Whole Grains

If you pay any attention to dietary guidelines, you have probably heard countless times that it is important to eat whole grains, as opposed to refined. I have tended to just accept that as “another healthy thing to do”, but never really looked at why. A simple Wikipedia search, though, gave me enough information to see that, yes, there is a big difference!

First whole grains are defined as: “ a cereal grain that contains the germ, endosperm, and bran, in contrast to refined grains, which retain only the endosperm.” Assuming you are not a biology major who understands those terms, take a second to look at the diagram and chart below from this Wiki article and it becomes clear how much better nutritionally whole grains are–with more fiber, protein, iron and B vitamins.

Wheat-kernel nutrition.svg
Though there are a host of whole grains products available, it can sometimes be hard to know what foods have whole grains or how to incorporate them into ones diet. I hope you will find this section helpful to find ways to add more whole grains to your diet.

First, as a general tip, if you have not tried a lot of “ancient grains” that are popular such as farro, kamut, or quinoa, you might try the offerings at Target, as suggested in Nutrition Action “what to eat” article. Some of the “Simply Balanced” products are microwavable, making it easy to try.

Second, one other general tip: I store flour, rice and other grains in the freezer now since we have had so many problems with pantry moths getting into our pantry.

Here are a few whole grains that I regularly use and like with a few recipes to give you ideas.

  • Rice. The most familiar grain, though to get the full benefit, it should be a whole grain variety which has the bran and germ as described above (unlike white rice). I haven’t always liked brown rice as well as white, but lately I have found that Jasmine brown rice is not as heavy as other brown rice varieties I have tried (such as Uncle Ben’s). I use brown rice often with my vegetable concoctions or in soups, and mostly I just cook the rice and serve without its own seasonings. But once in awhile I like to jazz up plain old rice, like in this Coconut Rice dish.  
  • Bulgur (or cracked wheat). If you can tolerate wheat, bulgur is a nice to add because it does not take very long to cook–it is pre-cooked, so only takes about 10 minutes in boiling water. If you have had tabbouleh, it is the whitish kernel that is in with the parsley and other spices. It also has more fiber than other grains. Because it is a staple in middle eastern and east African cooking, you can find it at international stores, or at places like Whole Foods. It is wonderful in salads or as a pilaf. In the summer I often make Bulgur Salad with Chickpeas, Lemon and Dill. Top it off with slices of avocado for an amazing summer dish.
  • Farro. This is also an ancient grain from a wheat called Emmer. It was one for the first cereals ever domesticated, and is still used in places like Ethiopia and Italy. It takes a little longer to cook than other grains, so I have been getting the pre-cooked one from Target, mentioned above. I had never heard of farro until several years ago I was looking for a vegetarian meal for a family who had recently had a baby. The soup recipe I found suggested serving over farro or rice. I looked all over for farro in my grocery store at the time, and never did find it. But the Coconut Red Lentil Soup was a hit and I still love to make it on occasion.
  • Quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”) has been the “in” grain for the past few years. In fact, a few years ago I read articles that said that it was becoming so popular for rich westerners that the local farmers who grow it in places near the Andes could no longer afford to buy this grain the had eaten for centuries. So I feel a bit mixed about using it or recommending it, though I have not been able to tell if things have improved. But quinoa is a “complete protein”, which means that it contains all the essential amino acids we need (meat is another protein that contains all the amino acids, so quinoa is a good substitute). Quinoa can be used in soups, salads or as pilaf kind of side. One of the simplest recipes I have tried is Quinoa and Black Beans
  • Oats. According to the Whole Grains Council, “unique among grains, oats almost never have their bran and germ removed in processing. So if you see oats or oat flour on the label, relax: you’re virtually guaranteed to be getting whole grain.”  And who doesn’t love oatmeal for breakfast on occasion? On work days we mostly eat commercial cereal (which my husband has eaten for breakfast and a bedtime snack since he was a teenager!) but on weekends or for overnight guests, we enjoy making a big batch of oatmeal. The past few years we have added “steel cut” or Irish oatmeal to our list of great breakfasts. Steel cut oats have not been flattened like most oats you might be familiar with, so they take longer to cook (about 20 minutes). Bob’s Red Mill brand has an “award winning recipe” on the package and reading it is good entertainment while waiting for it to cook (who knew?) We often will cook up a large batch and save the leftovers for the next day or so. We put out an assembly line of toppings for people to choose: seeds or chopped nuts, craisens or other dried fruit, flax seed, chia seeds, coconut flakes, wheat germ, etc. and for sweeteners maple syrup, agave nectar or brown sugar.
  • Flour. Flour is made from grains that have been ground into powder to make bread or other pastries. It has been a staple all over the world for hundreds of years. Wheat is the most common grain to be made into flour, but other grains, nuts, tubers and even legumes can be ground into flour (such as oats, rice, garbanzo or fava beans, potato, almond, or corn to name a few). To read about more types, the process for making flour, what it means to be bleached and other information a basic article can be found here. Like my quest to use brown rice and whole wheat pasta, I have also tried to use whole wheat flour in my baking. But again, not quite yet to my satisfaction. I have, however, started using white whole wheat, which seems less dense with in baked products than red whole wheat. The Whole Grains Council has a good article on the differences. When looking for store bought whole grain baked goods, you must read the label to know for sure. WGC has a  helpful page to identify whole grains on labels.
  • Pasta. Pasta has gotten a bad rap over the years from the low carb diet fads. I have been so ingrained with those claims that I almost hesitate to include pasta but, hey–our family loves pasta! We don’t eat quite as much as I did when I had kids at home, but it is still a part of our diet several times a month and it is a good source of fiber and protein. We are trying to work toward whole grain pasta, but like brown rice it is a developing taste. I have found that the shape I like the best in the whole wheat category is the spiral or bowtie (Rotini or Farfalle). They are not quite as dense as Penne and others. Or even better are the tri-colored pasta that are enriched with vegetables like spinach or carrots. Click here for more about pasta.
  • Gluten free grains.  There are a lot of myths about gluten these days and the gluten free industry has popped up like crazy. This is great for people who really do have gluten intolerance or celiac disease, which is about 2% of the populations. Click here to read more about some of the gluten myths as well as and other whole grain myths (i.e. GMOs, blood sugar, weight gain, toxicity, inflammation, etc.) For a list of gluten free whole grains, click here.

For more meat and dairy free ideas using grains, Forks Over Knives has a page devoted for grain or for pasta recipes.

Finally I have referenced the Whole Grain Council numerous times on this page, and I invite you to explore their helpful website on the subject. Below is an excerpt describing their mission:


In April 2002 a group of concerned millers, manufacturers, scientists and chefs gathered in San Diego at a Whole Grains Summit organized by Oldways Preservation Trust. They decided to band together to promote increased consumption of whole grains, and, jointly with Oldways, developed and are carrying out a campaign to encourage others to join in this important effort.

The first formal meeting of the WGC took place in July of 2003. At this meeting, participants outline goals for the fledgling organization, and decided how the important work of the WGC would be funded. Nine industry members stepped forward as sponsors to achieve the following goals:

  • To clarify the definition of “whole grain,” document the health benefits of whole grains, and advocate additional whole-grain health research.
  • To educate consumers about the benefits of whole grains
  • To help Americans find whole grains, with a packaging symbol, and educate them on cooking whole grains
  • To promote whole grains through a positive message about their benefits, rather than by criticizing refined grains.
  • To serve as a conduit between science, industry and consumers.
  • To help grain-product companies, retailers and restaurants meet the needs of health-conscious consumers with appealing whole grain products.


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