The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend including more whole grains in an eating pattern while limiting refined grains. There are lots of different ways to approach this recommendation, and a review of basic grain terms is a great place to start!
Whole Grains: Whole grains contain the entire grain kernel –- the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. These contain nutrients, phytochemicals, and fiber.
Refined Grains: These grains have been milled. Processing removes one or more of the three key parts (bran, germ, or endosperm) of the grain. It also removes dietary fiber, iron, and B vitamins. Examples of refined grains include white rice and all-purpose flour.
Enriched Grains: Enriched grains are milled or refined grains that have had some of their B vitamins added back in. Enriched products also have added folic acid, which is important for the prevention of neural tube birth defects.
Sprouted Whole Grains: To make sprouted whole grains, manufacturers allow the dormant seeds of the whole grains to sprout. Then the grains are used in breads and cereal products. This sprouting makes the grain’s nutrients more bioavailable and easier to digest. There is currently no registered definition of what is “a sprouted grain.” To get a whole grain health benefit, look for products labeled “sprouted whole grain.”
Ancient Grains: These are grains that have been unchanged for several centuries. Heirloom varieties of common grains include black barley, red and black rice, and blue corn. Ancient grains can also be grains that may have been ignored or forgotten until recently such as: buckwheat, teff, millet, quinoa, and amaranth. These exotic grains can add variety to meals, but they're also more expensive.
A Note About Whole Grain Product Claims: Not all product claims are created equal. Here are four things you might notice on grain food packaging...
Gluten-Free: The phrase "gluten-free" does not mean grain free. Many whole grains are naturally gluten-free. These include buckwheat, corn, popcorn, millet, oats, brown rice, quinoa, teff, and wild rice.
Whole Grain Stamp: The whole grain stamp was developed by the Whole Grains Council to help shoppers find whole grain products. This voluntary stamp appears on products that contain all whole grains or at least a whole grain component. Since the Whole Grains Council recommends eating 48 grams of whole grains every day, the numbers on these stamps can help.
Whole Grain Health Claim: Here is the main health claim approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which can appear on food packaging: “Diets rich is whole grains goods and other plant foods and low in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease and some cancers.” ThisFDA-approved health claim can only be included on a food package if the food contains at least 51% whole grain ingredients and meets the other health elements outlined in the claim.
Misleading Label Claims: There are some claims on product packaging that indicate that an item in wholesome when it may not in fact be made entirely of whole grains. Keep an eye out for “stone ground,” “honey wheat,” “multi-grain,” “whole wheat,” “nine grain,” or “organic grains.” Careful label reading is needed.
By Cheryle Jones Syracuse, MS, Professor Emeritus, The Ohio State University
Stephanie Ronco has been editing for Food and Health Communications since 2011. She graduated from Colorado College magna cum laude with distinction in Comparative Literature. She was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2008.