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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)




Vikas Singh
Hi Dawn, that no-fertilizer-no-pesticide wheat is available in plenty with us. But for that you have visit India.
Mark Koczela
I have grown a small parch of spelt winter wheat the last couple of years. So fun to harvest and thresh and winnow with the grandkids! This year I am having a hard time getting all the hulls off the berries. I’m thinking of just grinding it up with the berries. I would guess it is less than 10% of the berries that still have hulls. What do you think? We mostly use the flour for bread.
Hi Mark -- Great to hear about your spelt harvests! The hull is generally considered an inedible part of the grain because it tends to be extremely tough and can be quite bitter tasting. For this reason, most people prefer to remove the hulls before consuming the grain. That said, there is no health danger that we know of when it comes to ingesting the hull, so if less than 10% of your grain includes the hull, you may be able to grind it and use it for baking without a problem. Perhaps you can test a small amount to decide whether you like the result or whether it's worth picking out the spelt berries that have kept their hulls.
I ordered hard red wheat in bulk and many of the grains still have the thin papery husks on the grain. They are too numerous for me to pick out. Is it safe to go ahead and mill these and consume or should I throw the whole thing out.
Hi Cara – While not usually considered an edible part of the grain, milling the husks and eating them should be ok. Keep in mind that if you’re baking with the flour you mill, the fiber content will be significantly higher due to the husk material, which could impede gluten formation and cause denser baked goods that don’t rise as much.
In continuing to think about this, it does strike me as very unusual that the husks would be present in food-grade grain and it makes me wonder if you accidentally purchased grains intended for animal feed. In this case, we strongly advise that you NOT eat these grains. Animal feed does not have to adhere to the same cleaning or manufacturing standards that food-grade products do, so while the husks won’t harm you, bacteria and microtoxins on the animal feed could.
Do I have to husk my wheat berries before planting or can I plant it with the husk still on? Thank you
Hi Tamera -- It's not a problem to plant with the husk still on. The husk is just a thin, papery outer skin on the wheat berry and will be broken down quickly in the ground. It will not impede the growth of the plant.
Can someone please explain pearled farro to me? It's the only type of farro I can find and I'm wondering if it's at all beneficial. I understand that it's not technically a whole grain, but when I compare it to a whole grain, like brown rice, the farro has significantly more fiber and other nutrients than the true whole grain. Is the rice a more healthful and nutritious choice?
Hi Jessica -- You’re right that pearled farro is not a whole grain because the pearling process polishes off some or all of the bran layer on the outside of the kernel, helping it to cook faster. Because different grains offer a different mix of nutrients (just as different vegetables have unique nutrient profiles), it’s not always helpful to compare the nutrients in one grain to another. For instance, brown rice has the lowest fiber level of any grain, but what it lacks in fiber, it boasts in nutrients like manganese and thiamin. You may find it more helpful to compare the nutrient content of pearled farro (which is a type of wheat) with a whole grain wheat product, like whole wheat berries or whole farro to understand what the pearling process has removed from the farro kernels. Most of a grain’s nutrients are found in its outer bran layer, so even polishing off a small portion can have a big impact on the nutritional quality of the grain.
Bright Adams
Please is there any danger associated with not removing the chaff from the grain?
Great question! Hulls/chaffs tend to be incredibly fibrous and are generally considered inedible, though we are not aware of any research on the health and safety of consuming wheat chaff. The only example we can think of at the moment is oat fiber, which is made from oat hulls, and is sometimes used as an added fiber in foods. Grains are typically cleaned after the chaff is removed, so perhaps the biggest risk may be contaminants or microorganisms from the field. To be on the safe side, we recommend removing the chaff before processing, or ensuring that the chaff undergoes a kill step for contaminants.


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