What are wholegrains?

A loaf of whole grain bread

What are wholegrains?

A summary of wholegrains

Wholegrain refers to an entire cereal grain, also knows as a kernel. The kernel consists of three elements:

  • The bran: a fibre-rich outer layer of a kernel (12-17%)
  • The germ: a nutrient-dense inner part of a kernel (approx. 3%)
  • The endosperm: a central starchy part of a kernel (80 – 85%)


To be defined as ‘wholegrain’, according to the European Food Information Council, a food product must retain the same relative proportions of its components (bran, germ and endosperm), either intact, or broken down but with all components included in the product, for example as wholewheat flour.

Most of the nutritious elements in grains are contained in the outer ‘bran’ and inner ‘germ’ components of the kernel, providing fibre, B vitamins, essential fatty acids and antioxidants. According to the British Dietetic Association, whole grains can contain up to 75% more nutrients than refined cereals.

Examples of wholegrain foods:

  • Brown rice, oats
  • Wholewheat and wholewheat flour
  • Whole oats and whole oat flour
  • Whole cornmeal and whole corn flour
  • Whole rye and whole rye flour
  • Whole barley
  • Bulgur wheat
  • Buckwheat
  • Brown rice and brown rice flour
  • Popcorn

What is the difference between wholegrains, refined grains, enriched grains and multi grains?

According to EUFIC 2014, the difference between wholegrains, refined grains, enriched grains and multi grains is as follows:

  • Wholegrains include all three components listed above, i.e. the bran, the germ and the endosperm. They can be eaten whole (for example as popcorn) or can be broken down into flakes or cracked/crushed kernels. Most commonly, they are used as an ingredient in other foods, for example in cereals, breads or pasta.
  • Refined grains are extracted from the bran and germ of the grain, resulting in a finer texture and increased shelf life. The milling (extraction process) removes a lot of the nutritious components of the grain.
  • Enriched grains are grain with added nutrients, often vitamin B (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid) and iron. The process of enriching includes adding certain nutrients inherently present in the grain but lost during the milling process.
  • Multigrain products contain more than one grain. These are not necessarily wholegrains though.

Why should we eat more whole grains?

In recent years, carbohydrates have gained a less favourable reputation with many people believing they are unhealthy and/or contribute to weight gain. Whilst it is recommended that the consumption of certain carbohydrates be reduced (think white processed foods such as pastries), many carbohydrates have been shown to be beneficial and eliminating them from our diets could harm our health.

Wholegrains have numerous proven health benefits. In addition to being high in certain nutrients, their high fibre content mean that they are digested slowly in the body, causing a more gradient rise in blood sugars. On the other hand, processed grains, such as white bread, are quickly absorbed leading to sudden spikes in insulin and blood sugar (Ye EQ, Chacko SA, Chou EL, et al., 2012).

Wholegrain bread loaf sliced

Growing evidence from epidemiological studies suggests that eating wholegrain products regularly, as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle, may help to reduce the risk of many common diseases.

A large study (Walsh & Herrington, 2008) over a period of 8-13 years found that people who eat wholegrain regularly, i.e. three to five servings a day (a single serving is 16 g) have a reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes (26% lower risk), and cardiovascular disease (21% lower risk), compared to people who rarely or never incorporate wholegrains into their diets. Regular consumers of wholegrain were also found to have reduced weight gains compared to their counterparts. Additionally, the risk of developing certain cancer types of the digestive system, such as colorectal cancer, may be reduced by 20% in people who consume three servings of wholegrain a day (Chan et al., 2011).  

How much wholegrain should we eat?

A recent study by Censuswide found that whilst 7 in 10 (70%) believe it is important to eat wholegrains, the vast majority (95%) of those surveyed don’t know how much they should consume.

Muesli

In the UK, there are no official recommendations. However, most experts recommend at least three servings a day to achieve the associated health benefits of wholegrains.

A serving of wholegrains equals:

  • 25g porridge oats
  • 1 bowl (34g) muesli
  • 1 bowl (30g) toasted wholegrain oat cereal
  • 1 bowl of wheat-based breakfast cereal
  • 1 bowl of breakfast cereal made from wholewheat
  • 1 large slice (40g) multi-grain bread
  • 23g (uncooked weight) brown rice
  • 23g (uncooked weight) wholewheat pasta
  • 3 Ryvitas
  • 3 oatcakes
  • 1 slice of rye bread
  • 1 wholemeal pitta bread

Food labelling claims to watch out for

Food labelling can be notoriously misleading. Therefore, wholegrain labelling should be interpreted with caution. It is important to be wary of front of pack claims stating that foods are ‘high in wholegrains’, as often these foods will only contain a small amount. As an example, some Belvita bars contain only 20% wholegrains, yet are labelled as high in wholegrain. if the first ingredient on the list of a grain-based product such as a breakfast biscuit isn’t wholegrain, it is likely that this product does not count as a portion of wholegrain.

Foods labelled with the words ‘multi grain’, ‘stone-ground’, ‘100% wheat’, ‘cracked wheat’, ‘seven-grain’, or ‘bran’ are often not 100% wholegrain products and may not contain any wholegrains at all.

The colour of the product can also be misleading as a brown colour is no guarantee that a bread, for example, contains wholegrains. Certain breads are brown due to the addition of colouring ingredients.

Gluten-free wholegrains

There are many gluten-free whole grain options available to those that need to avoid gluten, for example sufferers of coeliac disease. Good examples include quinoa, buckwheat, certified gluten-free oats or oatmeal, popcorn, brown rice and wild rice.

How to include more wholegrains in your diet

Breakfast ideas:

  • Wholewheat cereals such as Shredded Wheat and porridge oats
  • Wholemeal/granary or seeded toast with a poached egg or smashed avocado

 

Lunch:

  • Sandwiches made with granary bread or wholegrain wraps with chicken and salad
  • Quinoa salad with grilled halloumi

 

Evening meal:

  • Replace white rice with brown rice, wild rice or quinoa
  • Try wholewheat pasta instead of white pasta

 

Snacks:

  • Plain popcorn
  • Oat cakes or rye crackers with nut butters
  • Try stirring a handful of rolled oats into a pot of yoghurt
  • Wholemeal scones
  • In baking, use wholewheat flour or try half and half.

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