A Whole Lot About Whole Grains

a selection of whole wheat breads and seeds laying on table

Whole grains. You see those mysterious words on packaging and hear health experts talk about them. You’re even supposed to make whole grains at least half the grains you eat. And you may know that eating whole grains as part of a healthy diet has been linked to a lower risk of some cancers and other chronic diseases.

But what are they? And how can you tell which products really contain whole grains?

A “grain” is any food made from wheat, rice, oats, barley, or another cereal grain. Some examples are bread, breakfast cereal, oatmeal, and corn tortillas.

Grains are divided into two categories:

  1. Whole grains, which include the entire grain kernel, including the bran, germ, and endosperm
  2. Refined grains, which are processed to remove the bran and germ. But it’s those parts that are removed that help bring about the health benefits.

Is that product really whole grain?

At the grocery store, read labels to make sure you buy whole-grain products. The very first ingredient on the list should be a whole grain, such as “whole wheat,” “oatmeal,” “whole oats,” “whole-grain cornmeal,” or “whole rye.” Don’t be fooled by healthy-sounding terms like “100% wheat,” “seven grain,” or “bran” that often appear in the name of the product. Read the ingredients list to know for sure what is in the product.

You can also add whole grains to your diet by choosing brown rice instead of white; quinoa or bulgur instead of regular couscous. Add barley or bulgur to soups, and eat popcorn without added salt and butter for a good whole-grain snack.

What about gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. It helps dough rise and keeps bread from falling apart, makes it chewy, and adds to its flavor. It’s often added to other foods, like cakes, cereals, and pasta, to improve their texture.

There is no reason for most people to avoid gluten. Those who are not sensitive to gluten have the flexibility to choose from a wider variety of foods in order to eat a well-balanced diet.

People who have celiac disease should avoid gluten because it may damage their intestines. According to the National Institutes of Health, celiac disease affects 1% or less of the US population.

Gluten-free foods are not necessarily healthier. Some are actually higher in fat, sugar, and total calories and lower in fiber and vitamins than their versions with gluten.

People who can’t eat gluten should read food labels to find the most nutritious options.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master's-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.


American Cancer Society news stories are copyrighted material and are not intended to be used as press releases. For reprint requests, please see our Content Usage Policy.