What is a whole grain?

wheatHave you ever wondered what a whole grain actually is? We hear the term and think ‘oh that’s something made with whole grains in it or with brown flour’ but what exactly does the term ‘whole grain’ really mean?

What many of us may not realize is that there is no complete, legally endorsed definition of what comprises whole grain. Which means, for instance, that 35% whole grain on one food label could mean something quite different than 35% whole grain on another. There is now an updated definition – termed HEALTHGRAIN — that is a step toward creating a common understanding of what “whole grain” implies. Current definitions are often incomplete, lacking descriptions of the included grains and the permitted flour manufacturing processes.

“Most cereal products, like white bread, pasta, and biscuits, are based on flour after removal of bran and germ, the two parts of grain kernels containing most of the dietary fibre and other bioactive components. In the past decade, consumers have been rediscovering whole grain-based products and the number of wholegrain products has increased rapidly.” – you can find an abstract of the study here or my copy of the actual report is here.

Whole grain definition: 

Whole grains shall consist of the intact, ground, cracked or flaked kernel after the removal of inedible parts such as the hull and husk. The principal anatomical components – the starchy endosperm, germ and bran – are present in the same relative proportions as they exist in the intact kernel.

Small losses of components – i.e. less than 2% of the grain/10% of the bran – that occur through processing methods consistent with safety and quality are allowed.

whole grain anatomyThe grains included in the definition are specified as a wide range of cereal grains from the Poaceae family such as wheat, oat, rye, barley, and the pseudo-cereals amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa, and wild rice.

What does this mean to you?

Eating whole grains will provide more nutritional value per volume than refined grains. Always look for the least processed, whole foods that you can and if a grain-based food product looks like its an even colour all-over then its probably not wholegrain. It might be wholemeal which can be madewhite flour dyed brown. Wholegrain should have different coloured particles and textures; meaning you are getting the fibre, slow-release carbohydrates, protein and nutrients such as B Vitamins. If you have health related problems from eating grains it may be because you are eating them in a processed form or that you have a gluten intolerance, or have low pancreatic enzymes.


Do you eat whole grain foods? Are you confused by food labelling? You’re not alone if so!

Images courtesy of:

Precision Nutrition


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About the author

Emma Wight-Boycott MSc is a natural health advocate with a passion for simplifying the science. Emma works with postnatal mums, weekend runners and those with digestive issues to rediscover their health mojo!

1 comment on “What is a whole grain?”

  1. Pingback: 7 surprising benefits of Spirulina | Emma Nutrition

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