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STEPHANIE ZONIS is a Contributing Editor to THE NIBBLE.



October 2006
Last Updated March 2018

Product Reviews / Main Nibbles / Rice, Bean & Grains

What Is A Whole Grain Cereal & Why You Need To Eat More Of It

A Kernel Of Truth: Whole Grains, What They Are (And Aren’t) And Why They’re Important


CAPSULE REPORT: Americans eat tons of refined grains in bread, pasta, rice dishes and snacks. But the whole grains have the nutrition and are proven to fight disease—from simple regularity to cancer. All you need to do to benefit is understand what is a whole grain cereal, and tweak your diet slightly. Have oatmeal or another whole grain cereal for breakfast, eat a whole wheat bagel, have brown rice or whole wheat pasta at dinner. The USDA now recommends 48 grams of whole grains daily. Just 1/2 cup of Holly’s Oatmeal has 38 grams (and we’ll gladly eat more than that for breakfast). This comprehensive article tells all. On the last page, we review more than 40 whole grain cereals, quite a few of which are real “finds” for your breakfast table, even if you think you don’t like oatmeal. Several of the products are organic- and/or kosher-certified as well. This is Part 1 of a 7-page article. Click the black links below to view the other pages.


What Is A Whole Grain Cereal


A whole grain food is one that is made from a whole grain cereal or blend of whole grain cereals.

If you are even an occasional follower of nutrition news, you know that whole grains are on today’s “A list.” Americans are being urged to eat at least three one-ounce-equivalent servings of whole grains each day (it’s easier than figuring out what 48 grams is, and our whole grain foods chart on page 3 of this article tells you what a one-ounce portion is for your favorite foods—e.g., one slice of bread, a half cup cooked products). But confusion among Americans regarding whole grains is widespread. Here’s a pop quiz to test your whole grain I.Q.:

Q: Which of the following are whole grain products?

  • Oat bran

  • Popcorn

  • Pearl barley

  • Instant oatmeal

  • Cracked wheat bread

A: Popcorn is a whole grain product, as is instant oatmeal. Oat bran is not, nor is pearl barley; cracked wheat bread is not usually a whole grain product in the U.S. If you’re bewildered by terms such as “multi-grain,” “100% whole wheat,” or “twelve-grain”...if you’re wondering how it is that cracked wheat bread might or might not be a whole grain product...you have lots of company.

This article will take a closer look at whole grains (including some less commonly known grains) and the advertising phrases surrounding them, with an emphasis on hot, cooked breakfast cereals.  Jump below to see a list of whole grains; or keep reading, and you’ll get to it in a minute.

Just What Is A “Whole Grain,” Anyhow?


A grain is the edible seed of a cereal grass. Such seeds, also called “kernels,” are the “fruit” of the grass, and the means through which the grass reproduces. The kernel is Whole Graincomprised of four basic parts: the husk (also called the hull), the bran, the endosperm, and the germ. The husk, or outer covering, is inedible, and must be removed before the kernel can be consumed. The bran is an inner protective covering, several layers thick. The germ is the seed embryo; it’s the part of the kernel that produces the sprout for a new plant. The endosperm provides nourishment for the seed after germination.
Chart courtesy of Wikipedia.org.

A whole grain is one with proportions of the bran, germ, and endosperm similar to those found in the harvested kernel. Thus, oat bran, used in the above quiz, is not a whole grain, because it contains neither germ nor endosperm. Whole grains may be intact, but they may also be cracked, flaked, or ground. Consequently, steel cut oats are a whole grain; instant oatmeal, though flaked and steamed, nonetheless retains its whole grain status.

Pearl barley is a tricky example. Barley is a whole grain, so it seems that pearl barley should be one, too. But typical “pearling,” a process that removes the extremely tough outer hull of the barley, also removes too much of the bran compared to the harvested kernel for barley to qualify as a whole grain. There are more lightly pearled brands of barley, but they can be difficult to find.

The FDA is re-examining its definition of “whole grain,” but no one knows when or if that will result in any changes to the definition. Unless a bread has a whole grain as its first ingredient, chances are it’s not a whole grain bread. “Enriched wheat flour” doesn’t qualify; it’s white flour with some of the B vitamins and iron stripped away in the milling process added back, a government requirement in the U.S. It can be a “multigrain” assortment of non-whole grains.

Here are the major whole grains; products made from them are also whole grain (e.g. , corn chips, oat bread, whole wheat tortilla):

Whole Grains Chart
  • Amaranth‡
  • Barley (but not
    pearled barley)
  • Buckwheat (Kasha)‡
  • Bulgur (Cracked
  • Chia/Salba®†
  • Corn (Whole Grain
    Corn or Cornmeal,
    Yellow or White)*
  • Farro (Emmer
  • Flaxseed
  • Grano
  • Hemp
  • Kamut® (Khorasan
  • Millet‡
  • Oats** (Oatmeal,
    Whole or Rolled
  • Popcorn‡
  • Quinoa‡
  • Rice: Black, Brown,
    Red, Wild‡
  • Rye (Whole)
  • Spelt
  • Sorghum‡
  • Teff‡
  • Triticale (Barley/Wheat Hybrid)
  • Whole Wheat
  • Wild Rice‡

*Grits are refined and are not whole grains.

*Oats are naturally gluten free, but they must be processed on equipment that does not process gluten.

†Salba is a trademarked name for chia, Kamut® is a trademarked name for khorasan wheat.

‡Gluten-free whole grain. Quinoa is a seed, not a cereal grain; but is often included in the grains category.



Demystifying Whole Grains At The Store


Read the package to decipher if the product is whole grain. These labels can be very deceptive:

  • Made With Whole Grain. This means that the product contains some whole wheat or other whole grain, but refined flour is the first ingredient. You may wish to keep looking.
  • 100% Wheat. Notice it does not say 100% whole wheat. This means only that the product is all wheat, with no other grain (rye, corn) added. There is no indication that any whole grain (whole wheat) is in the product.
  • Multigrain. This simply means that the product contains more than one grain. It does not indicate if any of the grains is a whole grain; and the absence of the word “whole grain” indicates that there is none.
  • Seven Grain. Ditto.
  • Stone Ground. This is just a processing technique, referring to a grain that has been coarsely ground. While it is nice and rustic, it has nothing to do with whole grains.
  • Bran. Bran (e.g., oat bran) is the partly ground husk of the grain, which is sifted from the flour. It provides valuable fiber, but it is not a whole grain.
  • Pumpernickel. It is easy to think that pumpernickel is a whole grain bread, because it is coarse and dark. But, it is not: In the U.S., unless labeled otherwise, it is made with refined rye and wheat flours, not whole rye and whole wheat.
  • Wheat Germ. Wheat germ is the vitamin-rich embryo of the wheat kernel. It is separated before milling for use as a cereal or food supplement. It’s nutritious, but it isn’t a whole grain.

So What Is A Whole Grain Product?


  • It will specifically say “Whole Grain,” and tell you which whole grains (see the chart above). If you’re looking for a whole grain bread, look for corn bread, flaxseed, kamut, oatmeal bread, whole rye bread, spelt and whole wheat.
  • Corn bread may be whole grain if it is made from whole grain corn flour—read the label.
  • Sprouted hemp bread is increasingly available as well and is delicious. See our review of French Meadow Bakery’s bagels. This company also make a large selection of whole grain, organic breads, and they are well worth ordering.

Whole grain foods are also identified by the Whole Grain Council’s Whole Grain Stamp. You’ll read more about it on page 4 of this article. You’ll read about other whole grain foods and how to add them to your diet on page 5 of this article.


Continue to Page 2: The History Of Whole Grains

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