Whole Grains? Whole Wheat? Sprouted Grains? What Should You Choose?

One of the top questions I get in my job is related to the many different varieties of grains and which one you should choose (aka which is the healthiest option). The nutrition labeling with bread can definitely be classified as confusing as well as difficult for customers to decipher. I am hoping this blog post can help clear some confusion and help you make smarter choices when you are perusing the bread aisle!


Photo Credit:  Evergreenwellness

What Are Whole Grains? 

Whole grains contain three parts: the bran, the germ and the endosperm.  The bran and germ are considered the nutrient powerhouses of the grain because they contain all the lovely vitamins (tons of B-vitamins) and minerals ( iron, copper, zinc, magnesium) as well as phytochemicals, antioxidants, and fiber! These nutrients aid in keeping your body healthy and research has shown that greater consumption of whole grains (just 2-3 servings of whole grains a day!) can reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers.

What About Whole Wheat? 

Whole wheat is a type of whole grain, because it still contains all of its original parts including the bran, endosperm and germ. Still a nutrient rich food that should be included in the diet.

Versus Refined Grains: 

Before we get into the sources of whole grain, disclaimer on refined grains. Refined grains have been processed to remove the bran and germ which gives the product a finer texture and increase shelf life, but this process also removes all the good nutrients! Refined grains are the reason that starches as a whole, get a bad rep. Normally, refined grains have low amounts of fiber, higher calories, and contain added sugars. Examples of refined grains – white flour, sugary cereal, donuts, white bread, white pasta, and cakes. These are the grains that you want to limit in your diet and can increase your risk for diabetes and obesity. Refined grains are considered simple carbohydrates and whole grains are considered complex carbohydrates.

An example of refined grains would be this bread that I made from white flour (delicious, but not the most nutritious option!):


**Enriched refined grains: the B vitamins and iron are added back in. Still not as good as eating the real  thing.

Sources of Whole Grains:

  • Barley
  • Quinoa
  • Oats
  • Brown rice
  • Whole Grain Pastas
  • Whole Grain Breads
  • Whole Grain Cereals

How To Read The Label: 

  1. When reading food labels, look for the words “whole grain.” The amount of whole grain in the product can be determined by reading the ingredient list. You want to buy products where the first ingredient listed is whole grain or whole wheat. Products that are classified as 100% whole grain or 100% whole wheat are the way to go!
  2. You want to choose products with higher fiber content and minimal added sugars.
  3. Look for the whole grain stamp of approval! The Whole Grain Councils makes it super easy to determine if the product you are buying contains whole grains and the actual amount of whole grains in the product. Check out the examples of stamps below, for the stamp to be on the product, the product must contain at least 8 grams of whole grain per serving. ThreeNewStamps2.jpg
  4. When looking for whole wheat products, look for labels that specifically say whole wheat, or list whole wheat flour as a top-three ingredient. Some products can be made from wheat but that does not necessarily mean they are “whole wheat.” For Example: Wheat flour is 75%  flour and only 25% whole wheat.

Whole Grains, How Much Is Enough? 

I obtained this table from The Whole Grain Council  – go check out this website for all the details and information on whole grains (recommendations, sources, serving sizes, etc.). This table shows the daily dietary recommendations for whole grains based on sex, age, and gender . Check out the table and see, are you getting enough whole grains in your diet?

  • In the 2000’s a research study was done that showed that 40% of Americans or more reported not consuming any whole grains on a daily basis.1
age girls / women boys / men
2-3 1.5 to 3 servings/day 1.5 to 3 servings/day
4-8 2 to 4 servings/day 2.5 to 5 servings/day
9-13 3 to 5 servings/day 3 to 6 servings/day
14-18 3 to 6 servings/day 3.5 to 7 servings/day
19-30 3 to 6 servings/day 4 to 8 servings/day
31-50 3 to 6 servings/day 3.5 to 7 servings/day
51+ 3 to 5 servings/day 3 to 6 servings/day

What Is A Serving?  (source: Whole Grain Council)

The U.S. Guidelines define a serving as any of the following amounts, for products where all the grain ingredients are whole grains (not mixed grain products):

  • ½ cup cooked rice, bulgur, pasta, or cooked cereal
  • 1 ounce dry pasta, rice or other dry grain
  • 1 slice bread
  • 1 small muffin (weighing one ounce)
  • 1 cup ready-to-eat cereal flakes

Tips to Increase Whole Grain/Whole Wheat Consumption: 

  • Switch from white breads, white rice, and white pastas to whole-grain varieties. Even incorporating 50% whole grain pasta and 50% white pasta into the meal is a step in the right direction and might help your taste buds adjust to the differences.
  • Aim to make at least half of a day’s grains whole grains.
  • Add oatmeal to your daily routine, there are so many ways to make tasty oatmeal, add peanut butter to keep you full longer and add berries to make it sweeter!
  • Try out new foods like bulgur or barley (both are whole grains), you never know what you might like!
  • Did you know you can buy whole grain popcorn? WHAT, the options are endlesssss.


Photo credit: new hope network

New On The Market: 

Sprouted grain bread is also a trend on the market right now for healthy eating so check out the definitions of those products as well!

Sprouted grain bread: made from whole grains that have been soaked and left to germinate. They usually contain a variety of grains and legumes such as barley, lentils, oats and millet. We are still waiting for conclusive evidence on increased consumption of sprouted grains and health benefits but the research we do have is looking good! The process of sprouting grains has been shown to increase some of the grain’s nutrients like the B vitamins, fiber, and folate which would make the product comparable if not better than the whole grain version.

Multigrain bread: more than one type of grain has been used. This doesn’t mean that the product is 100% whole grain or even has any whole grains in it. You would have to check the ingredient list to determine if whole grains like quinoa or bulgar are used to make the product or if refined grains are the main grain source.

Cinthia Scott, RD, LD, CNSC 




  1. https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2005/april/americans-whole-grain-consumption-below-guidelines/
  2. https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/dietary-guidelines-and-myplate/how-to-add-whole-grains-to-your-diet
  3. https://wholegrainscouncil.org/

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