The Whole Story on Whole Grains

Choosing whole grains has become, well, ingrained in common recommendations for healthy eating patterns. In fact, the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that at least half of the grains we eat are whole grains—including for foods like bread, cereal, pasta, and rice. This guidance is for good reason, since whole grains provide benefits like helping keep our gut healthy and stabilizing our blood sugar levels.

That being said, it can be a challenge to identify which foods that look like they’re whole grains at the grocery store are actually whole grains. There are a variety of grain-related labels on food packaging, some of which accurately indicate that whole grains are present, and some of which do not. When it comes to identifying whole grains in your food purchases, we’ve got you covered—read on for how to find the whole grains you’re looking for.

The Basics of Grains

Grains fall into three different main categories: whole, refined, and enriched.

Whole Grains

A whole grain refers to an entire grain kernel, meaning that all edible elements—the germ, the endosperm, and the bran—are present and intact in the food. Each of these parts of the grain hold important nutrients:

  • The bran contains fiber, B vitamins, and antioxidants
  • The germ contains healthy fats, minerals, B vitamins, and some protein
  • The endosperm, the largest part of the grain, is mainly composed of starch

Consuming whole grains has been associated with lowering the risk for a wide range of health conditions, including cardiovascular disease and certain cancers. Examples of whole grains include brown rice, whole-wheat bread, whole-grain rolled oats, and quinoa.

Refined Grains

Grains are refined through milling, the process that removes the germ and bran from the grain, leaving only the starchy endosperm. The refining process improves the texture, palatability, and shelf life of grains and grain products, but can strip the grain of the many beneficial nutrients contained in the germ and bran. For example, removing much of the bran and germ results in losses of fiber, B vitamins, vitamin E, trace minerals, protein, unsaturated fat, and about 75 percent of the grain’s phytochemicals, which are substances in plant-based foods with physiologically active components that may have functional health benefits.

Some of the most common refined grain products include white (regular) pasta, white bread, and white rice.

Enrichment and Fortification of Refined Grains

In the 1940s, the U.S. government required refined grains to be enriched with certain B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin) and iron. Enrichment adds back nutrients that are lost during processing into the final product. Since 1998, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also required enriched grain products to be fortified with folic acid, the synthetic form of the B vitamin folate, to help women of childbearing age reduce their risk of having a pregnancy affected with a neural tube defect. Fortification is the process of adding nutrients to foods or beverages that might not naturally be present, with the intention of improving its nutritional profile. Some of the most popular and abundant snacks and meals—such as pasta, bread, cereal, and crackers—are made from enriched and refined grains.

How much whole grains should I be eating?

The 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that American adults consume 5 to 10 ounce-equivalents of grains each day, with at least half coming from 100% whole-grain foods. To put these recommendations into perspective, one ounce-equivalent serving of grains is one slice of bread, ½ cup of cooked pasta or cooked rice, or three cups of popped popcorn. To meet this recommendation, check the ingredients lists on the foods you purchase and try to choose grain foods that list “whole grain” as the first or second ingredient. Since enriched and refined grains can also contain important nutrients, having up to half of your grain intake come from these sources can still support a healthy eating pattern.

What do all these “grain” labels on food packaging mean, anyway?

There are many labels and claims on food packaging related to a product’s whole-grain content. Some of these are important signals that a product contains whole grains, while others are not. Trying to decipher the difference can be challenging, so let’s clear up the confusion.

Labels to look for:

100 Percent Whole Grain

The FDA has not established labeling standards for a food’s grain contents. However, the Whole Grains Council, an advocacy group that supports increased whole-grain consumption, has established its own set of guidelines for whole-grain labeling and uses stamps on food packages to help consumers identify approved whole-grain products. The Whole Grain Council’s 100 percent stamp indicates that all grain ingredients in the product are made of whole grain. Each serving of a food must provide at least 16 grams of whole grain for the council to approve the use of this stamp on the product.

Sprouted

Sprouted grains are whole-grain seeds that are germinated, harvested, and dried, and they are considered whole grains as long as they adhere to a strict definition. The sprouting process produces enzymes that contribute to increased nutrient content and flavor in a grain. Sprouted grains may be easier to digest than other grain alternatives because sprouting helps to partially break down naturally occurring starches. These grains can be found in rice and bread products. Breads made with sprouted grains are generally found on store shelves or in the refrigeration or freezer section of local grocery stores.

Whole Grain

Any product that contains at least 51% whole-grain ingredients can technically be labeled as “whole grain.” This means that up to 49% of the product may consist of refined grains while still displaying a “whole grain” label.

Cracked Wheat

Some raw whole grains are processed, usually by pressing or cutting, just until they crack. This process results in “cracked grains,” which have a smaller particle size and cook more quickly. Cracked grains maintain their nutrient contents.

Rolled

Products like old-fashioned oats are made by steaming oat groats and pressing them flat between smooth rollers. This process creates a larger surface area and reduces cooking time. Rolled grains are also more shelf stable than most other grains and thus can be stored for a longer time period. Their cooking times might be longer than grains that have been broken into smaller pieces (think “quick oats,” which cook in a few minutes, versus rolled oats, which take a bit more time).

What are some labels to be wary of?

Many of the following labels might seem to convey a perception of “whole grains,” but that might not always be the case.

Multigrain

“Multigrain” refers to products made using a mixture of grains. This term could mean that the product uses various types of flour, like the refined wheat and barley flours that are often used to make muffins, or that the item incorporates whole-grain ingredients, like whole-grain rice and quinoa that are added to a salad. Keep in mind that multigrain products are not necessarily whole grain.

Stone-Ground

Stone-ground grains are crushed and, as the term implies, ground between two stones. It’s as simple as that. This type of milling is used usually to produce flour, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the product is a whole grain.

Made with Whole Grains

Products with this label have at least some whole grains as part of their ingredients, but the actual amount might be small.

How can I be sure that whole grains are present in my food?

In addition to the “labels to look for” above, there are other ways to be sure that a food contains whole grains:

  • Review ingredients lists and aim for products with “whole grain” as their first or second ingredient.
  • Choose foods that include the word “whole” or “whole grain” in their ingredients, like “whole wheat flour.”
  • Don’t be fooled by the product’s color. Just because a bread is brown doesn’t mean it’s whole grain.

Navigating nutrition labels can be tricky, and remembering how to spot whole-grain products might take some practice. But referring to the tips above can set you on your way to including more whole grains in your diet as part of an overall healthy eating pattern.

For more information on whole grains, check out our whole grains fact sheet.

This article includes contributions from Marisa Paipongna; Ali Webster, PhD, RD; Casey Evans (IFIC’s former Sylvia Rowe Fellow); and Juliana Yellin (a former IFIC contributor).