Whole grains 101

Anatomy of a grain Near top of grain: Hairs of brush, Outside of grain: Bran, Inside of grain: Endosperm, Inner circle: Germ Whole grains—such as brown rice and oatmeal—keep you fuller longer and provide sustainable energy to boost your performance throughout the day. Those who eat whole grains daily have a lower incidence of prediabetes, heart disease, cancer, respiratory and infectious diseases, and mental decline too.

Make sure to make at least half of your grain choices whole grains daily to get the vitamins and nutrients they contain and that are missing from refined and processed grains. The more processed grains you eat, the more important nutrients you miss out on.

What is whole grain?

A “whole” grain contains the entire grain kernel—bran, germ, and endosperm—in the same proportions as when it was harvested. The bran and germ—which contain B vitamins, fiber, healthy fats, and antioxidants—are removed during processing into refined grain products. Only the starchy endosperm becomes “refined” grain such as the flour used to make white bread.

How can you tell if a product is whole grain?

Look at the ingredients list. Make sure the first ingredient says “whole wheat” or “whole grain.” Keep in mind that words such as “100% wheat” and “multigrain” don’t necessarily mean whole grain. And don’t confuse “made with whole grains” with “whole grain” because such products might only contain a small percentage of whole grains. Compare and learn about the many kinds of whole grains available (including “ancient grains”) using HPRC’s grains table. Many of the grains found on this table are gluten-free. Read the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) fact sheet to learn more.

What are ancient grains?

Ancient grains were discovered over 8,000 years ago but later were replaced by ones easier to grow or process. However, they’re becoming more appealing now due to their mineral content, fiber, texture, and great taste. Some popular varieties include quinoa, millet, and sorghum: Substitute one in a favorite recipe!

Mealtime ideas:

  • Breakfast. Choose whole-grain cereals such as steel-cut oats or shredded wheat. Try switching to whole-wheat toast or whole-grain bagels instead of white.
  • Lunch. Sandwiches using whole-grain breads or rolls are full of flavor and fiber. Swap out white-flour tortillas with whole-grain corn tortillas.
  • Dinner. Replace white rice with exotic black or red rice, quinoa, or bulgur. Add wild rice or barley to soups, stews, and casseroles. In the mood for pasta? Try whole-wheat!
  • Snacks. Snacks can feature whole grains too. Choose air-popped popcorn, whole-grain crackers, and granola bars.

Easy whole-grain substitutions:

  • Replace white flour with winter-white wheat flour: Made with whole grains, it’s similar in texture and appearance to white flour. And the difference in taste is barely noticeable.
  • Skip the breadcrumbs and add ¾ cup oats instead when making meatballs or meatloaf. 
  • Swap ⅓ of the amount of white flour called for in a recipe with oatmeal.
  • Prepare quinoa instead of couscous because it’s similar in texture and more nutritious.

Simple recipes:

  • Brown rice with black beans. Mix equal parts cooked brown rice with canned black beans (drained). Season with garlic and heat through. Add corn, avocado, or salsa and serve on a whole-grain tortilla.
  • Apple Cinnamon Sorghum Bake. Rinse ¼ cup uncooked sorghum. Place in the bottom of a 9” x 9” pan. Cover with a mixture of ⅓ cup applesauce and ⅔ cup water. Top with ⅓ cup golden raisins, 3 cooking apples (sliced), 1 tsp cinnamon, and ⅓ cup of your favorite chopped nuts. Bake uncovered at 350° for 60 minutes. Can’t find sorghum? Try quinoa instead: Bake covered at 350° for 45 minutes.


Whole grains generally contain more important nutrients than refined grains, and they can keep you fuller longer and reduce your risk of disease—potentially helping you live a longer life. Visit the Oldways Whole Grains Council website for cooking methods, simple whole-grain recipes, and other helpful resources.

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