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Nutrition-Packed Whole Grains

Grains are any food like bread, pasta, breakfast cereal, and tortillas made from the seeds of plants including wheat, rice, oats, corn, barley or other cereal grains. Grains are divided into two subgroups, whole grains and refined grains. Whole grains contain the entire grain kernel ― the bran, germ, and endosperm. Refined grains are milled, a process that removes the bran and germ to obtain a finer texture and improve shelf life. However, refining grains removes fiber, iron, many B vitamins, and other nutrients naturally present in whole grains.  Current health guidelines recommend making at least half of your daily grain choices whole grains to get the most nutrition benefits.1

What about sprouted grains?

Sprouted grains are whole grains that have started to germinate. The germ of the grain is the plant embryo, which uses the nutrients in the endosperm and bran to send up a sprout, starting a new plant growth cycle. Once sprouting starts, enzymes change the starch in the endosperm into simple molecules that are easily digested by the growing plant, and possibly also by humans. In addition to easier digestion, sprouting also increases the amount and availability of some vitamins and minerals.2 Since sprouted grains are whole grains, they are a delicious addition to your daily whole grain food choices.

Why choose whole grains?

Whole grains are excellent sources of essential nutrients that promote overall health and protect against disease. Specifically, choosing whole grains instead of refined grains:

  • Reduces risk of heart disease. Whole grains are a good source of fiber that helps lower cholesterol levels. According to the American Heart Association, eating whole grains instead of refined grains decreases risk of stroke by 30-36% and heart disease by 25-28%.3
  • Protects against colorectal cancer by supporting healthy bacteria within the gastrointestinal tract.4
  • Fiber in whole grains helps reduce constipation, promoting a healthy digestive system.5
  • Whole grains help us feel full and satisfied, playing a role in healthy weight management.5

12 types of whole grains to enjoy

Wheat is the most common whole grain in the United States, but there are several other delicious whole grains available in grocery stores and restaurants. Add variety to your weekly food choices by experimenting with different types of whole grains.

Amaranth is native to Peru and was a major food crop of the Aztecs, first cultivated 6,000-8,000 years ago. Amaranth is high in several minerals and has more than three times the amount of calcium of other grains. It also contains a higher protein content than most grains, and includes all eight of the essential amino acids important for health making it an excellent plant source of protein for vegetarians and anyone looking to decrease meat intake. Cooked amaranth is soft on the inside with a pleasant crunch outside. Spread cooked amaranth on a plate to dry, then sprinkle on salads or stir into soups.6

Barley contains more fiber than other grains, which helps reduce cholesterol, control blood sugar, and improve immune system function. Barley is also a good source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Pearled barley is missing some or all of the bran, so look for hulled or hulless barley that retains the bran for a true whole grain with more nutrients. Prepare a batch of barley and use it in soups or as a pilaf.7

Buckwheat technically is a cousin of rhubarb and not a grain, but its flavor, appearance, and nutrient content mean it’s used as a grain. Buckwheat was first grown 8,000 years ago and is used in kasha and soba noodles. It’s naturally gluten-free and a good source of soluble fiber and resistant starch that helps control blood sugar levels. It’s also an excellent source of protein, zinc, copper, potassium and manganese for a healthy immune system and to maintain optimum water and acid balance in blood and tissue cells.8

Many people don’t realize that corn, including popcorn, is a whole grain. Corn is higher in vitamin A than any other grain, and contains antioxidants associated with eye health. Corn is also naturally gluten-free. Look for the word ‘whole corn’ to make sure you’re getting a whole grain product, and avoid foods with degerminated corn, which are refined and missing the germ that contains many of the nutrients.9 Enjoy plain air-popped popcorn as a healthy and delicious whole grain snack.

Millet is the leading grain in India and is commonly found in South America, China, and Russia where it’s cooked as a cereal or made into flour. It’s naturally high in protein and antioxidants that help control cholesterol and blood sugar levels and is a very good source of magnesium necessary for muscle and nerve function. Use millet in pilafs, or incorporate into breads and muffins.10

Instant, quick, regular, and old-fashioned oats are whole grains, using the entire kernel of grain with all of the nutrients intact. The more oats are flattened and steamed, the faster they cook while retaining all the nutrients of a whole grain. Steel-cut, Irish, or Scottish oats are chewier because they are only sliced once or twice and not flattened or steamed. The fiber in oats lowers cholesterol levels, and oats also contain antioxidants to help protect blood vessels. Oats are a good source of protein and have strong anti-inflammatory actions that promote overall good health.11

Quinoa was originally grown in the Andes in South America by the Inca. Another naturally-gluten-free grain, quinoa is high in protein and contains all essential amino acids our bodies can’t make on their own. Quinoa is also high in potassium, which helps control blood pressure. The small quinoa grains cook in about 15 minutes, and can be incorporated into grain and vegetable salads or substituted instead of rice. Rinse quinoa before cooking; it grows with a bitter coating called saponin that helps prevent pests. Rinsing quinoa before cooking removes the saponins.12

Whole grain rice is often called brown rice, but whole grain rice can also be black, purple, red or other exotic colors. White rice and converted rice are refined, removing much of the B vitamins. Rice is easily digested, naturally gluten-free, and an excellent source of manganese that helps with protein and carbohydrate absorption. Wild rice is technically not rice, but rather the seed of an aquatic grass grown around the Great Lakes. It has twice the protein and fiber of brown rice, but is lower in iron and calcium. 13

Rye contains fiber both in the endosperm and the bran, which means it has a lower glycemic index than many other grains and can help manage blood sugar levels. The type of fiber in rye also promotes feeling full, which makes it useful in weight loss. Caution:  rye bread often contains wheat flour, and not always whole wheat flour. Look for whole rye or rye berries as the first ingredient for the healthiest foods.14

Sorghum, or milo, originated in Africa and is eaten like popcorn, made into a hot cereal, or ground into flour. Naturally gluten-free, it’s also high in antioxidants that promote overall health.  Sorghum is grown from traditional hybrid seeds and does not contain traits gained through biotechnology, making it nontransgenic (non-GMO).15

Teff is primarily found in Ethiopia and other countries in Africa. A tiny grain, it can be cooked as a hot cereal, added to muffins, breads, or pancakes; and made into a type of polenta. All types of teff are whole grain because the kernel is too small to mill easily. Teff is high in calcium and a source of resistant starch, a type of fiber that helps manage blood sugar levels and promote a healthy colon.16

There are several varieties of wheat, including spelt, emmer, farro, einkorn, Kamut, durum, cracked wheat (or bulgur wheat) and wheatberries (whole wheat kernels). Wheat contains large amounts of gluten, a protein that gives structure to yeast breads. Hard wheat contains more gluten and is used in bread while soft wheat has less gluten and is used in cake flour. Look for food labels that state ‘whole wheat’ to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients from the bran, germ, and endosperm. Labels that state ‘wheat’ refer to refined wheat that has had much of the nutrients removed during processing.17


  1. All About the Grains Group. USDA Choosemyplate.gov http://origin-www.choosemyplate.gov/grains  updated July 27, 2015. Accessed 8-20-15
  2. Sprouted Whole Grains. Whole Grains Council. http://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/sprouted-whole-grains Accessed 8-20-15
  3. The Greatness of Whole Grains. American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/HealthyEating/The-Greatness-of-Whole-Grains_UCM_455739_Article.jsp  Accessed 8-22-15
  4. Study. Whole Grains Affect Gut Bacteria, Insulin, and Cholesterol. American Institute for Cancer Research. http://blog.aicr.org/2015/01/27/study-effect-of-whole-grain-oats-on-gut-bacteria-and-health/ posted July 27, 2015. Accessed 8-22-15
  5. Grains. Nutrients and Health Benefits. Choosemyplate.gov http://www.choosemyplate.gov/grains-nutrients-health last updated June 12, 2015. Accessed 8-22-15
  6. Amaranth. May Grain of the Month. Whole Grains Council. http://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/amaranth-may-grain-of-the-month-0 accessed 8-22-15
  7. Barley. February Grain of the Month. Whole Grains Council. http://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/barley-february-grain-of-the-month Accessed 8-22-15
  8. Buckwheat. December Grain of the Month. Whole Grains Council http://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/buckwheat-december-grain-of-the-month Accessed 8-22-15.
  9. Corn. October Grain of the Month. Whole Grains Council. http://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/corn-october-grain-of-the-month Accessed 8-22-15
  10. Millet. November Grain of the Month. Whole Grains Council. http://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/millet-and-teff-november-grains-of-the-month Accessed 8-23-15
  11. Oats. January Grain of the Month. Whole Grains Council. http://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/oats-january-grain-of-the-month Accessed 8-23-15
  12. Quinoa. March Grain of the Month. Whole Grains Council. http://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/quinoa-march-grain-of-the-month  Accessed 8-23-15
  13. Rice and Wild Rice. September Grains of the Month. Whole Grains Council. http://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/rice-and-wild-rice-september-grains-of-the-month  Accessed 8-23-15.
  14. Rye + Triticale. August Grains of the Month. Whole Grains Council. http://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/rye-triticale-august-grains-of-the-month Accessed 8-23-15
  15. Sorghum. June Grain of the Month. http://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/sorghum-june-grain-of-the-month  Accessed 8-22-15
  16. Teff and millet. November Grains of the Month. Whole Grains Council. http://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/teff-and-millet-november-grains-of-the-month Accessed 8-23-15
  17. Wheat. July Grain of the Month. Whole Grains Council. http://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/wheat-july-grain-of-the-month Accessed 8-23-15


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