The song “America the Beautiful” puts the image of our country’s “amber waves of grain” front and center in our minds. But a wheat crop growing in the field is pretty different from the best-known product made from it, white flour. We all know that whole wheat is better for you, generally speaking, but what is the difference, actually? And what makes wheat—or any grain—whole? What’s superior about whole grain, and how can we incorporate more of it into our diets, in the most delicious possible ways?
What’s a whole grain, anyway?
Before defining what a whole grain is, let’s back up and first ask what a grain is. Technically, a grain is the seed of a plant in the grass family. Some other plants are nutritionally similar to true grains and are used similarly. These so-called pseudograins include buckwheat, quinoa, and amaranth. True grains include (non-exhaustively) barley, corn, millet, oats, rice, rye, sorghum, teff, triticale, wheat, and wild rice. Incidentally, many of these grains are gluten-free, so if you follow a gluten-free diet, you still have options for consuming whole grains! What’s more, if you are someone who does not need to avoid gluten altogether, there is some evidence that older varieties of wheat (such as einkorn and emmer) might be better tolerated by those with gluten sensitivities, since these type of wheat have variations in their gliadins, one type of gluten protein.
So now that we know the definition of a grain: What’s a whole grain? It’s any grain containing all its original parts, which are the germ, endosperm, and bran. If you do not break the grain down at all, it is considered an intact whole grain. However, a grain product is still considered whole-grain after milling if all the original parts are still in the final product, as in whole wheat flour.
The germ is the part of the grain that will sprout if planted. It contains vitamins, amino acids, and oils. The endosperm is mostly starch. The bran contains fiber and B vitamins. A refined grain, such as white rice or white flour, contains only the endosperm, meaning that a lot of the nutritious parts of the grain are missing. Some, such as vitamins, can be added back in, and that’s what it means when you see on a label that white flour is “enriched.” From 1943-1946, the FDA required enriching white flour with B vitamins and iron nationally, but currently those additions are not federally mandated. Folic acid, however, is required by the FDA to be added to white flour as of 1998, to help prevent spinal cord injuries in newborns. Thirty-six states currently follow FDA recommendations for the enrichment of white flour with other nutrients.
That all sounds great, right? If we’re able to enrich white flour, why bother with whole wheat? The problem is that although it contains vitamins, enriched white flour does not include the oils and fiber that were lost from the bran and germ in the whole grain. This is why whole wheat flour is still more nutritious than white.
You may have encountered “white whole wheat” flour. This increasingly popular variety of wheat sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it is not. White wheat is simply a variety of wheat that has no color to its bran. In addition to its lighter color, it also has a milder flavor, while still retaining all of the health benefits of whole wheat. It is a genuine whole grain, so if you’re looking to increaseyour whole grain consumption, white whole wheat gets a green light!
Ways to tell whether a product you buy contains whole grain
If you’re looking for whole grain content in a packaged product, be aware that “wheat flour” as an ingredient name is not in itself an indication of whole wheat. The word “whole” must be present for you to know you’re getting a whole grain. You can also look for the Whole Grain Stamp on the package. This stamp was introduced in 2005. Manufacturers can voluntarily put it on their products, subject to approval from the Whole Grains Council, which describes itself as a “nonprofit consumer advocacy group working to increase consumption of whole grains for better health.” There are two stamps available, the basic stamp and the 100% stamp. The difference, according to the Whole Grains Council, is as follows:
If a product bears the 100% Stamp, then all its grain ingredients are whole grains. There is a minimum requirement of 16g (16 grams)—a full serving—of whole grain per labeled serving, for products using the 100% Stamp.
If a product bears the Basic Stamp, it contains at least 8g (8 grams)—a half serving—of whole grain, but may also contain some refined grain. Even if a product contains large amounts of whole grain (23g, 37g, 41g, etc.), it will use the Basic Stamp if it also contains extra bran, germ, or refined flour.
If you were wondering: grams of whole grain are different than grams of fiber. Fiber is one of many components of a whole grain, and fiber can also be added via extra bran, or it might exist as a component of a different ingredient in a product. The nutrition facts label on a packaged product will list the grams of fiber in the product, which is a separate number from the grams of whole grain listed on the Whole Grain stamp. The grams of whole grain on the stamp are the weight of the entire whole grain component of the product, not the weight of the fiber content.
Furthermore, whole grains are not completely correlated with fiber content. Some whole grains contain more fiber than others. All whole grains contain more fiber than their white counterparts, but you cannot assume that a given whole grain is high in fiber on an absolute scale. For example, according to the USDA, a cup of loosely packed cooked white rice contains 1.2 grams of fiber, and a cup of cooked medium-grain brown rice contains 3.5 grams of fiber. The brown rice definitely has more than the white. A cup of white all-purpose flour contains 2.7 grams of fiber, whereas a cup of whole wheat flour contains 13 grams of fiber. That’s a much bigger difference than the difference between white and brown rice!
Nutrition/dietary recommendations for whole grains
The FDA’s MyPlate (introduced in 2011 as the successor to the food pyramid) recommends that at least half the grains you consume are whole grains. The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2010 edition, the most recent edition as of this writing) echoes this recommendation, and clarifies that adults need at least three servings of whole grains per day. Be aware that if you’re eating a product that individually is only half whole grain, you will need twice the volume to achieve the same serving of whole grains as you would with a 100% whole grain product.
The Harvard School of Public Health has also created its own food plate. The HSPH Healthy Eating Plate emphasizes the consumption of whole grains as a staple, and refined grains as foods to be consumed sparingly, similar to sugary drinks or red meat. This is a stronger emphasis on whole grains than the FDA or USDA provides.
You might be wondering if there’s any nutritional difference between consuming intact whole grains and processed whole grains. When it comes to glycemic index, the answer is yes. Intact whole grains have a lower glycemic index than whole grain flour; breads made with chunks of whole grain have a lowerglycemic index than breads made with only finely-milled flour.
How Much Food Counts as a Serving of Whole Grain?
Let’s say your whole grain product doesn’t have the whole grain stamp on it. Maybe you even made it yourself. How do you know how much you need to eat to get a full serving? The Minnesota Department of Health has created a cheat sheet:
1 slice of 100% whole grain bread
1/2 cup cooked 100% whole wheat pasta, brown rice, quinoa, or oatmeal (1 ounce dry)
5 small whole wheat crackers
2 rye crisp breads
1 small 100% whole wheat flour tortilla or corn tortilla (6” diameter)
3 cups of popped popcorn
1 cup cold whole grain cereal flakes
Cooking/baking with whole grains
So, now you’re ready to buy whole grains to cook with yourself, or even to mill at home and use as fresh flour! The bulk aisles at Willy East and West have many options along these lines. And our Bulk Cooking Guide, a free pamphlet available at both stores, contains helpful info for how to cook whole grains.
For detailed info about techniques for an extensive range of whole grains, check out the book Whole Grains for a New Generation by Liana Krissoff. This book also offers a large collection of recipes for cooking and baking with whole grains, and the recipes are helpfully marked if they’re vegetarian, vegan, or gluten-free.
Whole grains have a variety of culinary uses: you might cook them directly (such as brown rice with a stir-fry) or bake with flours made from them (whole wheat bread). I asked my fellow Co-op staff members for their favorite ways to eat or prepare whole grains. Unsurprisingly, they have some great tips! Dan Marten eats 7-grain hot cereal from the bulk aisle every day, with jam and peanut butter. He also likes to add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of cooked grains to any bread recipe. Kirsten Moore says, “I have yet to meet a whole grain that doesn’t taste good with a fried or poached egg on top. Polenta, quinoa, and oatmeal are three of my favorites.” Kjerstin Bell likes to sub in rye berries in place of some of the brown rice in a recipe, and David Williams likes to cook wild rice with black beans and corn in a vegetable broth.
If you’re interested in baking, I highly recommend the King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking cookbook, which offers a staggering array of recipes for everything from Banana Crunch Cake to Beef and Portobello Mushroom Turnovers.
If you’re planning to substitute whole wheat flour for white flour in an existing recipe, or create your own recipe, Advanced Bread and Pastry by Michel Suas offers an overview of how whole wheat flour behaves differently in bread.
- You’ll need more liquid in your recipe than you would with white flour. The bran and cellulose in whole wheat flour absorb a lot of water.
- If your recipe contains at least 60% whole grain flour, allow the dough to rest for ten minutes after mixing, which provides time for that water to get absorbed.
- You’ll typically want to mix your dough for a shorter length of time than a white dough, to prevent tearing. The gluten strands in whole grain doughs are more fragile than in white flour doughs due to large bran particles in the whole grain flour.
- You won’t need as much yeast in whole grain yeasted doughs, because bran contains minerals that are yeast nutrients.
- When baking bread, use shorter shapes for whole grain loaves: this concentrates gas production in one point.
For baking purposes, using a small home grain mill or even a coffee grinder (you might want to have a second one separate from the one you use for coffee), you can mill whole grains easily at home. This is advantageous because the unbroken grain will stay fresh in storage for much longer than whole grain flour will. Whole grain flour spoils relatively quickly because the oils in the germ go rancid when the protective layerof bran no longer protects them. Milling a little bit of grain at a time ensures that your flour is always fresh. However, this is understandably not realistic for everybody at all times! I occasionally mill whole wheat at home, from wheat berries I get in the bulk aisle, but I also always keep flour on hand. If you buy whole grain flours, store them in a cool, dry, place—a cupboard will do, but even better, store in the refrigerator or freezer if possible, especially if you won’t use the full amount within a month or two.
Growing your own
If you’re ambitious and have a green thumb, check out the book Homegrown Whole Grains by Sara Pitzer, which discusses how to grow and harvest whole grains on a small scale, homestead-style. You need less space than you might think: the author recommends starting with a 100-square-foot plot, 10 by 10 feet or 20 by 5. I’m adding this to my list of life goals to revisit when I live somewhere with a backyard!
At Willy East or West, or at their storefront at 1019 Williamson Street, check out Nature Bakery’s breads.
At the Dane County Farmers’ Market, Cress Spring Bakery offers a huge array of naturally leavened bread and pastries made from freshly milled whole grains. They also do weekly home deliveries for a very modest fee (or none at all if your order is large enough).
Want to learn more? Check out the following resources:
- Bulk Cooking Guide, available at both Willy East and Willy West
- Whole Grains for a New Generation by Liana Krissoff
- Whole Grains Every Day Every Way by Lorna Sass
- Whole Grains for Busy People by Lorna Sass
- Homegrown Whole Grains by Sara Pitzer
- King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking by King Arthur Flour
- Whole Grains Council (website), http://wholegrainscouncil.org/ (has its own extensive resources section)