5 things you should know about wholegrains

You may have heard the term “whole grains” but what exactly are they, why are they important to our health and how should we incorporate them into a healthy diet? Read on to find out all the answers:

1.    What are whole grains & wholegrain foods?

Whole grains are the seeds of cereal plants that have had very little removed in processing. Whole wheat (including spelt and durum wheat), oats, barley, rye, brown and wild rice, millet and corn are all examples of whole grains readily available in the UK. Some lesser-known whole grains now becoming popular include amaranth, quinoa, freekeh, kamut and sorghum.

Whole grains naturally contain three parts: the bran, endosperm and the germ:

  • The bran is the tough outer shell of the grain. It provides fibre, B group vitamins (including folic acid) and minerals such as magnesium, iron and zinc.
  • The endosperm is the starchy content of the grain which is made up of mainly carbohydrate and some protein.
  • The germ is the part of the grain which, if germinated, would grow into the new plant. It is nutrient dense and provides some unsaturated fats, B vitamins, vitamin E, selenium, and other plant compounds called phytonutrients.

Wholewheat breakfast cereals (including wheat biscuits and wheat flakes), wholewheat pasta, wholemeal bread, oats, wholewheat couscous, bulgur wheat and popcorn are all foods made from wholegrains and as a result are a great source of fibre, protein, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.

All grains we eat start off as whole grains but refined grains have had the nutrient dense bran and germ removed during processing. As a result, foods made of refined grains are less nutritious than their whole grain equivalents and include white bread, white pasta, white rice and most packaged cakes, biscuits and pastry products.

2. Why include whole grains in your diet?

With the combination of important nutrients in whole grains, it is perhaps not surprising that whole grains are an important part of a healthy diet. Here’s what we know: -

  • Whole grains are an excellent source of fibre but unfortunately, most people in the UK do not include enough in their diet, with only 9% of us reaching the recommended 30g of fibre each day. Which means 91% of us aren’t meeting the fibre recommendations!
  • Oats and barley are especially high in a type of soluble fibre called beta-glucan which, if eaten in sufficient quantity, has been shown to reduce blood cholesterol.
  • Whole grains are low in saturated fat and eating a diet low in saturated fat can help maintain healthy cholesterol levels.

3. How much should you include in your diet?

There is no official UK guidance on the quantity of whole grains we should eat, although the Eatwell Guide suggests we should choose whole grain versions of starchy food whenever possible. However, experts generally consider that we should aim for three servings a day.

Here are some examples of what makes up a serving of whole grains:

  • one heaped tablespoon of uncooked oats
  • three tablespoons of wholegrain breakfast cereal
  • one medium slice of wholemeal bread
  • two to three heaped tablespoons of cooked brown rice or wholewheat pasta
  • two oatcakes
  • 16g (a few handfuls) of unsalted/ unsweetened popcorn

Unfortunately, most of us do not include enough whole grains in our diet, with a large UK survey showing just 17% of participants reach 48 grams per day (the US target intake), and worryingly 18% of adults and 15% of children consumed no whole grains at all.

4.    Ways to increase whole grains in your diet

Breakfast is a great opportunity to include a serving of whole grain. Choose whole wheat cereals, or perhaps an oat-based unsweetened muesli. Try mixing different cereals to make your breakfast more interesting and include different types of whole grains even unusual ones like buckwheat or spelt wheat flakes.

If you want an alternative to cereal, opt for toasted wholemeal bread with peanut butter and a sliced apple on the side.

Most grain-based foods have whole grain equivalents. So, another easy way to increase your whole grain intake is to swap refined bread, pasta and rice for wholegrain versions. Most brands and supermarket own brands supply both whole grain and refined varieties. To get you started you could include a mixture of white and wholemeal pasta in your meals, and over time gradually reduce the amount of the refined version.

Every little bit helps …

Although three servings each day is the ideal, every bit of whole grain can make a positive contribution to health so it’s helpful to incorporate them in your diet whenever you can. Here are some suggestions to whet your appetite: -

Opt for wholegrain snacks such as rye or whole wheat crackers with hummus, or plain popcorn.

‘Upgrade’ your soup by adding two tablespoons of pre-cooked brown rice or barley.

Eating out. It can be a challenge to include whole grains in meals when eating out but restaurants will often have wholemeal versions of pasta and bread so don’t be afraid to ask even if it’s not on the menu.

Rolled oats add a tasty bite to puddings. Stir a handful of rolled oats into yogurt or add to the crumble of an apple crumble for a lovely crunchy texture.

Wholegrains are a great addition to salads. Try Tabbouleh made with bulgur wheat or Quinoa salad.

Add a bit of a crunch to foods with a wholegrain coating. Use rolled oats or a crushed, unsweetened wholegrain cereal as a coating for baked chicken and fish.

Vary your risotto. Instead of using the traditional refined arborio rice for making risotto, experiment using wholegrain (hulled or hulless) barley, couscous or oats. 

Bake with wholemeal wheat flour. Wholegrain flour is readily available in the shops and is great to use for baking instead of refined white flour. If you are unsure about the taste, use a mixture of half wholegrain and half white flour. This way you can start to get a taste for the nutty flavour of wholegrains.

5.    Shopping for wholegrain foods

Wholegrain foods do not break the budget. Wholegrain, low sugar breakfast cereals are often the cheapest varieties available in the shops, while wholegrain rice, pasta and bread are often similar prices to their refined equivalents. Common whole grains in the UK such as wholewheat, barley and corn are normally good value while the unusual whole grains, for example amaranth and sorghum, are imported in small quantities and tend to be more expensive as a result.

Identifying wholegrain foods on the shelves. Working out which foods contain whole grains can be tricky because there is no universal labelling in the UK and whole grains have various different names. In addition, there is no legal definition of how much whole grain is needed in a food for it to use the term ‘whole grain’ in the title. The Whole Grain Initiative has provided guidance and recommends for a food to be called a wholegrain food it needs to contain at least 50% wholegrain ingredients based on dry weight.

Here are some guidelines to follow to help identify wholegrain foods when shopping: -

Check the product name. Look for the word ‘whole’ in front of the product name, for example wholemeal bread or wholewheat pasta or wholegrain cereals.

All oat foods including oatmeal, instant oats and jumbo oats are good sources of whole grain as are brown rice or wild rice.

When buying wholegrain barley look for hulled or hull-less in the product name. Pearl barley has had some or all of its outer bran removed and so strictly speaking it is a refined grain but it is healthier than other refined grains. 

Dark rye flour is a whole grain while light rye flour has had some of the bran removed but is still a healthy option as it naturally contains more fibre than most refined grains.

Labelling can be confusing. Terms on labels such as ‘contains whole grain’, ‘made from whole grain’ means the food will have some whole grain but it does not indicate how much of the food is whole grain. ‘Multigrain’ means the produce includes several types of grain and may or may not be whole grains and ‘enriched’ indicates the food has been fortified with a vitamin or mineral but does not tell if it is whole grain.

Check the list of ingredients. If the first ingredient listed is the word ‘whole’ followed by the grain name, as in ‘whole wheat flour’ or ‘whole rye’, the product it is likely the food contains a high percentage of whole grain. If the word is further down the ingredient list, it is less likely to be a good source of whole grain. Looking at the fibre content on back of pack labelling will also give an indication of whole grain content although this is not reliable as the source of the fibre in a high fibre food may not be from the whole grain.  

Variety is the spice of life. Different wholegrain sources contain different nutrient profiles so vary the types of whole grains in your diet rather than sticking to just one or two. Shake things up by giving the more unusual whole grains a go such as wild rice, quinoa or rye bread.

Get started with our delicious wholegrain recipes