What Is a Whole Grain?

Whole grains have all three of their edible parts intact: the endosperm, the bran and the germ. Imagine white rice with its protective bran covering in place and the oil-rich germ tucked between the bran and the starchy white center. That would be brown rice, a whole grain.

Let's take a kernel of wheat, for another example. At the center of each wheat berry is the starchy endosperm, representing about 83 percent of the total weight. Surrounding the endosperm is a protective layer of fiber-rich bran. Beneath the bran at one end of the kernel lies the oil-rich germ. The germ is also referred to as the embryo because it contains all of the vital elements needed to sprout a new plant.

Wheat is called a "naked" grain because the bran is not covered with an inedible hull. Many other grains have hulls which must be removed to make the grains edible. Such grains qualify as whole grains even though they have undergone some processing. For example, if a bit of bran is removed when the hull is stripped from kernels of barley, the grains are still considered whole.

What about products like oatmeal and flour that have undergone considerable processing? According to the USDA Dietary Guidelines, when whole kernels are cracked into bits (such as steel-cut oats), rolled into flakes (such as oatmeal), or ground into flour (such as oat flour), if the final product has the same balance of nutrients that are available in the whole kernel the resulting product can be labeled "whole grain."

Whole Grains from Amaranth to Wheat
Learn the tastiest ways to prepare these hearty grains and how to take advantage of their health benefits.

  • Amaranth: a tiny, tan-colored seed indigenous to the Andes. Amaranth contains all of the essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. Amaranth has a corn-like taste and a slightly glutinous texture. Using a ratio of 3 parts water to 1 part grain, amaranth cooks up into a delicious breakfast porridge or savory, polenta-like side dish. Cooks in 25-30 minutes. Available forms: whole seeds, flakes, flour.

  • Barley: a comforting, chewy, slightly sweet grain that is most familiar to fans of mushroom-barley soup. Barley is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals as well as a heart-healthy soluble fiber called beta-glucan that has been shown to lower cholesterol. Because of barley's structure, some of this soluble fiber remains even when much of the bran layer has been removed, so even pearl barley has good nutritional value. Available forms: whole kernels, pearl, grits, flakes, flour.

Whole kernels are labeled according to type and how they've been processed: Hulled barley (also called "pot barley") — the inedible hull is removed and, with it, a tiny bit of the closely attached bran. Cooks in 40-50 minutes.

Hull-less barley — the inedible hulls fall off naturally during harvesting, leaving all of the bran intact. Cooks in 35 to 45 minutes.

Pearl barley — along with the hulls, some percentage of bran is lost as a result of "pearling", an abrasive polishing process. The more the kernels are pearled, the less bran remains. Pearl barley that sold in health food stores is generally less pearled than the barley sold in supermarkets. Cooks in about 30 minutes. Quick-cooking barley is heavily pearled barley that has been par-cooked. Cooks in 10 minutes.

  • Brown Rice: When brown rice kernels are polished into white rice, the refining process destroys 67% of the vitamin B3, 80% of the vitamin B1, 90% of vitamin B6, half the phosphorus and manganese, 60% of the iron and all of the dietary fiber and essential fatty acids. Long-grain brown rice is slender and about five times longer than it is wide. Use it for cooking fluffy pilafs. Medium- and short-grain brown rice are short and pudgy. They have a high proportion of a type of starch that tends to make the grains sticky when cooked. Cooks in about 45 minutes. Available forms: whole, puffed, flour

  • Buckwheat is probably most familiar to those who have enjoyed hearty buckwheat pancakes or the Japanese buckwheat noodles called soba. Despite its name, buckwheat is not a type of wheat, but is botanically related to rhubarb. It is classified a grain because of its impressive nutritional profile.

Whole kernels are labeled according to whether or not they've been toasted. Toasted buckwheat, often called kasha, has an earthy taste and aroma. Untoasted buckwheat has a mild flavor. By coating buckwheat with butter, oil or egg before cooking, and using 2 parts liquid to 1 part grain, the cooked grain will maintain its shape. For a porridge, don't coat the grains before cooking and use 3 parts liquid to 1 part grain. Cooks in about 18 minutes. Available forms: whole kernels, grits (granulated), breakfast cereal (fine grits), flakes, flour.

  • Bulgur: whole kernels of wheat that have been parboiled, dried and ground into different particle sizes. Coarse bulgur takes about 20 minutes to cook, fine bulgur is "cooked" by steeping it in boiling water. Don't confuse bulgur with cracked wheat, which is NOT pre-cooked. Available forms: there are four grades, but coarse and fine are the most commonly available.

  • Corn Grits: whole kernels chopped into bits. For whole-grain corn grits, search for those labeled "speckled heart grits", one of the few types processed from whole kernel corn. Cooks in about 50 minutes.

  • Couscous (whole-wheat): made by rolling whole-wheat dough into tiny beads that are dried. Couscous does not require cooking, only steeping in very hot liquid. The ratio of water to couscous varies so be sure to check package instructions. Steeping time: 5 minutes.

  • Cracked Wheat: wheat berries that have been cut into gritlike bits. Cooks in 30-40 minutes.

  • Farro: an ancient cousin of wheat. Most farro sold in America is semi-pearled, meaning that some of the bran has been rubbed off. Cooks in about 25 minutes.

  • Hominy: a type of dried corn that has been cooked with an alkali to separate the inedible hull from the kernel. Cooks in about 90 minutes after overnight soaking. Available forms: whole kernel, grits.

  • Kamut: a large, buttery grain that is an ancient cousin of wheat. Cook like wheat berries. (see Wheat) Available forms: whole kernel, flakes, puffed, flour.

  • Millet: a small, beadlike beige grain that is the highly nutritious staple food in many parts of Africa. The grain's bland taste improves with toasting. Use a ratio of 1 cup grain to 2 1/4 cups water for fluffy millet. For porridge, increase the liquid to 3 cups. Cooks in about 25 minutes. Available forms: whole, grits, puffed, flour.

  • Oats: oats are the best known and most commonly eaten whole grain in America, thanks to oatmeal. They have more protein than wheat, are rich in vitamins B and E and they're loaded with soluble and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber, which has been shown to lower blood cholesterol, is what gives oatmeal its creaminess. Whole oats (also called oat groats) cook in about 50 minutes, steel-cut in about 40. Available forms: whole groats, steel-cut, oatmeal (flakes), flour.

  • Popcorn: dried yellow or white dent corn with a high moisture content. When heated, the moisture forms steam and the grains burst open. Yes, popcorn is a whole grain!

  • Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wa): a tiny high protein seed that was the staple of the Inca empire. The seeds are coated with a natural insect repellent called saponin which is bitter and must be removed. Nowadays, most quinoa is thoroughly cleaned before it is packaged. Taste a raw grain: if it seems soapy, swish the quinoa in a bowlful of water before cooking. Beige quinoa is more flavorful than red quinoa. Available forms: whole, flakes, flour.

  • Rye: contains more protein, phosphorus, iron, potassium, and B vitamins than wheat. The berries are long and slender with a slight greenish hue. Despite the hearty taste of rye bread, rye berries themselves have mild flavor. Cook like wheat berries in about 50 minutes. (see Wheat) Available forms: whole kernel, flakes, flour.

  • Spelt: an ancient, relatively un-hybridized form of wheat. Cooks like wheat berries in about 50 minutes. (see Wheat) Available forms: whole kernel, flakes, flour.

  • Triticale: a cross between wheat and rye. Cook like wheat berries in about 50 minutes. (see Wheat) Available forms: whole kernel, flakes, flour.

  • Wheat Berries: not berries at all, but whole kernels of wheat. They vary by type — hard, soft, winter, spring, red and white — but the taste difference among them is minimal. Cook in lots of boiling water (like pasta) until a kernel is one color throughout when sliced in half crosswise. When thoroughly cooked, wheat berries remain slightly chewy. Cooks in about 50 minutes. Available forms: whole kernel, cracked, rolled, puffed, flour.

  • Wild Rice: an aquatic grass native to the Great Lakes, wild rice is not a true grain, but is considered one because of its extensive nutritional profile. As a general rule, the darker the grain, the more bran is intact and the longer the rice will take to cook. Cook like wheat berries in 35-65 minutes.