Whole Grains 101

whole grains 101

Whole Grains A to Z

Thumbnail descriptions of some of the many whole grain varieties that delight our taste buds in a wide range of dishes. Download a Printer Friendly handout of this page (170K PDF)

The grains below, when consumed in a form including the bran, germ and endosperm, are examples of generally accepted whole grain foods and flours. Click here to access our full Grain of the Month Calendar, or click on Learn More under each grain below.

Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.)

Amaranth was a staple of Aztec culture, until Cortez, in an effort to destroy that civilization, decreed that anyone growing the crop would be put to death. Seeds were smuggled out to Asia, where local dialects referred to Amaranth as "king seed" and "seed sent by God" as a tribute to its taste and sustenance. Amaranth kernels are tiny; when cooked they resemble brown caviar. Amaranth is a "pseudo-grain" – like quinoa and buckwheat, it's not in the Poaceae botanical family, but is listed with other grains because its nutritional profile and uses are similar to "true" cereal grains.

Today amaranth is making its way back, thanks to a lively, peppery taste and a higher level of protein (it's roughly 13-14% protein) compared to most other grains. In South America, it is often sold on the streets, popped like corn. Amaranth has no gluten, so it must be mixed with wheat to make leavened breads. It is popular in cereals, breads, muffins, crackers and pancakes.

How to be sure you're getting whole amaranth: When you see amaranth on an ingredient list, it is almost invariably whole amaranth.

Amaranth is the Grain of the Month in May. Learn more about amaranth.

Health bonus: Amaranth has a high level of very complete protein; its protein contains lysine, an amino acid missing or negligible in many grains.

Barley (Hordeum vulgare)

Barley is one of the oldest cultivated grains. Egyptians buried mummies with necklaces of barley, and centuries later In 1324 Edward II of England standardized the inch as equal to “three grains of barley, dry and round, placed end to end lengthwise."  It is a highly-adaptable crop, growing north of the Arctic circle and as far south as Ethiopia.

Barley has a particularly tough hull, which is difficult to remove without losing some of the bran. Hulled barley, available at health food stores, retains more of the whole-grain nutrients but is very slow-cooking. New varieties of hull-less barley are starting to become available. Lightly pearled barley is not technically a whole grain (as small amounts of the bran are missing) – but it's full of fiber and much healthier than a fully-refined grain.

How to be sure you're getting whole barley: Look for whole barley or hulled barley or hull-less barley.

Barley is the Grain of the Month in February. Learn more about barley.

Health bonus: The fiber in barley is especially healthy; it may lower cholesterol even more effectively than oat fiber.

Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum)

Buckwheat goes way beyond the pancake mixes we associate with it. Japan’s soba noodles, Brittany’s crêpes and Russia’s kasha are all made with buckwheat. Botanically, buckwheat is a cousin of rhubarb, not technically a grain at all – and certainly not a kind of wheat. But its nutrients, nutty flavor and appearance have led to its ready adoption into the family of grains. Buckwheat tolerates poor soil, grows well on rocky hillsides and thrives without chemical pesticides.

How to be sure you're getting whole buckwheat: When you see buckwheat on an ingredient list, it is almost invariably whole buckwheat.

Buckwheat is the Grain of the Month in December. Learn more about buckwheat.

Health bonus: Buckwheat is the only grain known to have high levels of an antioxidant called rutin, and studies show that it improves circulation and prevents LDL cholesterol from blocking blood vessels.

Bulgur (Triticum ssp.)

When wheat kernels are boiled, dried, cracked, then sorted by size, the result is bulgur. This wheat product is sometimes referred to as “Middle Eastern pasta” for its versatility as a base for all sorts of dishes. Bulgur is most often made from durum wheat, but in fact almost any wheat, hard or soft, red or white, can be made into bulgur.

Because bulgur has been precooked and dried, it needs to be boiled for only about 10 minutes to be ready to eat – about the same time as dry pasta. This makes bulgur an extremely nutritious fast food for quick side dishes, pilafs or salads. Perhaps bulgur’s best-known traditional use is in the minty grain and vegetable salad known as tabbouleh.

How to be sure you're getting whole bulgur: In the U.S., FDA has defined all bulgur as whole grain.

Wheat, including bulgur, is the grain of the month in July. Learn more...

Health bonus: Bulgur has more fiber than quinoa, oats, millet, buckwheat or corn. Its quick cooking time and mild flavor make it ideal for those new to whole grain cooking.

Corn (Zea mays mays)

Fresh corn on the cob. Popcorn. Corn cakes. Polenta. Tortillas. Corn muffins. Though sometimes dismissed as a nutrient-poor starch – both a second-rate vegetable and a second-rate grain – corn is lately being reassessed and viewed as a healthy food. Traditional Latin cultures learned how to treat corn with alkali, creating masa harina. This treatment liberates the niacin in corn, so those who depend on it for sustenance will avoid pellagra. Eating corn with beans creates a complementary mix of amino acids that raises the protein value to humans.

Most of the corn grown in the U.S. is used to feed cattle and to make sweeteners. But some finds its way into the grocery store.

How to be sure you're getting whole corn: Avoid labels that say “degerminated” when you’re looking for whole-grain corn, and look for the words whole corn.

Corn, including popcorn, is the grain of the month in October. Learn more...

Health bonus: Research from Cornell (no pun intended!) shows that corn has the highest level of antioxidants of any grain or vegetable – almost twice the antioxidant activity of apples!

Einkorn (Triticum monococcum L)

Generally thought to be the most ancient of wheat varieties available today, einkorn is a diploid wheat with just two sets of chromosomes. While einkorn, with its hard-to-thresh hull, was abandoned as a mainstream crop, it's still grown in Austria, southern France (where it’s called petit épeautre or "little spelt"), Italy (where it's called farro piccolo or "little farro"), Germany, and some eastern European countries, in marginally fertile areas. More recently, farmers in Washington state and elsewhere are bringing drought-tolerant einkorn back into production in the U.S.

How to be sure you're getting whole einkorn: When you see einkorn on an ingredient list, it is almost invariably whole einkorn.

Wheat, including einkorn, is the grain of the month in July. Learn more...

Health bonus: Studies show that compared to modern wheat it’s higher in protein, phosphorus, potassium, and beta-carotene, among other nutrients.

Farro / Emmer (Triticum turgidum dicoccum)

Emmer, an ancient strain of wheat, was one of the first cereals ever domesticated in the Fertile Crescent, and centuries later, it served as the standard daily ration of the Roman legions. But over the centuries, emmer was gradually abandoned in favor of durum wheat, which is easier to hull.

By the beginning of the 20th century, higher-yielding wheat strains had replaced emmer almost everywhere, except in Ethiopia, where emmer still constitutes about 7% of the wheat grown.

In Italy – and increasingly throughout the world – emmer is known as farro or grano farro or farro medio ("medium farro") and is staging a comeback as a gourmet specialty. Semolina flour made from emmer is still used today for special soups and other dishes in Tuscany and Umbria, and farro is thought by some aficionados to make the best pasta.

How to be sure you're getting whole farro: Avoid labels that say “pearled” when you’re looking for whole-grain farro, and look for the words whole farro.

Wheat, including farro / emmer, is the grain of the month in July. Learn more...

Grano (Triticum turgidum durum)

When durum wheat kernels (“wheat berries”) are lightly polished, they become grano, a side-dish full of nutty flavor and al dente texture. Those who have tried wheat berries (see below) know that they require soaking and then cooking for an hour. But the minimal processing given to grano means that some of the thick outer casing of the grain is removed, sacrificing a small amount of bran in order to cut cooking time to about thirty minutes.

Grano is in fact the Italian word for grain, a name that evokes its origins. In Italy, grano predates pasta (also made from durum wheat) but is still enjoyed in traditional dishes, especially in Sicily and Apulia.

Because it is missing some of its bran, grano is not technically a whole grain, but is still a healthier choice than a totally-refined grain.

Wheat, including grano, is the grain of the month in July. Learn more...

Kamut® Khorasan Grain (triticum turgidum turanicum)

Kamut® Khorasan grain is another example of an heirloom grain, once pushed aside by an agricultural monoculture but now returning to add variety to the food supply. Brought back as a souvenir said to be from an Egyptian tomb, this wheat variety was peddled without much success at the Montana State Fair in 1960 as “King Tut’s Wheat.”

Years of selecting, testing and propagating eventually brought the grain – now called Kamut, an ancient Egyptian word for wheat – to prominence. Today, millions of pounds of this rich, buttery-tasting wheat are grown on organic farms and made into over 450 whole-grain products around the world.

How to be sure you're getting whole Kamut: Look for the words whole Kamut.

Wheat, including Kamut, is the grain of the month in July. Learn more...

Health bonus: Kamut® grain has higher levels of protein than common wheat, and more Vitamin E.

Kañiwa (Chenopodium pallidicaule)

A cousin of quinoa, kañiwa ( pronounced kah-nyee-wah) also hails from Peru and Bolivia. You may also see it spelled cañihua. Like quinoa, it is a "pseudo-cereal" with a high level of protein (15 to 19 percent) and a more complete balance of amino acids than most grains.  Unlike quinoa, kañiwa is not coated with bitter saponins that must first be rinsed off.

How to be sure you're getting whole kañiwa: Kañiwa is such a tiny grain with such specialized uses that you are unlikely to encounter it in refined form. As always, look for the word whole, but even if you don't see it, the grain is likely whole.

Quinoa is the Grain of the Month in March. Learn more about quinoa.

Health bonus: Research shows that kañiwa is high in the antioxidant quercetin.

Millet (Panicum miliaceum)

Millet has been around for thousands of years and is found in many diets around the world.  In fact, it’s the leading staple grain in India, and is commonly eaten in China, South America, Russia and the Himalayas. Now people in the United States are beginning to realize what they've been missing! Millet's incredible versatility means it can be used in everything from flatbreads to porridges, side dishes and desserts – even fermented and consumed as an alcoholic beverage.

In addition to being cooked in its natural form, millet can be ground and used as flour (as in Indian roti) or prepared as polenta in lieu of corn meal.  As a gluten-free whole grain, millet provides yet another great grain option for those in need of alternatives.  Easy to prepare, and becoming easier to find, millet has finally made its way to the American table.  Millet can be found in white, gray, yellow or red; and the delicate flavor is enhanced by toasting the dry grains before cooking.

How to be sure you're getting whole millet: When you see millet on an ingredient list, it is almost invariably whole millet.

Millet is November's Grain of the Month. Learn more...

Health bonus:  Millet is naturally high in protein and antioxidants, and can help control blood sugar and cholesterol.

Oats (Avena sativa)

Oats have a sweet flavor that makes them a favorite for breakfast cereals. 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.

In the U.S., most oats are steamed and flattened to produce "old-fashioned" or regular oats, quick oats, and instant oats. The more oats are flattened and steamed, the quicker they cook – and the softer they become. If you prefer a chewier, nuttier texture, consider steel-cut oats, also sometimes called Irish or Scottish oats. Steel-cut oats consist of the entire oat kernel (similar in look to a grain of rice), sliced once or twice into smaller pieces to help water penetrate and cook the grain. Cooked for about 20 minutes, steel-cut oats create a breakfast porridge that delights many people who didn't realize they love oatmeal!

How to be sure you're getting whole oats: When you see oats or oatmeal or oat groats on an ingredient list, they are almost invariably whole oats.

Oats are the Grain of the Month in January. Click here for more information on oats.

Health bonus: Scientific studies have concluded that like barley, oats contain a special kind of fiber called beta-glucan found to be especially effective in lowering cholesterol. Recent research reports indicate that oats also have a unique antioxidant, avenanthramides, that helps protect blood vessels from the damaging effects of LDL cholesterol.

Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa)

Quinoa (keen-wah) comes to us from the Andes, where it has long been cultivated by the Inca. Botanically a relative of swiss chard and beets rather than a “true” grain, quinoa cooks in about 10-12 minutes, creating a light, fluffy side dish. It can also be incorporated into soups, salads and baked goods. Commercially, quinoa is now appearing in cereal flakes and other processed foods. Though much of our quinoa is still imported from South America, farmers in high-altitude areas near the Rockies are also beginning to cultivate quinoa.

Quinoa is a small, light-colored round grain, similar in appearance to sesame seeds. But quinoa is also available in other colors, including red, purple and black. Most quinoa must be rinsed before cooking, to remove the bitter residue of saponins, a plant-defense that wards off insects. Botanists are now developing saponin-free strains of quinoa, to eliminate this minor annoyance to the enjoyment of quinoa.

How to be sure you're getting whole quinoa: When you see quinoa on an ingredient list, it is almost invariably whole quinoa.

Quinoa is the Grain of the Month in March. Learn more about quinoa.

Health bonus: The abundant protein in quinoa is complete protein, which means that it contains all the essential amino acids our bodies can’t make on their own.

Rice (Oryza sativa)

White rice is refined, with the germ and bran removed. Whole-grain rice is usually brown – but, unknown to many, can also be black, purple, red or any of a variety of exotic hues. Around the world, rice thrives in warm, humid climates; almost all of the U.S. rice crop is grown in Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas.

Converted rice is parboiled before refining, a process which drives some of the B vitamins into the endosperm so that they are not lost when the bran is removed. As a result, converted rice is healthier than regular white rice, but still is lacking many nutrients found in brown rice. Brown rice is lower in fiber than most other whole grains, but rich in many nutrients.

How to be sure you're getting whole grain rice: The term brown rice is always whole grain, as are most other colored rices, such as black rice or red rice.

Rice and wild rice are the grains of the month in September. Learn more...

Health bonus: Rice is one of the most easily-digested grains – one reason rice cereal is often recommended as a baby’s first solid. This makes rice ideal for those on a restricted diet or who are gluten-intolerant.

Rye (Secale cereale)

Long seen as a weed in more desirable wheat crops, rye eventually gained respect for its ability to grow in areas too wet or cold for other grains. For this reason it is a traditional part of cuisine in Northern Europe and Russia. Rye was also widely grown in colonial America; some historians believe a fungus, rye ergot, triggered hallucinations leading to the Salem witch trials.

Recently the Finnish bakery group Fazer started a three-year program to publicize the health benefits of rye products, in a major push to increase rye consumption. Rye is unusual among grains for the high level of fiber in its endosperm – not just in its bran. Because of this, rye products generally have a lower glycemic index than products made from wheat and most other grains, making them especially healthy for diabetics. 

How to be sure you're getting whole rye: Look for whole rye or rye berries in the ingredient list – just because something is labeled "rye bread" doesn't guarantee it's whole grain.

Rye is the grain of the month in August. Learn more...

Health bonus: The type of fiber in rye promotes a rapid feeling of fullness, making rye foods a good choice for people trying to lose weight.

Sorghum / Milo (Sorghum spp.)

Farmers on the Great Plains from South Dakota to Texas appreciate that sorghum thrives where other crops would wither and die; in drought periods, in fact, it becomes partially dormant. Worldwide, about 50% of sorghum goes to human consumption, but in the U.S., most of the crop is fed to animals, made into wallboard or used for biodegradable packing materials.

That’s a shame, because sorghum, also called milo and believed to have originated in Africa, can be eaten like popcorn, cooked into porridge, ground into flour for baked goods, or even brewed into beer.

How to be sure you're getting whole sorghum: When you see sorghum on an ingredient list, it is most likely whole sorgum – but you can be even more sure with the word whole.

Sorghum is the grain of the month in June. Learn more...

Health bonus: A gluten-free grain, sorghum is especially popular among those with celiac disease.

Spelt (Triticum aestivum spelta)

Spelt is a variety of wheat widely cultivated until the spread of fertilizers and mechanical harvesting left it by the wayside in favor of wheats more compatible with industrialization. Spelt can be used in place of common wheat in most recipes.

Twelfth-century mystic St. Hildegard is said to have written, "The spelt is the best of grains. It is rich and nourishing and milder than other grain. It produces a strong body and healthy blood to those who eat it and it makes the spirit of man light and cheerful. If someone is ill boil some spelt, mix it with egg and this will heal him like a fine ointment." Today, the German abbey she founded still sells spelt products and even spelt liqueur. In Italy, spelt is known as farro grande, or "big farro."

How to be sure you're getting whole spelt: Like other varieties of wheat, spelt can be found in both whole and refined form in our food supply – so look for the words whole spelt.

Wheat, including spelt, is the grain of the month in July. Learn more...

Health bonus: Spelt is higher in protein than common wheat. There are anecdotal reports that some people sensitive to wheat can tolerate spelt, but no reliable medical studies have addressed that issue.

Teff (Eragrostis tef)

It is estimated that teff is the principal source of nutrition for over two-thirds of Ethiopians, who make it into the ubiquitous spongy injera flatbread.  It's also widely consumed in neighboring Eritrea and other countries in the Horn of Africa. Teff grains are minute – just 1/150 the size of wheat kernels – giving rise to the grain’s name, which comes from teffa, meaning “lost” in Amharic.

This nutritious and easy-to-grow type of millet is largely unknown outside of Ethiopia, India and Australia. Today it is getting more attention for its sweet, molasses-like flavor and its versatility; it can be cooked as porridge, added to baked goods, or even made into “teff polenta.” Teff grows in three colors: red, brown and white.

How to be sure you're getting whole teff: All varieties of teff are whole-grain, because the kernel is simply too small to mill easily.

Teff is November's Grain of the Month. Learn more...

Health bonus: Teff has over twice the iron of other grains, and three times the calcium.

Triticale (x triticosecale rimpaui)

Triticale (trit-i-KAY-lee) is the new kid on the block, a hybrid of durum wheat and rye that’s been grown commercially for only thirty-five years. Rye and wheat have long cross-bred in nature, but the resulting offspring were sterile, until a French scientist, in 1937 discovered how to induce fertility.

Triticale was over-hyped as a miracle crop in the 1970s, but initial interest faded when crops were inconsistent and acceptance was slow. Today about 80% of the world’s triticale is grown in Europe. It grows easily without commercial fertilizers and pesticides, making it ideal for organic and sustainable farming.

How to be sure you're getting whole triticale: When you see triticale on an ingredient list, it is almost invariably whole triticale.

Triticale and Rye are the grains of the month in August. Learn more... 

Wheat (Triticum aestivum; Triticum turgidum)

Wheat has come to dominate the grains we eat because it contains large amounts of gluten, a stretchy protein that enables bakers to create satisfying risen breads. It’s almost impossible to make an acceptable risen loaf without at least some wheat mixed in.

Two main varieties of wheat are widely eaten. Durum wheat (Triticum turgidum durum) is made into pasta, while bread wheat (Triticum aestivum vulgare) is used for most other wheat foods.

Bread wheat is described as “hard” or “soft” according to its protein content; as “winter” or “spring” according to when its sown; and as “red” or “white” according to color of the kernels. Hard wheat has more protein, including more gluten, and is used for bread, while soft wheat creates “cake flour” with lower protein.

Winter and spring wheat differ largely in their growing areas, with northern areas supporting spring wheat and more southerly climates able to plant winter wheat, which is actually planted in the fall and harvested in the spring. Red wheat has more strong-flavored tannins than milder white wheat; in this case the word “white” does not mean that the grain has been refined.

Like the other grains above, wheat can be enjoyed in many different forms than baked goods and pasta. Bulgur and grano (see above) make excellent side-dishes. Wheat berries – whole wheat kernels – can also be cooked as a side dish or breakfast cereal, but must be boiled for about an hour, preferably after soaking overnight. Cracked wheat cooks faster, as the wheat berries have been split open, allowing water to penetrate more quickly. Some stores also sell wheat flakes, with an appearance similar to rolled oats.

How to be sure you're getting whole wheat: When you're shopping for wheat, make especially sure to look for the term whole wheat (and in Canada, for the term whole grain whole wheat) to make sure you're getting all the bran, germ and endosperm. Just plain wheat legally refers to refined wheat.

Wheat is the grain of the month in July. Learn more...

Wild Rice (Zizania spp.)

Wild rice is not technically rice at all, but the seed of an aquatic grass originally grown by indigenous tribes around the Great Lakes. Today some commercial cultivation takes place in California and the Midwest, but much of the crop is still harvested by Native Americans, largely in Minnesota.

The strong flavor and high price of wild rice mean that it is most often consumed in a blend with other rices or other grains. Wild rice has twice the protein and fiber of brown rice, but less iron and calcium.

How to be sure you're getting whole wild rice: When you see wild rice on an ingredient list, it is almost invariably whole wild rice.

Wild rice and rice are the grains of the month in September. Learn more... 

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