What Are Whole Grains and Why Are They So Important? Here's What a Dietitian Says

Plus how to know if you're getting enough of them in your diet.

Unless you're eating wheat straight from the field, it's hard to know whether the foods you buy actually contain whole grains. Plus, what are whole grains to begin with? Labels can make it even more confusing for packaged foods, but not all terms are synonymous with "whole grain". We break down what you need to know and how to make sure you're getting a healthy dose. (For more on cooking, check out our Whole Grain Cooking Guide).

What Are Whole Grains?

All grains start out whole. Underneath an inedible shell, the seed or kernel of the plant is made up of three parts—the bran, germ and endosperm. The bran and germ contain fiber, antioxidants, B vitamins, protein and healthy fats, as well as minerals including folate and iron. The "meat" of the grain, the endosperm, serves as energy for the plant in the form of starchy carbohydrates. The mix of nutrients in these layers is what makes whole grains powerhouses of disease prevention, with greater intake linked to a lower risk of diabetes, some cancers and heart disease, as well as a healthy GI tract.

Whole grains can be consumed as is, of course (think: brown rice, farro, oats and popcorn—yes, popcorn is a whole grain), but often they're incorporated into foods, such as breakfast cereals and bread. And that's where it can get confusing, says researcher Yanni Papanikolaou, M.P.H., president of Nutritional Strategies, a consulting firm for the food industry.

bread slices
Getty Images/Maren Caruso

How to Know if Packaged Foods Have Whole Grains

Items like frozen waffles or crackers are considered to be "whole" when the bran, germ and endosperm are all present, says Kelly Toups, M.L.A., RD, LDN, director of nutrition at Oldways Whole Grains Council. "Refined" grains, on the other hand, are missing one or more of those three parts. (Many, like white flour, only contain the starchy endosperm.) "Enriched" grains are usually just refined grains with a few nutrients like iron added back in. And that's important, seeing as refined grains haven't been shown to have the same health benefits as whole—and may even have the opposite effect.

Product names and claims like "multigrain," "wheat" or "7 grain" can make you think a product contains whole grains, when many actually don't. In a 2020 study published in Public Health Nutrition, researchers asked more than 1,000 participants to try to decipher which bread, cereal and cracker options they were shown had more whole grains. Nearly half believed the mostly refined products had more whole grains than they did.

While some information on the package (like the Whole Grain Stamp) can be helpful, the ingredients list is your best bet to find whole grains. "Look for products where whole grains are listed as one of the top two ingredients, paying special attention to the word 'whole' or 'whole grain' before the grain's name," advises Toups. And scan what comes after it too. Ingredients are listed from most to least, but companies can diversify where less-healthful things like added sugars come from so that whole grains appear toward the top of the list. Still in doubt? Check the Nutrition Facts panel and select a product where the fiber-to-carbohydrates ratio is more than 1-to-10 (that is, at least 1 gram of fiber for every 10 grams of carbs).

Guide to Reading Labels

Here are some common terms on labels and what they mean related to whole grains.

  • 100% whole grain: Contains no refined flour.
  • Made with whole grains: It's made with some (but likely not all) whole grains.
  • Whole grain: The FDA defines this as a product containing at least 51% whole-grain ingredients by weight.
  • Good source of whole grains: The FDA-regulated term means it contains 15 to 25% whole grains.
  • Whole Grain Stamp: The golden icon signals a product has at least 8 grams whole grains per serving (1/2 of a whole-grain serving). Stamps with "100%" or "50%" mean it contains mostly whole grains.
  • Multigrain: Contains more than one type of grain (but no guarantee they are whole).
  • Stone-ground: Not an indicator of final grain type ratio.
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