretty much screwed up our grains. If they are genetically modified, they are not what God made for us to eat. They now have a corn that creates it’s own roundup. If you don’t think that ends up in the kernels, you are wrong. If you don’t pay more and eat organic, you are eating poison.

    1. First of all I wanted to say I understand your concern about GMO grains, but you have your facts wrong…round up is a chemical that blocks photosynthesis and round up ready plants have a gene in them that are immune to that chemical (roundup). They do not contain nor do they produce roundup.

      1. Christi, you also have your facts a little in accurate. GM corn does not make its own Roundup but because it is so much more resistant to its effects it can used more liberally around the GM crop. Then more of it gets into the plant. Not killing the plant but passing on the residue… to us!
        New studies over the full life cycle of rats have shown a 10 fold increase of tumours when fed a diet of GM corn

      2. All the wheat grown in the United States were Genetically Modified many years ago even before Monsanto started the GMO food. According to Doctor David Smith, Author of the book “Wheat Belly”, the wheat we eat nowadays are dramatically different than what our grand parents ate. This modern wheat actually creates “Opiate” in the brain that makes people eat more. That’s why we have these super sized hamburgers etc. When people quit eating any kind of wheat products, their weight drop exponentially.
        Also, we have high fructose corn syrup in most drinks and food, which also makes people eat or drink more. My husband used to drink 3 cans of coke before and once he switch to Coke from Mexico that are made from real sugar, his craving for Coke drops. Now he only drinks 1 bottle per day (Mexican Coke come in glass bottle only).
        This explains why we as Americans are so obese compared to the rest of the folks in Europe and Asia.

      3. I’m not saying that you are wrong, but personally, I don’t think wheat suffered from true genetic modification in terms of laboratory changes, but it was selectively bred for decades, resulting in similar changes to what they might do in a lab.

        If you want something closer to what our ancestors ate, try spelt or kamut.

  14. This is a great post! Very informative, although I think it might be slightly misleading in the way you mentioned the white flour is high in calories. It is a carbohydrate, and therefore 4 calories/gram, just like the whole grain is still a carbohydrate and is 4 calories/gram (just like protein too). So while it might not be as nutrient dense as whole grains, it has the same amount of calories.

    1. 100 Days of Real Food

      What I mean is that it is high in calories when considering the ratio of calories to nutrients. You are right it is not more calorie dense than whole grain flour. Thanks for bringing that up.

  15. One thing to remember – nearly all wheat and corn grown and available in the US is genetically modified. If that’s not a concern for you, well then, don’t worry about it. But if it is a concern, look for products that indicate it’s made from non-gmo ingredients. Whole Foods carries many of these. Corn and wheat products and derivatives find their way into many, many products.

    Your choice to make. :-)

  16. Thanks so much for this lesson on grains…I had no idea how things were done. Now I am more informed when I go to the store.

  17. I made all our bread until the bread maker died. While I save for another one (my oven is unreliable on temps) my husband and I laugh about the longevity of the store-bought products. SOME won’t get any mold for many weeks. Real bread needs to be eaten within about 3 days. Another rule of thumb might be, “If it doesn’t rot, it isn’t food” LOL

  18. Also, your information about oats is completely false. Steel-cut oats are the only ones that have not had the bran completely discarded.


    “The “whole grain” form of an oat is called a groat and is rarely sold as-is, except maybe as horse feed. Instead, they’re sold either as steel-cut, rolled, or instant oats.

    Steel-cut oats are whole groats chopped into several pieces. Some of the bran flakes off, but some is retained. Steel-cut oats take longer to cook, contain the most nutrients (and antinutrients like phytic acid), and taste nuttier than conventional oats.

    Rolled oats are steamed groats that have literally been rolled out and flattened, with the bran discarded. When most people think of “oats,” they’re thinking of rolled oats.

    Instant oats are rolled, steamed, and precooked oats. They’re essentially the same as rolled oats, only often accompanied by sugary flavorings and rendered immediately edible by the addition of hot liquid.”

    1. 100 Days of Real Food

      My source is the whole-grains council…I think they probably know what they are talking about. The website you recommend Mark’s Daily Apple is a little contradicting because he talks about going back to the way people ate centuries ago (which I agree with), but then he also recommends supplements – which were definitely not around for cave men. Just wanted to point that out!

  19. To be fair, whole grains also contain way more anti-nutrients than refined grains. NEITHER are good for you. Some FERMENTED grains have their anti-nutrients broken down to the point that they are edible, but as a “real food”, grains really don’t cut it. I recommend Paleo and Primal resources like Mark’s Daily Apple for more info on why grains don’t constitute “real food”, in any form.

  20. As a Momma to a Celiac I take great care in label reading and grain watching. I love this post, it’s very informative =) I would like to add how easy it is to grind the grain down yourself. I often buy whole grain (mostly brown rice, corn and whole oats)to use as my own flours. Its cheaper, heartier and healthier.

    Thanks again, I’ll be sharing your site

  21. i always got confused about that, so thanks but i do have a question that hopefully you can answer. Say you’re at someone’s house and the wheat bread they have is not whole grain and they also have white bread. which would be best, the white or the wheat?

    1. 100 Days of Real Food

      Any amount of whole wheat would be better than none at all. So if their whole-wheat bread if just half white flour and half whole-wheat flour that would be a better option over bread made with all white flour.

  22. Hi, I’m Kennedy Todosichuk the reigning Miss Teen Eastern Saskatchewan Canada-World. I am inspired with your way of life and personally love my organic OJ and fresh fruit! I would love for you to send me some of your tips for a ‘busy teenager’ on how to incorprate healthy eating into our busy lifestlyes to add to my own blog at http://www.missteeneasternsaskatchewan.com and also link your blog to mine!



  23. For some people, such as myself, consuming whole grain/whole wheat products is actually bad for their health. I am one of the million Americans that suffer from Ulcerative Colitis, a form of inflammatory bowel disease. Eating these products causes me massive pain, diarrhea, and other digestive problems. I’m trying to eat as healthy as I can, but the only grains I can eat are refined ones. When I read posts from people about how whole grains are “the way to go”, it actually hurts me a bit because it makes me feel like I eat a very poor diet, and yet, this is the only way I can eat. I fully support the people that want to help better the lives of others by eating healthier, but I wish that they would also keep in mind those who are unable to eat those products and the alternatives they can have so that they can also eat healthier and live a better lifestyle with food choices.

    1. Hi EMD,
      For you and the many others in your place too, have you tried the GAPS diet. If u Google it, you will find an amazing alternative to living in such pain. Yes, we should limit the intake of grains anyway, but this diet will help heal your gut. It’s fantastic for so many other allergies too. If you suffer from allergies then check it out.

    1. 100 Days of Real Food

      Good luck! It looks like that blogger/author has found much success, but I must admit I find it a little odd that he talks so much about living the way our ancestors lived for centuries (which I agree with), but then he also sells supplements? Not sure how those two add up!?! Just my two cents!

  24. It’s worth noting, there is a bit of an oddity with whole grains marking in the USA. IIRC, technically, one can use the “whole grain” stamp when wheat is fully processed (aka made into white flour) and the germ and bran are added back in later… some argue this is not a good thing… (and is part of why General Mills can use the whole grain stamp on sugary cereals…)… not sure which side of the fence I stand on… other than I vastly prefer breads that subscribe to Pollan’s “five ingredient or less” rule… generally they do use fresh ground whole grain flour…

    Jenna, this is part of the answer to your quesion…

  25. Yeah, my father told me to look at the ingredients on the breads that I might buy. The first ingredient should be 100% stone ground wheat. However, lately my supermarket changed their recipe….

    I guess I’ll buy a bread machine and make my own.

  26. Great post.
    I agree with you about corn. Corn gets a bad rap by just about everyone, yet I think it is a wonderful food overall. HOWEVER, the biggest problem with corn is not that it is refined with the kernel or outer layer removed. The issue is that if it is not labeled as organic, chances are that your corn is genetically modified. I just pass if it is not labeled as organic.
    FYI for anyone who has searched, masa harina cannot be labeled as organic because the step of soaking in lime water does not conform to organic standards. However Bob’s Red Mill makes a wonderful whole grain masa that I use for homemade tortillas. They only use non-GMO grains.

  27. I’m in Canada where I recently noticed our cereal has the General Mills “whole grain” symbol but the cereal contains zero grams of fibre. How can whole grain cereal not contain any fibre? I’m going to email the company and ask them that question! Thanks for the information to confirm this seems unreasonable.

  28. I caution people, at least those living in Canada. Here, whole wheat does not mean whole grain. For example, for whole wheat flour the wheat is milled and the bran and germ are removed then a portion of the bran is added back. You need to look for whole grain whole wheat to ensure that it is whole grain.

  29. Thanks for the great info! you have us hooked on the great harvest bread. one question. another blog i read says that no boxed cereal can be good, incl ezekial sprouted grain (which also has soy as a last ingrediant), because of the packaging. do you have any intel on this? i’d love your thoughts! thanks again.

    1. 100 Days of Real Food

      You know we’ve got to be a little skeptical of anything factory-made even if it is only a handful of wholesome ingredients. We are addicted to our homemade granola cereal so we barely ever buy store-bought cereal (which is usually shredded wheat or puffed whole corn cereal when we do). So the boxed stuff is a non-issue for use although almost anything in moderation is okay!

  30. Outstanding post and since I just bought the wheat mill you recommended, I value this post all the more. Won’t need to look for the tag now, it will all be “milled by us” so of course it will be 100% all grain!

  31. This was a very good explanation and/or summary of grains. I do get a little confused looking at labels for wheat products, trying to figure out if they have whole grains or not. Thanks for this clear and easy to understand post.