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Nutrition Basics: Understanding Grains


Updated February 15, 2014

What are Grains?

Foods that are made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley or any another cereal grain are grain products. Grain products are bread, pasta, oatmeal, breakfast cereals, and tortillas. When selecting grains, it is important to remember that whole grains are preferable to refined grains.


What is the Difference Between Refined and Whole Grains?

Grain products can be designated into two different types, whole grain and refined grains. Whole grains (such as brown rice and oatmeal) contain the entire grain kernel while refined grains (such as white rice and white bread) have been processed, which removes the bran and germ. The refinement process gives these foods a finer texture and prolongs their shelf life. But it also removes important nutrients such as B vitamins, fiber, and iron.


Grains and Nutrition

Whole grains are far more nutritious and wholesome than refined grains. They supply more vitamin E, B, and folic acid than refined grains, as well as important minerals such as magnesium, zinc, and iron. Whole grains are also fiber-rich, which can help you lose weight by making you feel fuller throughout the day and prevent overeating.

Most refined grains have been enriched, meaning that nutrients that were originally found in the food have been returned to it during processing. This could mean B vitamins and iron are added back into a white bread product after processing, for example.


The Fiber Factor

Fiber, however, is not added back to enriched grains. So if you do not get enough fiber in your diet from other sources, this is another reason whole grains are preferable to refined grains. The USDA recommends that consumers check the ingredient list on refined grain product's packaging for the word enriched. Refined grains that have not been enriched offer the least nutritional value of any grain, yet they are the highest in sugar and calories.

To get enough fiber in your diet, choose whole grains, especially if you do not eat a lot of fruit and vegetables. To know if you are making good choices, look for the words "good source of fiber" on your favorite food's packaging. To identify whole grain foods, look for words such as "whole grain," "whole wheat," "rye," or "whole oats" as the first ingredients.


Examples of Grains

Some examples of whole grain food choices include:


  • brown rice
  • oatmeal
  • popcorn
  • whole wheat cereal
  • muesli
  • whole wheat bread
  • whole wheat crackers
  • whole wheat pasta
  • whole wheat tortillas
  • wild rice

Some examples of less common whole grains include:

  • amaranth
  • millet
  • quinoa
  • sorghum

Examples of refined foods to avoid or choose less often include:


  • crackers
  • corn and flour tortillas
  • grits
  • noodles
  • spaghetti
  • macaroni
  • pitas
  • corn flakes
  • white bread
  • white rice


United States Department of Agriculture. MyPyramid.gov Inside The Pyramid - What foods are in the grain group?. 5 October 2007.

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