There’s a BIG difference between whole grains and refined grains, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the nutrition label. Both are carbohydrates, however, one is considered healthy and reduces the risk of disease while the other promotes disease. The difference lies in the way these grains are digested.
What is a Grain?
A grain is a small hard seed derived from grasses like wheat, barley, and rye. This edible seed is used to make foods like bread, oats, cereal, pasta, and rice. The grain is composed of three parts, the bran, germ, and endosperm, which each offer their own unique health benefits.
Bran: The outer layers of the kernel that provide antioxidants, fiber, and B vitamins
Germ: Embryo, or seedling, that can grow into a new crop, filled with B vitamins, protein, heart-healthy fats, and other minerals
Endosperm: The largest segment of the seed which provides the plant with essential nutrients to grow. Filled with starches, protein, vitamins, and minerals.
Grains are categorized as whole or refined, but there is another category newer to the market called enriched grains.
Whole grains are healthy, but not all products made from grains are healthy. So, what exactly is the difference between whole grains, refined grains, and enriched grains?
When the grain is completely intact in its natural form it’s considered to be a whole grain. Whole grains include the bran, germ, and endosperm, providing you with vitamins & minerals like niacin, thiamine, folate, zinc, iron, and magnesium, plus antioxidants, and fiber. Including fiber with the grains offsets the carbohydrate contents and therefore does not spike blood sugar levels the same way as refined grains do. Instead, whole grains offer loads of health benefits including weight management, balanced blood sugar, reduced inflammation, and improved gut health. Adding whole grains into your diet helps reduce cholesterol and lower blood pressure, which can improve the quantity and quality of your life.
Refined grains are much different than whole grains, not only in their composition but also in how they affect your health. Refined grains do not include all three parts of the grain. Instead, they are processed, or refined, into a fine powder involving only the endosperm. The endosperm does not contain fiber, but it does contain the starches, or carbohydrates, of the seed.
This fine powder, commonly used in flours to make white bread, is absorbed rapidly into the bloodstream since it contains little to no fiber. This spikes blood sugar levels causing an increase in insulin, thus promoting weight gain and inflammation leading to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
The refining process removes essential vitamins and minerals from the grain. Enriched grains are simply refined grains with the vitamins and minerals added back to the mix. It’s a great selling feature, but enriched grains are still digested the same as refined grains with a bonus of added nutrients. Fiber is generally not added back into the grain mix which means higher fluctuations in blood sugar and insulin levels. Therefore, enriched grains are considered to be the “healthier” version of refined grains, but they still don’t compare to the benefits of pure whole grains.
100% whole grains are the way to go for your health goals. Common sources of whole grains are brown, colored, and wild rice, whole wheat, barley, whole rye, quinoa, rolled/old-fashioned/steel cut oats, buckwheat, and popcorn.
- Look for “whole grains” on the ingredient list- “100% whole grains” is exactly what you want to see on the packaging. It’s not the same as whole wheat. Look at the other ingredients as well to see if it’s a lot of sugar and fillers.
- Don’t fall for the Ads- If the front of the box is screaming “high fiber, enriched nutrients, healthy source of whole grains”, it’s probably not healthy. Avoid “enriched, bleached” and other words altering the grains. Marketing ploys will try to trick you but you can search for words connected to flours or wheat on the ingredient list and if it says it’s altered in any way, it’s probably not 100% whole grain.
- Follow the 5:1 Rule- Divide the total number of carbohydrates by the total amount of fiber and if your answer is less than 5, it passed the test. However, many white breads have around 29g of carbs and 2g of fiber, 29/2= 14.5, which is well over 5 so that bread is a fail. The higher fiber content will slow down the rate of absorption of carbohydrates into the bloodstream. This is key to balancing insulin levels, managing weight, and reducing the risk for diabetes and heart disease.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is designed for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. This information should not be used to diagnose or treat any health conditions without consulting your healthcare provider. Information used is based on experience and opinion, not 100% evidence. Always consult with a health care practitioner before relying on any information in this article or on this website. Some links in this article may contain affiliate links.