Grains are often a staple in many diets, but with so many choices—from whole to sprouted to gluten-free—it can be difficult to figure out which options are best for you and your family. Becoming familiar with the different types of grains, their sources and their health benefits can help make mealtime decisions a little more straightforward.
You may have heard recommendations to include more whole grain foods in your diet. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines recommend that of the grains you eat, at least half come from whole grain foods. But how can you tell what type of grain you’re eating? Here’s a breakdown:
- Whole grains include all three edible parts of the original seed in their naturally occurring proportions: the bran, germ and endosperm. The bran is the outer layer of the seed which contains fiber, B vitamins and antioxidants. The innermost layer is the germ, containing B vitamins, protein, minerals and healthy fat. The endosperm is the largest part of the seed and contains mostly carbohydrates, some protein and minimal vitamins and minerals. Sources of whole grains include 100% whole wheat, corn, oats, quinoa, rice (brown, colored and wild), rye, sorghum, teff, triticale, amaranth, barley, buckwheat and millet.
- Refined grains come from whole grains that are processed to remove one or more of the edible parts (bran, germ or endosperm). Oftentimes with refined grains, the bran and germ are removed, leaving the starchy endosperm. Grains are often refined to improve shelf life and create a finer texture, however, many key nutrients (like fiber, B vitamins and protein) are removed during the refining process. White flour, corn grits, white bread or white rice are examples of refined grains. Many products are made with refined grains such as certain cereals, crackers and sweets.
- Enriched grains were developed due to nutrient deficiencies that came about from increased consumption of refined grains. Enriched grains add back some of the nutrients (especially B vitamins) lost during processing of refined grains. Enriched grains can also be fortified to include additional nutrients not originally found in whole grains. Many refined grains are enriched—look for the word “enriched” in the ingredients list.
- Gluten-free grains may be needed for those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Gluten is a structural protein found in wheat, barley, rye and sometimes oats (oats do not naturally contain gluten, but they are often cross contaminated with gluten during processing). Gluten-free grains may be whole, refined or enriched. Gluten-free whole grains include amaranth, buckwheat, corn, millet, oats, quinoa, rice (brown, colored and wild), sorghum and teff.
- Sprouted grains are whole grain seeds that are in the beginning stages of sprouting. The germination process causes the nutrients in sprouted grains to be more available than regular whole grains. It also helps break down the proteins, carbs and fats which makes it easier for our bodies to digest. Grains that can be sprouted include oats, rice, rye, wheat, corn, barley, millet quinoa, sorghum and farro. For an easy way to add sprouted grains to your diet, swap white bread with sprouted bread (like the popular brand Ezekiel bread).
Health Benefits of Grains
When included as part of a balanced diet, grains (especially whole or sprouted grains) can provide many different beneficial nutrients.
- Carbohydrates from grains are used to provide your body with energy.
- Fiber (mostly found in the bran) can help improve your heart health, stabilize blood sugar, improve digestion and help you feel full longer.
- B vitamins support metabolism as well as nerve function. In addition, whole grains and sprouted grain provide protein, minerals and antioxidants that support your overall health.
Unfortunately, many of these key nutrients, and their health benefits, are lacking in refined grains. Even enriched grains, while they have some of these nutrients added back, are missing out on many of the nutrients naturally found in whole and sprouted grains. It can be helpful to consume refined grains in moderation and opt for whole and sprouted grains more often!
Cooking with Whole & Sprouted Grains
There are many different and creative ways to incorporate more healthy grains in your diet! To maximize the health benefits, remember to look for 100% whole grains on the packaging or ingredients list. It’s also important to keep in mind that the USDA currently recommends that grains make up ¼ of your plate, so be sure to round out your meals with protein, fat and vegetables, too! For ideas on how to add whole grain foods to breakfast, lunch or dinner, check out some of our favorite recipes below:
With the many different types of grains, their uses and health benefits, it’s smart to include a variety into your diet. If you’re interested in learning more about creative ways to add more whole grains or sprouted grains to your meals, schedule a one-on-one appointment with a Kroger dietitian today.
Disclaimer: This information is for educational purposes only and not intended to provide healthcare recommendations. For concerns, please see a healthcare provider.