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Going with the grain

Updated: Apr 10, 2019

Whole grains provide benefits galore

Shirley had gained a few pounds over the years. And because she had a family history of heart disease, she decided it was time to commit to a healthier diet. She read up on nutrition and saw that whole grains can help reduce the risk of heart disease. So she headed to the grocery store and picked up a loaf of bread labeled “multi-grain.” She put it in her shopping cart, feeling good about her new commitment to healthier foods. 

Shirley's story is a lesson in the value of knowing what’s behind the words on product packaging. In this case, even though the bread was labeled multi-grain, it actually contained zero whole grain.

So how do you know whether a food is really is a whole grain? What should you look for? Let’s take a closer look at the world of whole grains.

All grains are created equal…at first

Grains growing in a field all start their lives in whole form. “Whole grain” simply means the entire seed of a plant — also called a kernel. The kernel is made up of three nutritious, edible components: the endosperm, the germ and the bran.

The bran is the outer skin of the kernel and contains antioxidants, fiber and B vitamins. The germ is an embryo that can sprout into a new plant. It also contains B vitamins, along with protein, minerals and healthy fats. And the endosperm provides food to the germ, giving it the energy necessary to send roots down for water and nutrients. It’s the largest part of the kernel and contains starchy carbohydrates and proteins.

To be considered true whole grain food, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires a product to contain all three original parts in the same proportion as when the grain was growing in the field.

How much whole grain we need

At least half the grains we eat should be in whole grain form. This translates to three to five servings daily. These can include wheat, corn, rice, oats, barley, quinoa, sorghum, spelt, rye and popcorn. Yes, that’s right — popcorn is a whole grain, so if you ask for it without butter flavoring, you can munch away at the movies guilt-free. Make it a reasonable serving size, of course!

How much is a serving? The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans lists these examples of whole grain foods serving sizes:

  • ½ cup cooked rice, bulgur, pasta or cooked cereal

  • 1 ounce dry pasta, rice or other dry grain

  • 1 slice of bread

Whether you’re buying rice, bread or pasta, always check the packaging to make sure it either says “100% whole wheat,” or contains the orange “Whole Grain” stamp (see “How to tell if it’s whole grain” below for details).

Health benefits

Whole grains contain antioxidants, vitamins and minerals not found in fruits and vegetables, and the health benefits are many. According to the Whole Grains Council, eating three daily servings of whole grains has shown to reduce the risk of heart disease by as much as 36%, stroke by 37%, type 2 diabetes by up to 27% and some cancers by as much as 43%. They also help lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of obesity.

Nutritional benefits

While all whole grains provide nutrients, some may be stronger in certain nutrients than others. You can find a comprehensive list of specific grains and their nutritional values here.

These whole grain foods pack a powerful nutritional punch:

  • Whole oats, which are rich in an antioxidant that protects the heart (avoid instant oatmeal if it contains added sugar or high fructose corn syrup)

  • Brown and wild rice, which are rich in B vitamins

  • Buckwheat, which is rich in magnesium and a delicious pancake ingredient

  • Whole wheat couscous, a form of pasta made from refined wheat flour, so be sure to look for “whole wheat” on the label

  • Popcorn, but skip the microwaveable kind, which contains chemicals; instead, buy just the kernels and pop it on the stovetop or in a paper bag in the microwave

How to tell if it’s whole grain

While the FDA provides guidelines for manufacturers to follow, some products are still labeled as whole grain when they really aren’t. However, the Whole Grains Council is dedicated to helping you find true whole grain products on grocery store shelves. Look for a black and gold stamp, which guarantees you’re getting at least half a serving of whole grain. 

If a product has the:

  • 100% Stamp, all its grain ingredients are whole grains, and it contains at least one full serving of whole grain per labeled serving

  • 50% Stamp, it has at least half a serving of whole grain per labeled serving, but may contain some refined grain

  • Basic Stamp, it has at least half a serving of whole grain, but is made primarily from refined grain ingredients.  

Here’s a handy way to look up your favorite products and see the type of stamp it earned.

You don’t have to sacrifice flavor to enjoy the benefits of whole grains — try this protein-packed salad. It keeps in the refrigerator for up to three days, and is good as a meal or a side dish.

Sarita-Fionna’s Corn-Bean-Rice Salad


  • 2 cans black beans, rinsed and drained

  • 4 cups of cooked, cooled brown rice

  • 1 can of corn, drained, or 12-ounce bag of frozen corn, thawed

  • 1 small jar roasted red peppers, chopped (fire roasted are nice)

  • 1 red onion, minced

  • 3 cups chopped fresh tomatoes

  • 2 ripe avocados, peeled and chopped

  • 1 bunch fresh cilantro, stems removed, leaves chopped

  • ¾ cup lime juice (from about 4-5 limes)

  • 2 tablespoons honey

  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin

  • ½ teaspoon chili powder

  • Dash of cayenne (optional)   

  • Salt and pepper, to taste


In a small bowl, whisk together lime juice, honey, cumin, chili powder and cayenne, if using. Set aside. In a large bowl, stir together the beans, rice and corn. Next, stir in the onion, red peppers and cilantro. Drizzle lime-honey-spice mixture over ingredients in the large bowl. Stir to coat evenly, and add salt and pepper to taste. Add tomatoes and avocados last, folding in gently so as to not crush them.

Makes 8 servings.

Per serving: 318 calories; 7g fat; 1g saturated fat; 443g sodium (plus salt to taste; 57g carbohydrates; 12.5g fiber; 10.5g protein

Recipe courtesy of the Whole Grains Council. For more delicious, healthy dishes, visit


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