Chances are you’ve eaten a lot of grains already, but are you sure that what you’re eating is the healthiest kind? Whole grains are an essential part of a healthy diet, and they are the best type of grain to add to your diet. All types of grains are great sources of complex carbs and some vitamins and minerals, but whole grains top them all. If you think that consuming whole grains means overloading in carbs, you don’t have to worry. Whole grains fall into the good carbs category along with legumes, fruits, and veggies, so you’re safe.
Types of Grains
Grains are seeds of grasses that are cultivated for food. Grains and whole grains come in different shapes and sizes, and are of different types:
- Whole grains
Whole grains are unrefined grains that retain all parts of the seed – the bran, germ, and endosperm – thus, keeping all the nutrients intact. Compared to other types of grains, whole grains are better sources of fiber and important nutrients, such as iron, folate, selenium, potassium, magnesium, and B vitamins. Whole grains are either single foods like popcorn and brown rice, or ingredients like whole wheat flour.
- Refined grains
Refined grains are milled to remove both bran and the germ to give the grain a finer texture and a longer shelf life. Because of this, refined grains have fewer nutrients than whole grains, and it removes the fiber. Refined grains are found in white rice, white flour, white bread, and de-germed cornflower. Most breads, crackers, cereals, and pastries are made with a refined grain.
- Enriched grains
Enriched grains are processed grains that had some of the nutrients lost, but were replaced. Some enriched grains have replaced the B vitamins lost during milling, while some are fortified to add in nutrients that are not naturally-occurring in the food. Still, enriched grains lack the fiber that is natural in its original state.
List of Whole Grains
Whole grains retain all the essential parts and naturally-occurring nutrients of a grain seed. To be considered a whole grain, the grain must have 100% of the original kernel. Whole grains have two categories: cereals and pseudocereals. Cereals are grains that come from grasses like wheat, rice, oats, barley, corn, sorghum, millet, and rye. Meanwhile, pseudocereal grains are cooked and consumed in the same manner, but they don’t come from grasses. Examples include buckwheat, quinoa, and amaranth. Let’s get to know these grains a little bit:
- Whole wheat
Whole wheat is a very popular and versatile whole grain. It’s a key ingredient in better-for-you baked goods, crackers, pastas, noodles, semolina, couscous, and bulgur. Though it’s a well-known alternative to refined grains, it’s highly controversial due to its gluten content. Whole wheat is rich in fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
From old-fashioned oats to steel-cut, oats are among the healthiest whole grain breakfast you can eat. Even the quick-cook oats are guaranteed to be whole grain. Oatmeal is rich in fiber and antioxidants. It also contains beta-glucans, a type of soluble fiber that helps aid digestion and nutrient absorption.
Corn is categorized as a vegetable, but it’s actually a whole grain. When on its simplest, unprocessed form, corn is packed with antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Plus, it’s full of fiber, making it a very filling food to eat. Corn is also a versatile ingredient that can be added to different dishes.
Rice is a super versatile grain that’s inexpensive, widely available, and gluten-free. But the only whole grain rice is brown rice, as white rice has both the bran and germ removed. Brown rice is a healthier alternative to white rice.
Quinoa is a quick-cooking, gluten-free grain that has been hailed as a superfood. This ancient grain is a protein powerhouse, and it’s packed with different vitamins, minerals, fiber, and healthy fats – more than what whole wheat, oats, and other popular grains can offer. It’s consumed in the same way as cereal grains.
Although it has “wheat” in the name, buckwheat is not related to wheat, and it’s actually gluten-free. Buckwheat is more closely related to rhubarb and sorrel, but its seeds are used the same way as wheat. Whole buckwheat is typically used for soups and salads, while buckwheat flour is used as a base for pancakes and waffle mixes.
Millet is an ancient grain that’s typically used as an ingredient for birdseed. But it’s also consumed by humans for thousands of years and is considered a staple ingredient to dishes in China, India, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and other parts of the world. It’s eaten the same way as cereals, and it’s incredibly nutritious.
Whole barley is a healthy whole grain that has been consumed for thousands of years. While it’s not as popular as other whole grains, it’s super healthy. Only hulled barley is considered a whole grain. Whole barley is rich in minerals such as manganese, selenium, magnesium, copper, iron, zinc, potassium, phosphorus, fiber, and B vitamins.
Bulgur is a type of wheat, also known as cracked wheat, that’s a popular ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisine. It’s prepared like rice, but the texture is similar to couscous. This grain takes only a few minutes to cook, and it contains a high amount of fiber.
Whole-grain rye is a healthy alternative to whole wheat since it’s typically more nutritious, and it contains more minerals and fewer carbs. It doesn’t raise blood sugar levels as much as wheat, and it’s incredibly high in fiber. Just make sure you’re buying whole rye, especially when you’re shopping for rye flour. Some manufacturers use refined rye grain flour, and that’s not whole grain.
Sorghum is primarily grown in the United States as a livestock feed, but the gluten-free community has recently embraced it for its versatility. When cooked, sorghum has a chewy texture similar to Israeli couscous. Sorghum flour is also used as an alternative for gluten-free baking.
Amaranth is an ancient grain that has recently gained popularity as a health food. It’s a naturally gluten-free grain that provides plenty of protein, fiber, and micronutrients. It has an earthy and nutty flavor that works well in different kinds of dishes.
This list is not comprehensive, but it includes the most familiar grains to consumers and the most commonly used.
In Latin, the word “grain” means “seed,” so whole-grain simply means whole seed. There are products derived from roots, legumes, and oilseeds that retain the whole grain as food.
However, according to the Whole Grains Council, the AACC International, and the US Food and Drug Administration, legumes and oilseeds are not considered whole grains. These include but are not limited to:
- Beans – all types of beans, including black beans, soybeans, lima beans, fava beans, mung beans, green beans, pinto beans, cowpeas, navy beans, etc.
- Pine nut
- Sunflower seed
- Canola meal