RiceWinnowing Fotolia 53741972 XS.jpg

Last week Jaclyn, from North Dakota, wrote the WGC asking if hulled millet is whole grain or not. She’d read that hulling removes the bran, so she figured the answer would be no – hulled grains are no longer whole. Happily we were able to assure her that hulled grains can still be whole grains, and we thought you all might like to understand why.

Your whole life you may have heard the expression “separating the wheat from the chaff” without any real understanding of its meaning (unless you grew up on a grain farm).

In cereal crops like wheat, rice, barley, oats and others the seed – the grain kernel we eat – grows on the plant with an inedible hull (also sometimes called a husk) surrounding it. Before we can eat the grain kernel, we need to remove that inedible hull. This can require two processes: threshing (to loosen the hull) and winnowing (to get rid of the hull).

In some harvest-ready grains, the hull is thin and papery, and easy to remove. Little or no threshing is required, as the hull is already loose. Traditionally, farmers would toss this kind of grain into the air, from big flat baskets, letting the thin hulls – called chaff in Middle English – blow away in the wind, or fall through the chinks in the basket. This wind-assisted process for separating the wheat from the chaff is called winnowing and the grains with almost no hull are called “naked” grains. (You can winnow other grains too — the photo here shows rice being winnowed in Indonesia.)

Other grains, even when they’re ripe, have a thick hull that adheres tightly to the grain kernel; these are called “covered” grains and threshing (hulling) them is a real challenge. In the old days, covered grains were often pounded to loosen the hull, or soaked in water; sometimes they even needed to be lightly milled to remove the hull. It’s no coincidence that “thrash” – meaning to whip or flog – originated as a variant of the word thresh. Alas, with such primitive means, some or all of the bran was often lost too, since the healthy bran layer was stuck to the inedible hull.

Today, fortunately, technology has given us much more exacting ways to peel the hull off of covered grains, without disturbing the bran layer. That’s why covered varieties of wheat like spelt and faro are making a comeback, after being sidelined as too much work to hull. At the same time, plant breeding has helped make more “naked” varieties of some grains available.

A look at the varieties of barley on the market helps illustrate how understanding all this can help you be a better grain-shopper:

Hull-less barley: This is a “naked” variety of barley that’s recently become more popular as more and more people choose whole barley over refined. Its inedible hull falls off naturally or with just a little nudge, leaving the complete whole grain for our enjoyment.

Hulled barley: This is a “covered” variety of barley that has had its hull removed with modern technology in a way that leaves the bran intact; it’s therefore a whole grain. (You may also see this described as “dehulled” barley.)

Pearled barley: Pearling is an abrasive process used to remove the hull. It’s something of a blunt instrument, so some of the bran will be missing too. Therefore, even “lightly pearled” barley is not whole grain. And some barley is heavily pearled, so there’s virtually no bran left.

So yes, Jaclyn. Hulled millet is a whole grain, as is hulled barley or any other grain that’s had its inedible hull removed, leaving all of the original bran, germ and endosperm.

If you have questions about whole grains, we’ll happily separate the wheat (the solid science) from the chaff (the rumors and myths). Email Kelly Toups, RD, on our whole grain hotline with your questions. (Cynthia)




Huy Khuong
Hi there, I am wondering that what farmers normally do with the inedible hulls once seperated. Can we use this inedible hull for something else? Thanks Huy K.

One use for inedible hulls is biofuels (ethanol) -- wheat chaff is apparently a good material for making ethanol as described here. Quaker oats supplies oat hulls to biomass plants, too. Buckwheat hulls are used for animal feed -- and are often used in beanbags and for some pillows. There's not much you can do with it at home -- but as you can see, there are some uses for these inedible hulls.

Use hulls for a soil amendment. I use rice hulls as an amendment for potting soil, to improve drainage, and it is useful for lightening heavy clay soils as well.

Hi Kelly Can you tell me please how to separate a very small amount of oats that I've grown at home from their husks? Cecily 


 Hi Cecily,

I haven't tried farming my own grains, so I'm not sure what the best approach would be first hand. My best advice would be to reach out to the agriculture department at your local university.

Three questions on grains, including mention of anyone who has tried this. 1. By grinding up OATS with hull left on, without dehulling, can this be boiled and eaten like oatmeal with extra fiber ?? 2. Will the extra hull material bother the digestion in the intestines ?? 3. What percentage of hull/chaff/husk left mixed in with the ground up OATS would be acceptable for eating as oatmeal ?? .

Hi Gil,

I think you've stumped us today. No one at the Whole Grains Council has ever tried that, and we couldn't find any research or reports on eating oatmeal with the hulls. Whether or not it would bother digestion / intestines would probably be different from one person to another. Really hard to answer -- if you want extra fiber, eat berries with your oatmeal, or add extra oat bran... there are a lot of delicious ways to get extra fiber! Anyone else out there ever tried this, and can give Gil some feedback? 

My dad said his family had to rely on unhulled whole oats after WWII, when there were food shortages in Europe, and that one of his sisters had trouble eating the hulls and would cry when she was told she had to eat her oatmeal without picking them out. I guess they were really tough. I don't know if they tried grinding them, but I've tried grinding unhulled buckwheat, and the hulls wouldn't grind up very well, and remained as hard little bits in the flour, pretty annoying to eat. I wonder if using an electric coffee grinder might pulverize them enough to be acceptably edible.
Thanks for sharing that family story with us, Chris! That's really interesting.
Thanks for sharing this. Yeah, I too remember eating oatmeal with the hulls in late 40's and early 50's in Europe. Didn't matter how well they were cooked, still scratch your throat.
The hull is a nutrient blocking food. Phytic Acid is found in the hulls of grains and when you eat them it literally binds itself to minerals in the digestive tract and prevents your body from absorbing them. I would try to avoid the hull if possible.
the CAPTCHA is way too difficult to figure out, most of the time. It took me several tries to get it too work if it actually did.

 Hi Gil,

Sorry you had a problem with the Captcha. We'll be launching a completely revamped website in August and improving everything!

No one knows how the pyramids were made. Just as knowledge as to how to take the hull of of the OAT grain. The usual answer is. Well we don't know and don't REALLY KNOW ......so let's talk about wheat or barley. That way we can talk about something COMPLEATLY differently and appear to be very knowledgable.
Hi Noah, If you'd like to learn more about de-hulling oats, I suggest you reach out to the agriculture department at your local university, or try speaking with local oat farmers. Hope this helps!
So, is wheat one of the grains that "have a thick hull that adheres tightly to the grain kernel"? Thanks!
There are many different varieties of wheat. The wheat you may be most familiar with, commonly used for making flour and pasta, has a thin, papery hull that is very easy to remove. Other varieties of wheat, like spelt and farro, are "covered" grains that have a thick hull which is much more difficult to remove.
Abigail Todd
This is such a great image and beautifully described. Thank you!
Cynthia Hizer
I am grinding my corn for cornmeal. Ernhsrvrstrd, dried, and husked the corn and put the kernels in paper bags until ready to grind. So I poured a bag of kernels into the hopper and started. Then i saw little pieces of what look to be husk or even cob! First bag I let it go. Subsequent bags I fished these pieces out - but so time consuming. So - what percentage would be acceptable to leave in? It's not a lot but still want to meal to be good.
Hi Cynthia -- It's great to hear you are grinding your own cornmeal at home. That's definitely a great way to maximize the flavor of your cornmeal. As long as it's a relatively small percentage of husk/cob that you're seeing attached to your kernels, it's probably just fine -- and probably no more than you might digest if you were eating the corn off the cob! If it's enough that you can tell it's affecting the flavor of your cornmeal, then it might be worth the time fishing it out, but otherwise it should be ok.
Recently my wife and I have been storing wheat and purchased a grinder as a start to an emergency preparedness program. We would have just stored flour but we noticed that the shelf life of wheat is around 30 years while flour is around 10 years. Do you know why this is? Also, do you have any literature suggestions regarding the storage and use of grains & flours? Any information is appreciated! Thanks!
Hi Sean -- Great question. Intact grains last longer than flour because they have a protective covering around them (the bran) which prevents air and water from getting into the grain. Once the grain has been ground up, the nutrients and lipids in the grain begin to slowly oxidize and break down due to exposure to oxygen, water, light, heat, etc. We don't recommend keeping whole grain flour longer than about 6 months (stored in the freezer) because over time the lipids (healthy fats) in the grain can start to go rancid. For more information on storing grains, see our page on this topic: https://wholegrainscouncil.org/recipes/cooking-whole-grains/storing-whole-grains
I'm looking to purchase wheat chaff but can not find any place or supplier to purchase them. Would any one here know where I can purchase wheat chaff ?
Hi Elizabeth -- Since we're a nutrition organization, we focus on the edible part of the wheat grain. I'm not sure where/if you can purchase the inedible chaff, but I would suggest reaching out to a wheat farmer or miller directly.
Hi Elizabeth Did you ever find the Wheat Chaff?
Eligio Quirindongo
What is the purpose of the husk during the wheat growing? Thanks
Hi Eligio -- The husk acts as a protective covering around the grain. It shields the growing wheat (or other grain) from pests and harsh weather that might otherwise damage it.
Why would the hull be inedible? If we can't digest it, then it's fibre. That's the definition of fiber, after all.
It's not inedible in the sense that you can't eat it, but rather in the sense that most people wouldn't want to. Eating the hull wouldn't make you sick, but it's incredibly tough, doesn't have great flavor, and would be extremely hard to chew. Occasionally companies grind up oat hulls into a fine powder and add it to foods for extra fiber, but most farmers, manufacturers, and consumers consider the hull to be waste.
Phillip Barnett
I read that the hull on spelt is so hard that it is resistant to radiation. Is this true? I have also searched the web to know if the hulls (husks) on emmer and Einkorn are as hard as the hulls on spelt, but haven't found any information. Are the hulls on emmer and Einkorn as hard as the hull on spelt? I was also interested in the same information about Khorason wheat grain hulls. Khorason is a covered wheat grain from Iran. Thank you for your time.
Hi Phillip -- Because we're a nutrition education organization we tend to concern ourselves more with the edible parts of the grain, so we're not experts on the hardness of the hull found on different varieties of wheat. Your questions reminded me of a Cooperative Extension article that I read recently, though (http://articles.extension.org/pages/73240/dehulling-ancient-grains:-economic-considerations-and-equipment). You might try reaching out to the author of the article for more information.
Phillip Barnett
Thank you Cindy for taking the time to answer my question.
Jerry Mullis
I recently bought two handmade baskets in Charleston, S.C. ,which was a rice growing area, pre-civil war. I believe these were used to remove chaff from rice. they are 30" diameter with a split oak ring supporting a woven bambo bottom which tosses rice and chaff into the air. A light breeze blowes the chaff away with the rice falling back into the basket. Can anyone verify this?
Hi Jerry -- How neat! It certainly sounds like they could be winnowing baskets, but you'll probably want to consult an area historian or an antiques specialist to have it confirmed.
hi. i bought some organic hulled whole barley recently. when i opened the packet, i notice many grains still have the hull around them. is eating hull of any grain healthy? or is it bad for the stomach? thanks.
Hello -- The hull of most grains tends to be quite tough and unpalatable which is why it's generally removed from the grain and considered inedible. That said, the hulls of grains are sometimes ground into a fine powder and added as extra fiber in foods, so we don't expect that you would experience an upset stomach from eating the hulls.
thanks. that's very helpful. I guess I'll grind it out fine and have it as porridge. ☺️
Taylor Quindein...
Separating grain and wheat is very hard when you don't know how to do it. Especially me. Thank you farmers for all your hard work
how did farmers in the late 1800s separate wheat kernels from the chaff??
Hi Maddie -- By the late 1800s, mechanized grain threshers were becoming the norm, with steam-powered engines replacing the horses and mules who had powered the early models. Farmers in the early 1800s would thresh their grains by hand (beating the grain with flails until the hulls came off) or use animals to trample it with their hooves. The first horse-powered threshing machines were developed around the middle of the 1800s (the first was patented in 1837), but they were extremely costly and did not become widely used until the end of the century.
Why would they burn the chaff in antiquity? Did they use it for fertilizer? Or fuel?
Hi Katie -- Thanks for your question. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to confirm an answer for you. Because we're a nutrition organization, we focus more on the edible parts of the grain, and don't have as much information about the historical uses of the chaff, which was usually considered a waste product (at least from a food perspective). You might try reaching out to an agricultural historian for more information.
Michael Stewart
We grew North Dakota Common Emmer Wheat here in Idaho last year. Were going to do it again this year. We didn't consume any of our seeds but we held on to it for seed this year. If we can grind up the wheat with its hull still on, then I'd like to sell our ground flour at my farm stand. If I did this, would the wheat commission or possibly the USDA be looking down my throat?
Hi Michael -- The hull of the grain is generally considered inedible because of its toughness and low palatability, so you may want to test some of your flour and make sure that you’re not compromising its quality by leaving the hull on. In general, we do recommend removing it in order to optimize the flavor and baking functionality of your flour product.
I saw a murder mystery where the murderer added RYE grain HUSKS to some pastries to kill someone. Is that totally bogus or can someone really die of perforated intestines from even accidentally eating Rye husks? I cant find any info on the internet about it.
Hi Ann – I suspect this storyline was fabricated for the show you saw. We are not familiar with any risk of toxicity associated with any grain’s husks or hulls. The outer hull/husk layer is generally removed from the grain prior to consumption because it's tough and not tasty, but it seems very unlikely that consuming rye husks would cause perforated intestines. That said, we are not doctors, and we would recommend seeking medical advice on this topic if it's something you're considering experimenting with at home.
Hi, my husband and I stumbled upon this wonderful website while trying to understand if there is a process to separate the bran of corn from the rest of the seed. Would you have any idea on that subject? Thank you very much, happy new year!
Hi Dan -- In industrial processing, the bran and germ layers of corn are often polished off and removed, but I don’t know that there is a reliable way to remove all the corn’s bran in your own kitchen. If you have a home mill, you may be able to sift out the (generally larger) bran particles from the rest of the flour after milling. Of course, we at the Whole Grains Council strongly recommend keeping your corn whole and eating all three parts of the kernel: the bran, germ, and endosperm. This way you’re getting the full benefit of all the corn’s nutrients, many of which are located in the bran layer.
Dawn Hines
Can you tell me how I can buy whole wheat grain? And is there any wheat available that does not have chemicals in it from the growing process? I read that the chemicals used in US wheat production are illegal in Europe. Thanks
Hi Dawn – Whole wheat grains are usually sold as “whole wheat berries” or simply “wheat berries.” Our Mail Order Grain Sources page has several suggestions for companies selling wheat berries that can be shipped straight to your door: https://wholegrainscouncil.org/find-whole-grains/mail-order-grain-sources. If you’re looking to avoid chemicals like glyphosates that are occasionally used in US wheat production, we recommended buying organic wheat berries, since organic production does not allow the use of these herbicides.


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