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Health & Nutrition

Whole Grain vs. Refined Grain

Fibre and Whole Grain

Grains are one of the major staple foods consumed across the globe and they constitute the largest component of the recommended dietary intake in all dietary guidelines. The grains food group includes grains as single foods (e.g. rice, oats) and products that include grains as an ingredient (e.g. bread, biscuits). Grains are either whole or refined.

  • Whole Grains

Whole grains are being increasingly recognized worldwide as an integral part of a healthy eating pattern. They are an important source of nutrients such as dietary fibre, minerals and vitamins1. Recent research provides evidences for the role of dietary whole grain consumption in reducing the risk for a whole gamut of health conditions such as cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancers2. But as beneficial as they can be, it’s vital to select whole grains that are also a good source of fibre. The reason being that evidence points to fibre as a key component in providing many of the health benefits linked to whole-grain foods. However, other bioactive compounds found in the bran and germ portions of whole grains may also contribute to the health protective mechanisms of whole grains3. The USDA’s (US Department of Agriculture) 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans thus states that at least half of the total recommended grain intake in a day’s diet be contributed by whole grains.1

How is whole grain defined?

Whole grain anatomy

The whole grain consists of the entire grain seed of the plant. This seed also called the kernel is made up of 3 parts, the outer layer or the bran, the middle layer or the endosperm and the inner core called the germ.

Bran: is the natural tough outer protection for the seed beneath and provides dietary fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that are responsible for the antioxidant potential of the grain.

Endosperm: is the biggest part of the grain and comprises of predominantly carbohydrates, protein and some B vitamins.

Germ: is the smallest fraction and the growing part of the seed. It contains a high lipid and protein content, minerals and vitamins such as vitamin A and vitamin E.4

Some examples of whole grains and whole grain products include-whole wheat, whole-wheat flour, daliya (broken wheat), whole grain corn/cornmeal, whole oats/oatmeal, brown rice, whole barley; millets like whole jowar, bajra, ragi.

Bowl of Refined grains with powdered grains in wooden spoon

What are refined grains?

Refined grains have been processed so that some or al of the bran and/or germ have been removed. Removal of germ improves the shelf life of the product, while removal of the bran improves the hedonic experience of the consumer. However, refining eliminates bioactive components such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and critically fibre3. Some examples of refined grains are wheat flour, white bread and white rice.

Definite of whole grains by some “expert bodies”

The American Association of Cereal Chemists (AACC) International (this definition is also adopted by the US FDA): Whole grain consist of the intact, ground, cracked or flaked caryopsis (kernel) after removal of inedible parts such as hull and husk. The definition recognizes the fact that during milling the anatomical components may be fractionated but have to be recombined in the final product such that the endosperm, germ and bran are present in the same relative proportions as they exist in the intact kernel4.

The European HEALTHGRAIN Forum in addition to the above definition, allows for small losses of components (2% of whole grain/10% of bran) that occurs during essential processing methods, and this definition is applicable through the European Union5. This definition recognises that some parts of the grain, especially the outermost layers, are deliberately removed during processing to cleanse potentially contaminated parts of the husk and outer bran.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ): Whole grains are defined as “the intact grain or the dehulled, ground, milled, cracked or flaked grain where the constituents – endosperm, germ and bran – are present in such proportions that represent the typical ratio of those fractions occurring in the whole cereal, and include wholemeal”6.

Three whole grain storage containers

What is a whole grain food?

While whole grains may be consumed alone, they are most often ingredients within a food containing other ingredients. Although definitions exist for whole grains, a consistent definition for what constitutes a whole grain food has not been developed and adopted by any of the concerned bodies such as the FDA, the USDA or the European commissions7. A number of definitions including the one by US FDA however, agree that whole grain foods should contain grain sources4. A more recent and practicable definition was proposed by an international cross-disciplinary group which suggested that the lowest amount a whole grain food product must contain was 8 g whole grain per 30 g serve in order to be labelled as a ‘whole-grain food’4.

Global ambiguity in clearly defining whole grain products may be a contributing factor to the widespread failure on the part of consumers to meet current whole grain recommendations. Hence, it is important to educate the consumers on dietary recommendations and food sources of whole grains.

USDA 2015-2020 Dietary guidelines for Americans.

Marc P. McRae (2016) Health Benefits of Dietary Whole Grains: An Umbrella Review of Meta-analyses. Journal of Chiropractic medicine Vol16(No.1) p10-18.

3 Mobley A.R. (2013) The Future of Recommendations on Grain Foods in Dietary Guidance. J. Nutr. 143:1527S-1532S, 2013

4 Seal C.J. etal (2016) Whole-grain dietary recommendations: the need for a unified global approach. British Journal of Nutrition, 115, 2031-203.

5 Van der Kamp JW, Poutanen K, Seal CK, et al. (2014) The HEALTHGRAIN definition of ‘whole grain’. Food Nutr Res 58.

6 Galea, L. M., Dalton, S. M. C., Beck, E. J., Cashman, C. J. & Probst, Y. C. (2016). Update of a database for estimation of whole grain content of foods in Australia. Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, 50 23-29.

7 Ferruzzi M. G. etal (2014) Developing a Standard Definition of Whole-Grain Foods for Dietary Recommendations: Summary Report of a Multi disciplinary Expert Roundtable Discussion. Adv. Nutr. 5:164-176.

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