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Whole Grain Primer

What can warm or cool your body, help manage blood sugar levels, reduce cholesterol, aid in weight loss, and energize or soothe you?

If you answered “whole grains,” you’d be right.

Grains have been cultivated for at least 10,000 years and humans have certainly been eating them for much longer. In various cultures throughout history, grains have been importantcomponents of harvest festivals and religious rituals; they have been used for currency and measuring, as medicines and, of course, to shower newlyweds with symbols of good fortune and fertility.

Since the mid-19th century, whole grains have often been milled and refined to just a shadow of their real goodness. Health professionals and even the government tell us to eat more whole grains each day and to reduce or eliminate refined grains, but research shows that many people don’t understand the difference between whole or refined grains. Many food processors try to capitalize on that lack of knowledge with tricky labels that sometimes imply more than they deliver. When buying a grain-based product, be sure the label states “whole grains” or “whole” flours if you are trying to increase your consumption of unrefined grains and flours.

Two years ago the FDA issued a guidance paper on whole grains for the purpose of providing consistency in product descriptions and labeling. According to the FDA, to be considered “whole,” grain products must contain the bran, germ and endosperm in naturally occurring proportions. Beyond that, the grains can be whole (intact), cracked, flaked or ground. In addition, rolled oats can be labeled as a whole grain because their processing is limited to flattening, and in some cases, steaming. Presumably this logic would also apply to other flakes such as barley, wheat and rye.

The nitty gritty

By definition, whole grains contain three parts: the bran, germ and endosperm. The bran is the covering that protects the grain. It is found beneath the indigestible outer hull. Bran provides most of the grain’s fiber, along with B vitamins and trace minerals. Refining a grain totally removes the bran. The layer of a grain beneath the bran is known as the endosperm or kernel. This is the starchy part and provides nourishment for the developing seed if it is allowed to sprout and grow. The endosperm consists almost entirely of carbohydrates and only very small amounts of vitamins and minerals. When consumed in natural proportions with the other components of the grain, the endosperm provides us with complex carbohydrates and gives us energy. When a grain is refined, the endosperm is the only part that remains and its starches burn more quickly. The third part of the grain is the germ or embryo. This is the portion that would turn into a new plant if left to grow. The germ has concentrated amounts of a variety of nutrients and fats. When a grain is refined, the germ is removed to prevent rancidity and prolong shelf life.

Health benefits

Whole grains contain many factors that are important for health. All whole grains contain both soluble and insoluble dietary fiber. Though fiber is indigestible, it does contribute several health benefits. Insoluble fiber attracts water and creates bulk in our digestive system. This bulk helps us to fill full and satisfied longer than when we eat low-fiber foods. It also works to control and balance the pH levels in our intestines. It is thought that insoluble fiber may help to prevent colon cancer by maintaining this acid balance. Insoluble fiber also acts like a broom, helping to remove waste materials from our bodies. This is the type of fiber that helps to prevent constipation and hemorrhoids. Wheat and oat bran are good grain sources of insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber ferments in the large intestine and this fermentation has many benefits. Short-chain fatty acids are formed that are beneficial to heart health; they also help reduce and regulate blood pressure, lower LDL cholesterol, and stabilize blood glucose levels. Soluble fiber is abundant in barley, oats and oat bran, and rye. In several studies the consumption of whole grain fiber seemed to reduce the risk of breast cancer. In addition, grains are a great source of B vitamins, minerals and Vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant.


Amaranth has been used by many cultures for millennia. This grain was especially important to the Aztec civilization untilits cultivation was outlawed by Spanish conquerors in the early 16th century. Amaranth is considered a grain by its use, but technically it is the seed of a broadleaf plant in the group known as “super performers.” Super performers have above-average efficiency when it comes to converting sunlight, water and soil into plant tissues. This quality makes amaranth environmentally adaptable, but also super-nutritious. There are several hundred varieties of amaranth and they grow in all climates, soil conditions and altitudes. Amaranth matures into beautiful flower plumes in a rainbow of colors, nodding from stalks ranging from three to eight feet in height. A single plant might produce 50,000 seeds—and take it from me, if you plant amaranth once, you will have it forever! The young leaves of this plant can be used as a salad green, but more mature leaves are best cooked.

Amaranth is very high in protein, fiber, and calcium and is an excellent source of the amino acid lysine. The grain has a distinctive flavor and when cooked it retains its shape and a slight crunch, while at the same time releasing a starch that is almost sauce-like. Amaranth is a gluten-free grain.


Barley is probably the oldest cultivated grain. It was used in ancient Egypt more than 10,000 years ago as food for both people and animals. There is evidence of barley being grown and eaten in China as early as 2800BC and it was an important crop in Europe for centuries as well. Today, most of the human consumption of barley is in the form of beer, but it makes excellent eating in a variety of ways. Barley has a very hard, inedible outer hull and always goes through a basic abrasion process to remove it. Most barley is then polished further, to create the familiar pearled barley. In the Bulk aisle you can choose from either pearled barley or the less abraded hulled version, which is sometimes also known as “pot” barley, “Scotch” barley or groats. Try barley flakes the next time you want hot cereal. This rolled version looks and cooks like rolled oats, but holds its shape a bit more. Substitute it anywhere rolled oats are called for. We also carry barley flour for use in baking. This flour is lower in gluten than wheat flour though, so for bread baking it is best used in a blend. Barley malt is an important natural sweetener that is high in complex carbohydrates and releases slowly into the bloodstream. Barley is a very soothing and nutritious food and is an excellent source of beta-glucan, a fiber important for lowering blood cholesterol and stabilizing blood sugar levels.


Buckwheat groats and flour come from a plant that is related to rhubarb and was first known in Siberia and Manchuria. Buckwheat is a very traditional food in Slavic cultures. The whole groats are available in the Bulk aisle, roasted or raw; the roasted have a stronger flavor. They can be used as a breakfast cereal or served as a savory side or main dish. Buckwheat flour is familiar to many as a pancake ingredient, but it is valuable in all baking to those on gluten-free diets. Buckwheat is also a traditional ingredient of Japanese soba noodles. Buckwheat is considered to be a warming and drying food and an excellent blood builder. It contains all eight amino acids and is high in rutin, which is important for good circulation.


Corn is native to Central and South America and its use probably dates back 9000 years. Indigenous tribes used corn as currency, in religious rites and harvest festivals. The Incas were probably the first to hybridize corn and also the first to develop irrigation systems for it. In most of the world, this grain is known as maize. Corn is often thought of as a vegetable, but it really falls into the grain family, especially when dried. Cornmeal is the basis of breads and tortillas; polenta is an Italian favorite that can beserved in a soft, pudding-like version or cooled until firm and then grilled or baked to a crisper state. Polenta and true corn grits are essentially the same thing—stone-ground whole corn. Hominy grits are a favorite Southern food that traditionally was made with dried field corn that was usually hulled using a lime solution. Popcorn is a specific variety of corn with smaller kernels and ears. It makes a favorite snack for many people. Corn is another gluten-free grain.


Kamut is a grain that dates back about 6000 years and was first known in Egypt and around the Tigris River basin. It is related to durum wheat, but has not been hybridized, meaning the kamut we eat is similar to that eaten in ancient times. Kamut is more nutritious than common wheat, but a little lower in fiber content. It is easily digested and may be less allergenic for some people. It is a high-gluten grain and can be substituted in recipes for whole wheat or wheat flour. Find whole kamut berries in the Bulk aisle. If kamut is soaked for several hours it will cook faster. To cook, combine one-cup whole kamut with 2 1/2 cups water or broth in a two-quart pot. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer until tender, 30 to 40 minutes for soaked, or about 60 minutes for unsoaked. In the packaged grocery aisles you will find a variety of breakfast cereals containing kamut as well as kamut flour.

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Millet most likely originated in Asia. It was an important crop in India and China and was probably brought to the Middle East and then to Africa by the Mongols. In the US millet is mostly used as a component of birdseed, which is unfortunate as it is gluten-free, relatively non-allergenic and high in quality protein. It is also an excellent source of many vitamins and minerals and high in fiber. For pilaf-style millet, combine one cup of millet with 2-1/4 cups water or broth and bring to a boil. Stir in a bit of butter and salt, cover, and simmer 13-18 minutes. Let stand to steam, off heat, for about 10 minutes before serving. To make porridge, use only half a cup of millet with 2 1/4 cups water and cook 15 to 30 minutes. Uncooked millet can be added to bread dough for a bit of texture.


Oats are familiar to most of us as a cooked breakfast cereal. They originated in what is now northern Europe and grow best in cold climates. Oats are higher in fat than other grains and that may account for their reputation as a warming food. Oats are adaptogenic, which means they help us adapt to stress and are important for keeping our body systems balanced. Oats are an excellent choice if you are fighting high cholesterol and they also help stabilize blood sugar levels. Oat groats are whole kernels that have had the outer hull removed. This hull is actually what we call oat bran and like all bran, is high in fiber. When sliced with steel blades, groats turn into steel-cut oats. These are also called “Irish” or “Scotch” oats and cook a little faster than groats. Groats are often flattened in roller mills (sometimes after steaming); these are the familiar rolled oats and they are easily ground into coarse oat meal or flour in a home blender. Instant oats are precooked and then flattened into very thin flakes. They are usually re-hydrated with boiling water before serving. Cooked oats can be added to breads and other baked goods and most of us enjoy oatmeal cookies, which are commonly made with uncooked rolled oats.


Quinoa was known as the “mother grain” to the Incan civilization until it, like amaranth, was outlawed by conquering Spaniards. Quinoa grows best at altitudes above 10,000 feet, making it an important staple to Andean populations. Like amaranth, it is a tall plant with beautiful flowers in a rainbow of colors. It is very high in protein and contains all the amino acids. One cup of cooked quinoa supplies more calcium than an entire quart of milk. Quinoa is an excellent food for nursing mothers as it stimulates milk flow. People with gluten intolerance are often able to eat quinoa. Ivory and red quinoa and quinoa flakes are available in the Bulk aisle and you will find quinoa throughout the Packaged Grocery department in a range of forms including whole quinoa, flour, pasta, and breakfast cereals. Whole quinoa needs to be rinsed thoroughly before cooking to remove the bitter saponins that coat the grain. Cook one-cup whole quinoa in two cups water for about 15 minutes.


Rice is the staple food of more than half the world’s people and for many, rice provides half or more of daily calories consumed. The word for “food” or “life” is the same as the word for rice in several languages. In many Asian cultures the phrase “Have you eaten rice yet” is the standard greeting when people meet friends and acquaintances. In the East, rice consumption averages over 400 pounds per person each year; in the US we each eat about 20 pounds per year, including rice puffed into cereal and encased in candy bars.

Over 7,000 varieties of rice have been developed in the past 2,000 years, varying in color, flavor, aroma, length of grain, texture and translucency. Long grain rice cooks up with separate, firm grains, medium grain rice is tender and moist and short grain rice produces a sticky grain that is well suited to eating with chopsticks or molding into balls and patties.

Most of the rice eaten in the world is polished white rice that has had the bran removed. It is usually enriched with nutrients that have been sprayed on the outside of the kernel. Throughout Eastern history, white rice was considered a mark of status or wealth and brown rice was thought to be inferior. If you are interested in eating whole grains though, you will reach for brown rice. In addition to being a source of fiber, it contains vitamin E and B vitamins. Brown rice tends to be chewier than white and has a flavor that is often described as being nutty. Aromatic rices include the basmati and jasmine varieties. Sweet brown rice, sushi rice and black Japonica rice are all sticky rice varieties. Arborio is a starchy Italian rice most often used in making risotto. Himalayan red rice is a long grain variety that has a nutty flavor and firm texture. Wild rice is the seed of an aquatic grass and has always been considered sacred by the northern Native American peoples. Wild rice can vary in color and texture, depending on its place of origin and the drying method used. True wild rice, or manoomin, is hand-harvested and cooks more quickly than paddy rice; test it after 15 minutes. Paddy-grown wild rice is harder and darker in color and needs 45-60 minutes of cooking. All these types of rice are available in the Bulk aisle. The Packaged Grocery department also carries many rice products ranging from Fair Trade coral, ruby or purple jasmine rice to pasta, cereals, crackers, bread, flour and non-dairy milk and frozen desserts made with rice.

Rice is gluten-free and rarely causes allergic reactions. The flour is often used in gluten-free baking. Rice is soothing to the nervous and digestive systems, helps relieve diarrhea, and helps regulate glucose metabolism. Rice bran has almost twice as much soluble fiber as oat bran and can be added to baked goods and hot cereals in the same way.

To cook basic long grain brown rice, add one cup of the rice to two cups of water. Some cooks prefer to add water to a level one-inch above the rice, or about the length of the cook’s knuckle; I like to use about 1 3/4 cups of liquid. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer 35 to 40 minutes until tender. You may find you prefer a little more—or less—water; you might like to add a bit of salt or tamari—or not. Rice is incredibly versatile; serve it at any meal, seasoned for savory or sweet tastes.


Rye is a hearty grain that grows best in cold climates. It was a staple grain for peasants in Northern Europe and the British Isles for centuries. In North America, rye has mostly been appreciated as the basicingredient in rye whiskey. Rye is a very hearty, filling grain. It has a tangy flavor and is lower in gluten than wheat. In the Bulk aisle you will find whole rye berries, rolled rye flakes and rye flour.


Spelt is a member of the wheat family and probably the oldest cultivated form of wheat. It has been widely grown in Europe for about nine thousand years, though its use dropped during the 20th century after Hitler rejected the grain. Spelt is enjoying a comeback in Europe and is becoming more popular in the US. It is another non-hybridized grain and is higher in protein and other nutrients than wheat. Spelt softens easily in the presence of moisture and is more easily digested than wheat and sometimes tolerated by those with gluten sensitivities. We carry whole spelt, spelt flakes and spelt flour.


Wheat has been cultivated for at least 10,000 years and is still an important food crop in most of the world. Wheat has been a symbol of fertility and prosperity throughout history and bread made from it is often referred to as the “staff of life.” In the US, however we consume most of our wheat ration in highly refined forms. Much of the flour used for commercial baking has been stripped of its bran and germ, bleached, bromated, enriched with a fraction of its nutrients, and preserved for freshness with chemicals.

Here at the Co-op

On our shelves, you’ll find wheat berries in both hard red and soft white varieties. We have cracked wheat, wheat flakes, couscous and semolina. Whole-wheat flour is available in pastry and regular grades. There is wheat bran and wheat germ, whole-wheat pasta and even wheatgrass juice at the Juice Bar. Bulgur is a favorite type of wheat used in many dishes from the Middle East. This is a quick cooking grain that often needs no more than a soak in hot water, before using. Bulgur is made by steaming, drying, and then cracking wheat berries. We carry coarse and finer grinds of bulgur in the Bulk aisle.

Switching to whole grains

It is pretty easy to make the switch from refined to whole grains. If you are a baker, start by substituting whole-wheat, spelt, or whole pastry flour for some of the unbleached flour in your recipe. Gradually increase the proportion of whole flour until you’ve achieved the perfect blend for you. You can do the same thing with other grain flours when you are baking too, but remember that lower gluten flours will create a slightly different product. Bread won’t rise quite as high without some wheat flour, and textures may be denser than you expect.

Make the change to whole-grain products the same way as with flour. Use half whole-grain pasta or rice and half refined in casseroles and gradually change the ratio. Cook hulled barley in advance and freeze it in recipe-size portions to add to soups or eat as a hot cereal. Brown rice and wild rice can be cooked and frozen in the same way to have on hand anytime you need cooked grain. Cooked grains will keep in the refrigerator for a few days too.

Shopping the Bulk aisle is a great way to try new grains. Buy a bit to try and check the bin labels for basic cooking instructions or see Once you get your grain home you may want to transfer it to an airtight container before you put it away. It’s also a good idea to date those grains before they go into storage—because whole grains contain natural oils they will oxidize over time and taste and nutrition will be affected. Use whole grains within three months if you are storing them at room temperature, otherwise the best option is to store grains in your refrigerator or freezer, especially during hot weather.


Check out the Recipe page in this issue of the Reader for some ideas for using whole grains.

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