What are wholegrains?
Wholegrain refers to an entire cereal grain, also knows as a kernel. The kernel consists of three elements:
- The bran: a fibre-rich outer layer of a kernel (12-17%)
- The germ: a nutrient-dense inner part of a kernel (approx. 3%)
- The endosperm: a central starchy part of a kernel (80 – 85%)
To be defined as ‘wholegrain’, a food product must retain the same relative proportions of its components (bran, germ and endosperm), either intact, or broken down but with all components included in the product, for example as wholewheat flour (EUFIC, 2014).
Most of the nutritious elements in grains are contained in the outer ‘bran’ and inner ‘germ’ components of the kernel, providing fibre, B vitamins, essential fatty acids and antioxidants. Whole grains can contain up to 75% more nutrients than refined cereals. (BDA, 2016)
Examples of wholegrain foods
Wholewheat and wholewheat flour
Whole oats and whole oat flour
Whole cornmeal and whole corn flour
Whole rye and whole rye flour
Brown rice and brown rice flour
The differences between wholegrains, refined grains, enriched grains and multi grains (EUFIC, 2014)
- Wholegrains include all three components listed above, i.e. the bran, the germ and the endosperm. They can be eaten whole (for example as popcorn) or can be broken down into flakes or cracked/crushed kernels. Most commonly, they are used as an ingredient in other foods, for example in cereals, breads or pasta.
- Refined grains are extracted from the bran and germ of the grain, resulting in a finer texture and increased shelf life. The milling (extraction process) removes a lot of the nutritious components of the grain.
- Enriched grains are grain with added nutrients, often vitamin B (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid) and iron. The process of enriching includes adding certain nutrients inherently present in the grain but lost during the milling process.
- Multigrain products contain more than one grain. These are not necessarily wholegrains though.
Why we should eat more wholegrains
In recent years, carbohydrates have gained a less favourable reputation with many people believing they are unhealthy and/or contribute to weight gain. Whilst it is recommended that the consumption of certain carbohydrates be reduced (think white processed foods such as pastries), many carbohydrates have been shown to be beneficial and eliminating them from our diets could harm our health.
Wholegrains have numerous proven health benefits. In addition to being high in certain nutrients, their high fibre content mean that they are digested slowly in the body, causing a more gradient rise in blood sugars. On the other hand, processed grains, such as white bread, are quickly absorbed leading to sudden spikes in insulin and blood sugar (Ye EQ, Chacko SA, Chou EL, et al., 2012)
Growing evidence from epidemiological studies suggests that eating wholegrain products regularly, as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle, may help to reduce the risk of many common diseases.
A large study (Walsh & Herrington, 2008) over a period of 8-13 years found that people who eat wholegrain regularly, i.e. three to five servings a day (a single serving is 16 g) have a reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes (26% lower risk), and cardiovascular disease (21% lower risk), compared to people who rarely or never incorporate wholegrains into their diets. Regular consumers of wholegrain were also found to have reduced weight gains compared to their counterparts. Additionally, the risk of developing certain cancer types of the digestive system, such as colorectal cancer, may be reduced by 20% in people who consume three servings of wholegrain a day (Chan et al., 2011).
How much should we eat?
A recent study (Censuswide, 2017) found that whilst 7 in 10 (70%) believe it is important to eat wholegrains, the vast majority (95%) of those surveyed don’t know how much they should consume.
In the UK, there are no official recommendations. However, most experts recommend at least three servings a day to achieve the associated health benefits of wholegrains.
A serving of wholegrains equals:
25g porridge oats
1 bowl (34g) muesli
1 bowl (30g) toasted wholegrain oat cereal
1 bowl of wheat-based breakfast cereal
1 bowl of breakfast cereal made from wholewheat
1 large slice (40g) multi-grain bread
23g (uncooked weight) brown rice
23g (uncooked weight) wholewheat pasta
1 slice of rye bread
1 wholemeal pitta bread
Food labelling claims to watch out for
Food labelling can be notoriously misleading. Therefore, wholegrain labelling should be interpreted with caution. It is important to be wary of front of pack claims stating that foods are ‘high in wholegrains’, as often these foods will only contain a small amount. As an example, some Belvita bars contain only 20% wholegrains, yet are labelled as high in wholegrain. if the first ingredient on the list of a grain-based product such as a breakfast biscuit isn’t wholegrain, it is likely that this product does not count as a portion of wholegrain.
Foods labelled with the words ‘multi grain’, ‘stone-ground’, ‘100% wheat’, ‘cracked wheat’, ‘seven-grain’, or ‘bran’ are often not 100% wholegrain products and may not contain any wholegrains at all.
The colour of the product can also be misleading as a brown colour is no guarantee that a bread, for example, contains wholegrains. Certain breads are brown due to the addition of colouring ingredients.
There are many gluten-free whole grain options available to those that need to avoid gluten, for example sufferers of coeliac disease. Good examples include quinoa, buckwheat, certified gluten-free oats or oatmeal, popcorn, brown rice and wild rice.
How to include more wholegrains in your diet
Wholewheat cereals such as Shredded Wheat and porridge oats
Wholemeal/granary or seeded toast with a poached egg or smashed avocado
Sandwiches made with granary bread
Wholegrain wraps with chicken and salad
Quinoa salad with grilled halloumi
Replace white rice with brown rice, wild rice or quinoa
Try wholewheat pasta instead of white pasta
Oat cakes or rye crackers with nut butters
Try stirring a handful of rolled oats into a pot of yoghurt
Aune D, Chan DS, Lau R, et al. (2011). Dietary fibre, wholegrains, and risk of colorectal cancer: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. British Medical Journal 10;343:d6617.
BDA (2016). Food Fact Sheet: Wholegrains. Available online: https://www.bda.uk.com/foodfacts/wholegrains.pdf
Censuswide study for Nestlé Cereal Partners Worldwide (2017): https://www.nestle.co.uk/media/pressreleases/whole-grain-study
Diabetes UK Access online February 2018
The European Food Information Council (EUFIC) Non-profit organisation. Accessed online February 2018 http://www.eufic.org/en/whats-in-food/article/qa-whole-grain
Mellen PB, Walsh TF & Herrington DM. (2008). Wholegrain intake and cardiovascular disease: a meta-analysis. Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases 18(4):283-90.
Ye EQ, Chacko SA, Chou EL, et al. (2012). Greater whole-grain intake is associated with lower risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and weight gain. Journal of Nutrition 142(7):1304-1313.