What are whole grain and wholemeal foods?

by Ali on August 11, 2008


We all know we should be eating more wholemeal (wholewheat if you’re in the US) and whole grain foods. If you start listing the options, the first that comes to mind is bread – then you might think of breakfast cereals, and pasta.

But what exactly do the words “whole grain” and “wholemeal” mean, and how do these products differ from “white” or “refined” ones?

Using the whole grain

Whole grain products use the whole grain, which you can see pictured here. This means they include the endosperm, the bran (the outer shell) and the germ. White, refined foods use just the endosperm. So wholemeal foods contain more:

  • Fibre (from the bran), which helps you to feel full and aids digestion
  • Vitamins (from the bran and the germ), which are needed for a wide range of body functions
  • Trace minerals (from the bran), which aren’t essential but may be beneficial
  • Antioxidants (from the germ), which help protect against various diseases

Note that any sort of grain can be a “whole grain” product – even popcorn kernels are whole grain!

Wholemeal is just the name for products made from whole grain (wholemeal) flour. It’s also known as wholewheat (usually in the US).

Some products such as white bread and non-whole grain breakfast cereals have extra vitamins and minerals added in a process called “enrichment” – but it’s still better to go with whole grains when you can, due to the higher fibre content.

What whole grain foods are there?

“Whole grain” doesn’t just apply to bread and cereals. There are lots of other foods available, including:

  • Oats
  • Brown rice
  • Popcorn
  • Wholemeal (wholewheat) bread
  • Wholemeal (wholewheat) pasta
  • Corn, eg. corn on the cob
  • Breakfast cereals made from whole grains

You probably already include lots of these in your diet. If not, it’s easy to make a few swaps:

Wholegrain breakfast: Instead of your usual sugary cereal, have a whole grain variety such as muesli, weetabix or shredded wheat.

Wholegrain lunch: Switch your two slices of white bread for a wholemeal (wholewheat) version. If you dislike the taste, try brown granary (malted) bread instead.

Wholegrain snack: Have a bag of popcorn rather than a packet of crisps.

Wholegrain dinner: Try wholemeal (wholewheat) pasta or brown rice instead of the white varieties. Remember to check the packet instructions on cooking time; you’ll need to allow a few minutes longer than for your regular pasta/rice.

If you’re looking for more information or ideas, the Whole Grains Council’s website is definitely worth browsing.

(Diagram of grain sourced from Wikipedia.)

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