Whole grain guide: Breaking down grains, oats, rice, meals & more

large group of wholegrain food shot from above on white background

Whole grain. Refined. Stone ground. Steel cut.

What do you think of when you hear those words?

For most people, these terms evoke good or bad feelings, despite the fact that many of us can’t pinpoint why. A lot of that comes down to marketing.

“Packaging can be deceiving,” says Reena Panjwani, registered dietitian-nutritionist at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “There’s white bread colored with molasses to make it ‘healthy.’ There’s whole-wheat bread that’s so light in color it’s almost white! It’s a tricky system, which is why it’s so easy to get confused staring at hundreds of options in the grocery aisle.”

There is one clear-cut way, however, to determine what you’re buying.

“It’s important to read the label,” says Panjwani. “Until you know exactly which products you like and trust, the only way you’ll know you’re making a healthy choice is by looking at the ingredients.”

Q&A with BlueCross registered dietitian-nutritionist

Why is it good to eat whole grains?

Panjwani: Whole grains are high in fiber, which makes them heart-healthy. They’ve been shown to improve blood sugar levels, which can help manage diabetes, and to reduce the risk of heart disease. That’s especially important in Tennessee where heart disease is still our #1 cause of death.

What are whole grains?

Panjwani: Whole grains refer to the entire seed of a plant.

Also called kernels, these seeds are made of 3 parts:

  • Bran: Multi-layered outer skin that contains antioxidants, B vitamins and fiber.
  • Germ: The embryo, which could sprout into a new plant if not harvested. Contains B vitamins, protein, minerals and healthy fats.
  • Endosperm: The food supply for the germ and the largest part of the kernel. The endosperm gives the plant energy to grow roots and sprouts, and it contains starchy carbohydrates, proteins and trace vitamins and minerals.

Visual of anatomy of a grain

Whole grains can be ground into flour, crushed into flakes, and so on — but they must retain all 3 of these components to qualify as a whole grain.

What is a refined grain?

Panjwani: When a grain is refined, most of the bran and germ are removed, which leaves just the endosperm, aka the starchy parts. By refining a whole grain, you strip the parts that contain most of the B vitamins, iron and fiber.

What’s an example of a refined grain?

Panjwani: White bread, traditional pasta and white rice are usually refined. It’s largely a texture thing. Refined grains are processed to remove those “chewier” textures, which is why people often say they’re dry relative to what they’re used to. In reality, if we’d always eaten whole grains, we wouldn’t know the difference! It just takes time to get used to it.

How do you tell the difference between whole-wheat and white bread?

Panjwani: Look for “whole wheat” to be listed as the first ingredient, not “wheat flour.” The label and ingredients should read “100% whole wheat flour” because refined (white) flour is also made with wheat. Often it’s just a way to trick people into buying bread that’s technically “wheat bread” but that’s actually less nutritious.

What should you need to look for when buying oats?

Panjwani: Oats are whole grains that are rich in antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and minerals. The more processed your oats are, the bigger the impact they’ll have on your blood sugar. Nutritionally, you want to look for oats that take longer to digest because they’ll be less processed and will keep you satisfied longer.

Common kinds of oats, from least to most processed, are:

  • Groats: Whole kernel, removed from the husk. These take the longest to digest because of high amounts of fiber.
  • Steel cut: Slightly more processed — aka cut into more pieces — but still take a while to digest.
  • Old fashioned: Flattened out, more shelf stable. They’re slower to digest than instant oats but still have a higher impact on blood sugar than groats or steel-cut.
  • Quick or instant: The most refined. Fiber may have been removed and flavoring added, which is why they can easily spike blood sugar.

What should you look for when buying cornmeal?

Panjwani: Cornmeal is dried, ground corn. Look for “whole-grain cornmeal,” not one that’s been degerminated.

Like other grains, corn kernels have 3 parts:

  • Germ: Rich in oil and vitamins.
  • Hull: High in fiber.
  • Endosperm: High in starch.

Whole-grain cornmeal has all three, which gives it a richer taste and at least double the nutritional value. Less processed cornmeal may be stone- or water-ground, as these milling methods allow corn to retain some of its nutritious hull and germ. Whole-grain cornmeal, however, is high in oil, which makes it less shelf-stable. That’s why most products you see on grocery store shelves have probably had the germ removed. If it’s in the fridge or freezer, it may have a higher oil content.

When it comes to texture and color, differences are minimal. A coarse grind might be used to make polenta while a fine grind would be used in baking. Nutritionally, blue corn has more anthocyanins, which is an antioxidant that gives the corn its bluish color! Yellow corn, on the other hand, has more vitamin A.

What should you look for when buying rice?

Panjwani: This one is easier than the others! Brown rice is more nutritious than white rice because it contains all 3 parts of the grain: fibrous bran, nutritious germ and starchy endosperm. Grain length doesn’t really matter, though short-grain rice does have a higher glycemic index than long-grain.

While brown rice does contain more fiber, cultures across the world have eaten white rice for centuries as part of a healthy diet. The key is to balance and pair it with other nutritious foods. And, if you ever find yourself growing tired of rice, try other whole grains such as barley, farro or quinoa.

What should you look for when buying pasta?

Panjwani: Typically, picking a whole-wheat pasta over white pasta will give you more fiber, nutrients and may be more filling.

  • “Vegetable” pasta like spinach or sundried tomato is often made with white or refined flour, and the vegetable powder is added in just for color. That means you won’t get the full health benefits of the vegetable.
  • Another new type of “pasta” that’s gaining popularity uses lentils or other legumes in place of grains or flour. These can be a good source of protein and fiber, especially if you are gluten-free. The taste and texture is different from a traditional pasta, so these can take some getting used to.

In European and Mediterranean cultures, white-flour pasta is part of a healthy diet because people are active and typically consume smaller portions. So if you do enjoy traditional pasta, practice moderation.

Anything else to know when it comes to whole grains?

Panjwani: Yes: Mix it up! Whole grains all have different nutrient profiles, which means they contain varying amounts of different vitamins and minerals. Eating a variety of whole grains will keep you healthy — and keep you from getting bored.

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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Get more information about specific health terms, topics and conditions to better manage your health on bcbst.com. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also find tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the Managing Your Health tab.