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August 16, 2017 | 3 minute read

What is a whole grain food? Researchers have an idea

When you eat brown rice, oatmeal or 100% whole wheat bread, you know it’s 100% whole grains. Choose pizza, wheat bread, or a breakfast cereal however, and it’s not always clear if you’re getting a whole grain food.

Research shows that whole grains are an important part of a cancer preventive diet. AICR’s continuous update report on colorectal cancer found that foods containing fiber, such as whole grains, help lower risk for this cancer. And whole grains boost health in other ways, including promoting heart health.

But how much whole wheat or oats, for example, do you need in a bread or cereal to say it is a whole grain?

That’s the problem, say experts. There isn’t a global standard definition for what makes a whole grain food for food labeling. Some countries in Europe have their own distinct label guidelines for whole grain foods, and the US doesn’t have one at all, so now a group of scientists is working to find a common definition. Defining what a whole grain food is can help you can more easily identify and compare foods that contain whole grains.

What everyone agrees upon is that a whole grain contains three components: bran (fiber), germ (nutrient rich) and endosperm (starchy part). White flour and white rice are examples of refined grains that have the bran and germ removed. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating at least half of grains as whole grains because they contain more vitamins, minerals, fiber and other health promoting substances. According to the USDA, although Americans are eating more whole grains than 10 years ago, adults are averaging only one serving per day on average.

Learn more about benefits, research and how to use whole grains from AICR’s Foods that Fight Cancer: Whole Grains.

    The authors propose a definition of whole grain food as one that contains at least 30% whole grain products in the overall produce and contains more whole grain than refined grain ingredients.
    While we wait for consensus and clearer labeling to help identify whole grain foods, there are some ways you can identify whether your food choice has significant whole grains.
  1. Look for 100% whole wheat for bread products. Brown rice, quinoa, sorghum and rolled oats are examples of 100% whole grain foods.
  2. Check the ingredient list to see if the first grain listed is a whole grain. For example, for bread, if whole wheat is listed first, it contains a significant amount of whole grain.
  3. Look for the Whole Grains Council stamp on the package. The Whole Grains Council has developed a stamp that companies can use to show their products, like cereals or breads, have a certain amount of whole grains. Companies who are members of the Council may apply to get the stamp on foods, so it’s not used universally.






You can start today to get more whole grains into your diet with these ideas:

  • Try super-convenient whole grains like quick cooking brown rice, whole wheat couscous and quinoa with salads, stews, soups and stir-fries.
  • Quick cooking oatmeal and overnight oats make a great breakfast, but boost whole grains more by adding oats to muffins, meatloaf and veggie burgers.
  • Switch your snacks to whole grains, such as popcorn and check out fun ideas for healthy whole grains kids’ snacks.
  • Explore ways to use some trending cancer fighting whole grains.


2 comments on “What is a whole grain food? Researchers have an idea

  1. Ron Palmer on

    How about sprouted grain? They had to start out whole, but is their germ used up? Are the nutrients that fight cancer increased or decreased by sprouting?

    • Alice RD on

      Mr. Palmer,
      Thanks for a great question. Sprouting actually does make many of the nutrients more available to us. According to the Whole Grains Council,sprouting does the following:
      -Complex molecules become simpler and easier to digest (this refers to starch which is broken into smaller carbohydrate molecules)
      -Vitamin C increases
      -Folate, a B vitamin, increases
      -Compounds showing antioxidant activity increase
      -Soluble fiber increases
      -Gluten decreases
      -Insoluble fiber decreases
      Our new report on colorectal cancer notes that the mechanisms by which whole grains may help lower risk for this cancer include the effects of fiber, vitamin E and the many other compounds that have anti-carcinogenic properties, including those with antioxidant capacity.
      It appears that many of the substances with proposed mechanisms for lowering colorectal cancer risk are preserved in the sprouted grains and that they may offer other nutritional benefits as well.
      Here is more information from the Whole Grains Council on sprouted grains: https://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/whats-whole-grain-refined-grain/sprouted-whole-grains


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