On our quest for a healthier diet, we’re often encouraged to give up carbs. But what exactly does that include?
While fruits and veggies could technically be considered carbs, thanks to their fiber and sugar content, this no-carb recommendation usually refers to foods (often baked goods) made from rice, wheat, corn, and other cereal grains… especially when these grains have been refined.
The way we eat grains has changed from ancient times
It’s important to note that grains have been a key source of vitamins and minerals since ancient times. But back then, we didn’t strip grains of their valuable nutrients (which is what refining the grain does — we’ll talk about that in a moment). And we certainly didn’t mix them with a host of sugars, unhealthy fats, and synthetic additives, as we do today.
For most of human history, we’ve eaten our grains whole. Or we crushed them so they’d be easier to digest. But even when we crushed the grain, we still ate the entire (whole) grain, minus its inedible husk.
So, what exactly is the difference between whole grains and refined grains? Why does it matter? And how can we tell the difference, so we know which one to choose? Let’s find out.
This article covers
- What is a whole grain vs. refined grain?
- Why do we refine our grains?
- Refining grains caused widespread disease
- How to recognize whole grains on the label
- Sample nutritional chart (compare the nutrients in whole vs. refined wheat flour)
What is a whole grain vs. refined grain?
A whole grain is the edible seed (or ‘kernel’) of a plant and has its three edible parts still intact. (There is also an inedible husk that protects these edible parts.)
- The bran: This protective outer skin is rich in fiber and also provides B-vitamins and antioxidants.
- The germ: This is the plant’s reproductive embryo, which can be sprouted into another plant. The germ is the most nutrient-rich part of the grain, containing B-vitamins, protein, healthy fats, and minerals.
- The endosperm: This is the source of energy for the germ, allowing it to sprout roots into the ground in order to collect water and nutrients and to sprout upward toward the sun for photosynthesis. While the endosperm is the largest part of the grain, it contains only a small portion of vitamins and minerals.
Every grain is originally harvested as a whole grain. While some are sold that way, others are taken to a factory to be processed, or ‘refined’.
In other words, every refined grain starts as a whole grain — before it is stripped of its bran and germ. This refining process leaves only the endosperm intact. Unfortunately, the endosperm is the part of the grain that is highest in carbs and contains the least amount of nutrients.
That doesn’t sound very appealing, does it? Yet most pasta, bread, crackers, cereals, cakes, cookies, and pastries are made with refined grains today. This is true whether the foods are packaged or served fresh, and whether you’re at a supermarket, a bakery, or even a fine restaurant.
Why do we refine our grains?
Why are refined grains so prominent in our diet? It’s really a matter of practicality.
The only way to make flour is to crush the grains. Crushing the grain releases its natural oils, which are then exposed to air. And once you expose the oil to air, it becomes rancid pretty quickly.
This wasn’t a problem before the industrial age, because they’d use the flour soon after milling it, so the grains didn’t spoil as easily. But today, we mill the flour in one part of the country (or world) and ship it to another, where it then sits on the shelf until someone buys it.
By refining the grain, we remove the bran and germ, which both contain these natural oils. The remaining endosperm does not contain any oil. So making flour with only the endosperm extends the grain’s shelf life and allows it to be shipped long distances without spoiling.
Sounds like a smart idea, right? Hmm, not so fast.
Refining grains caused widespread disease
Refining grains sounded like a great idea back in the 1800s, when the milling process was first developed. But while we were able to ship and store the grains for longer, those grains were stripped of their nutritional value. (Don’t forget, it’s the bran and germ that house most of the grain’s nutrients!)
The end result turned out to be widespread nutritional deficiencies and subsequent illness (source).
In response to this serious issue, governments began requiring brands to enrich their grains (or the foods containing them) with the vitamins and minerals that were lost in the refining process. Unfortunately, enriching grains only adds back a fraction of the lost nutrients, making them nutritionally inferior to whole grains.
Why fiber is important
Beyond vitamins and minerals, enriched grains also lack most (or all) of their natural fiber, which is lost to the milling process. Foods lacking in vitamins and minerals is an obvious issue, but the lack of fiber is also a problem for two big reasons.
- The first and very simple reason is that fiber helps to make us feel full after a meal, which, in turn, helps to prevent overeating.
- A more complex second reason is that fiber helps to slow our body’s digestion of carbohydrates, which, in turn, helps to regulate our blood sugar levels.
So when we eat whole-grain carbs that still have their fiber intact, they cause a slower rise in blood sugar, allowing our body to maintain healthy levels more easily. This is a good thing.
The opposite is true when eating refined carbohydrates that lack natural fiber. In this case, the carbs are more quickly converted to blood sugar, causing our pancreas to spike its insulin secretion and work harder to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
The ongoing strain on the body to maintain normal blood sugar has been shown to increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and more.
How to recognize whole grains on the label
Generally speaking, if you see the word ‘whole’ or ‘sprouted’ next to the name of the grain, then they are, in fact, whole and not refined.
- When you see whole wheat or sprouted wheat berries on the label, you know these are whole grains.
- But if you see just wheat flour,
white flour, or multi-grain on the label, the grains have been refined.
That said, most whole grains don’t actually include the word ‘whole’. For example, brown rice is a whole grain and is just called ‘brown rice’, not ‘whole rice’. Similarly, white rice is a refined grain but is sold as ‘white rice’ and not ‘refined brown rice’, which it technically is. (White rice starts off as brown rice and becomes white rice once the bran and germ are removed.)
Here’s a quick chart to clarify things. And below that is a second chart that shows the nutritional difference between a whole and refined grain, in case you’re curious.
Whole grains include:
- Amaranth *
- Black Rice (aka “forbidden rice”)
- Brown Rice
- Buckwheat *
- Bulgur (cracked wheat)
- Corn (unrefined)
- Oats / oatmeal (rolled or steel-cut)
- Quinoa *
- Whole Rye
- Whole wheat (including durum, farro, Kamut®, and spelt varieties)
- Wild Rice
* Amaranth, quinoa, and buckwheat are not really grains. Considered “pseudo-cereals’ or “pseudo-grains’, they are often listed alongside whole grains, because their nutritional profile and preparation are so similar.
Nutritional Chart: WHOLE Wheat Flour vs. REFINED Wheat Flour
Notice how much more nutrient-rich the whole wheat flour is, as compared to the refined wheat flour.
|NUTRIENT||WHEAT FLOUR (WHOLE)||WHEAT FLOUR (REFINED)|
|Omega-3 fatty acids (mg)||46||28|
|Omega-6 fatty acids (mg)||886||489|
|Vitamin A (IU)||11||0|
|Vitamin K (mcg)||2.3||0.4|
Don’t be fooled by tricky labels!
Even if a packaged food is legitimately made with ‘whole grains’, it can still lack in nutrients. This is because many processed foods will contain a large proportion of unhealthy ingredients. The end result becomes something to avoid. So, don’t rely solely on the marketing claims listed on the front side of the label. Always flip it over to read the ingredients directly!