All About Whole Grains

Jennifer DeWall RDN, CSSD, LD works with ICYF to provide expert advice on sports nutrition and healthy eating to the student and families of Indianola. A registered dietitian/nutritionist, Jennifer owns a private practice that focuses on helping athletes stay on the cutting edge with superior nutrition.


  • Grains add hearty flavor and versatility to breads, salads, pilafs, even breakfast dishes.
  • Grains are inexpensive, high in vitamins, (especially B vitamins), iron and other minerals
  • Grains are naturally cholesterol-free, low in fat and contain minimal sodium.
  • Research shows people who eat whole grains regularly tend to weigh less.
  • Eat unrefined (whole) grains most often for maximum health benefit.


There are a variety of whole grains. Always try to choose grains that are less processed and in their more natural form. Processing removes portions of the whole grains which remove important nutrients and fiber.

Whole Grain Varieties
(GF) = Indicates grain is gluten free

Amaranth (GF): A staple of the Aztecs 8000 years ago, it is be- coming more popular for use in cereals, mixed grain pilafs, breads and other commercial products. Amaranth, unlike most grains, is actually a plant and not a grass. Amaranth is a more complete protein than other grains. Uses: Amaranth can be purchased as a cereal, flour or whole grain and used in many ready-to-eat gluten free cakes and cookies.

Barley: Purchase whole or brown hulled barley, which is minus the two inedible husks but still has the nutrient rich germ attached. If a recipe calls for pearled barley, just add an extra cup of water and a few minutes cooking time. Uses: Barley is a great addition to soups, stews and pilafs.

Brown Rice (GF): Best eaten in its natural form, it is a staple for nearly half the world’s population. Uses: Add to soups, serve cold in salads, use as a substitute for pasta, mix with vegetables and lean protein for a complete meal or serve alone as a side.

Buckwheat (GF): Actually a fruit, buckwheat also grows as a plant. Used commercially in cereals, buckwheat seed, called groats, has a nutty flavor is great for cereals and pilafs. When toasted, groats are often called Kasha. Buckwheat is gluten free. Uses: Mix buckwheat flour with whole grain flour for heart-healthy pancakes and breads. Use in place of oatmeal for a morning ce- real. Cook and cool buckwheat then add vegetables and lean protein for a meal on the go.

Bulgur: Also known as cracked wheat, it is made by cracking then parboiling the wheat kernel. It has a nutty flavor and is used as rice in the Middle East. Uses: Substitute fine bulgur for oat- meal, add to tabouli salad or with chick peas or lentils, olive oil and spices such as cardamom and cumin.

Corn/Popcorn (GF): Used in the U.S. for everything from cereal to snack food to animal feed, corn is grown on one out of every four acres of farmland. Uses: Soft corn tortillas, polenta and corn- bread are a great way to add flavor and nutrition to your diet. Pop- corn can be eaten air popped as a healthy snack alone or in com- bination with other ingredients such as dried fruit, nuts and cereal.

Couscous: Couscous is wheat that has been finely cracked, steamed and dried. Uses: It can be used as a substitute for rice or pasta, in soups, served cold as a salad or as a breakfast ce- real. Choose whole wheat couscous.

Farro: Farro is known as hulled wheat, which means that the berry or kernel retains its hull or husk during harvest and must be hulled before further processing. It is similar to spelt, however farro must be soaked before cooking, whereas spelt can be boiled right away. Cooked farro has a firm, chewy texture. Uses: Add to soups and stews or add your own blend of herbs and spices to make a side dish great for any winter meal.

Flax (GF): Flax seeds come from the flax plant in two basic varieties: Brown and yellow or golden. Flax seeds high in dietary fiber as well as lignans, an abundance of micronutrients and omega-3 fatty acids. Flax is grown both for its seeds and for its fiber. Various parts of the plant have been used to make fabric, dye, paper, medicines, fishing nets, hair gels and soap. Flax seed is the source of linseed oil, which is used as an edible oil, a nutri- tional supplement and as an ingredient in many wood finishing products. For optimal health benefit, use in the ground form. Uses: Sprinkle in yogurt, over cereals, salads cottage cheese. Also can be used in baking to increase fiber content.

Kaniwa (GF): A member of the goosefoot family, kaniwa is higher in protein than any other grain. Kaniwa also contains fiber, significant levels of calcium, zinc and iron, and is naturally gluten- free. Uses: Can be used for a hearty breakfast cereal in place of oatmeal. Add your favorite toppings such as dried fruit, ground flax, honey or slivered nuts.

Millet (GF): Millet is a tiny, round grain that can be white, gray, yellow or red. The most widely available form in stores is the hulled variety. Uses: Millet can be cooked just like rice, used in pilafs or added to breads for texture.

Oats: This plant originally was considered to be a bothersome weed. When it seemed impossible to fight, farmers decided to cultivate it instead. Neither the bran nor germ are removed during processing, making it a very nutritious grain. Uses: Cereal, breads, pilafs, homemade energy bars.

Quinoa (GF): Revered by the Incas, this grain has a high quality protein with high levels of iron and calcium. Uses: Quinoa is in some cereals and breads, and also can be purchased as flour for home baking. Quinoa also is processed into ready-to-eat pasta, crackers and other snack foods. Quinoa is gluten free.

Rye: Rye contains more protein, iron and B vitamins than whole wheat. Uses: Purchase as breads or flour, choosing dark rye whenever available.

Spelt: Spelt is similar to wheat in appearance but it has a tougher husk than wheat, which may help protect the nutrients inside the grain. It contains more protein than wheat and contains gluten. Uses: Spelt flour can replace whole wheat flour or whole grain flour in recipes for breads and pasta.

Sorghum (GF): Also called milo, this grain is particularly resis- tant to drought and is grown from Midwest to Texas. Uses: Sorghum flour is used for baking and also has been used to brew gluten-free beers.

Teff (GF): Most commonly used in Ethiopia for flatbread, Teff comes in red, brown and white varieties. Uses: Teff flour is used for gluten-free baking.

Triticale: Better than wheat or rye in nutrients and growing char- acteristics, purchase as whole berries, rolled as flour and use in pilafs, breads and cereals. Uses: Makes a great side dish or sub- stitute for wheat berries or bulgur in any recipe.

Wheat: The world’s largest food crop, wheat is considered the “staff of life” by many cultures. Refined white flour has just 20 percent of the nutrients and only 7 percent of the fiber compared to whole-wheat flour. Check labels closely — some wheat breads are actually white bread with added caramel coloring. Uses: Choose whole-wheat breads, pastas, flours and fine ground whole-wheat cake flours.

Wheat Berries: High in protein and very nutritious. Wheat berries are made from the finest wheat available and contain 6 grams fiber per servings and 10 percent of your necessary iron. Uses: Substitute for oatmeal, add to soups or stews instead of barley or use cooled wheat berries for a lunch salad with vegetables and your favorite vinaigrette.

Wheat Bran (Miller’s Bran): This is the coat of the wheat kernel. Uses: Add to breads or pilafs to add extra fiber and texture.

Wheat Germ: This is the embryo that is separated from the ker- nel when wheat flour is refined. Uses: Sprinkle on salads, yogurt or cereal.

Wild Rice (GF): Long or short grain, this dark brown grain actu- ally is the seed of an aquatic grass. Uses: Full of flavor and texture, add to pilafs, soups, casseroles or toss in some mushrooms and serve alone for a simple side dish.

Additional Resources:

10 Tips to Boost Whole Grain can be found at

Raw whole grains can become rancid easily so they should be stored in your refrigerator or freezer. As a general rule, you can store grains in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 months and the freezer for 6 to 8 months. (When using whole grains that are frozen, wait 10 to 15 minutes before preparing so you can bring them to room temperature.)

Whether you purchase whole grains in bulk or pre-packaged, many times they’re sold in plastic. To keep your uncooked whole grains fresh, transfer them to an airtight container such as a can- ning jar. If freezing, you can store them in a labeled airtight zip top sealed bag.

An easy way to add whole grain to your meals is to cook in bulk. You can easily cook a large batch of whole grains for the week. Whole grains will stay good for 3 to 4 days in your refrigerator. To reheat, just add some water or chicken stock and heat thoroughly. Cooked grains can be stored in the freezer for up to 60 days.


Step 1:Rinse grain with cold water and drain.
Step 2: Place grain in pan with water or liquid two times its volume (i.e.: 1 cup rice with 2 cups water).
Step 3: Bring grain and liquid to a boil, uncovered. As soon as it boils, stir, cover and reduce heat to a simmer.
Step 4: Leave covered. Simmer until grain has absorbed liquid.


Soft Grains (partially cooked): Bulgur, cracked wheat, grits – 15 to 20 minutes
Medium Hard Grains: Brown rice, barley, millet – 45 to 60 minutes
Hard Grains: Whole wheat Berries, whole rye, whole oats – 1 hour or more

Cooking Hints:

  • Grains generally triple in volume when cooked (i.e., 1 cup rice plus 2 cups water = 3 cups cooked rice).
  • Grains may be soaked prior to cooking for several hours to reduce cooking time.
  • After rinsing (step 1) and before Step 2, sauté grain in slight amount of oil for a toasty flavor; or add vegetables, herbs and spices. Proceed with regular cooking directions.

The most universal cooking method — baking — offers a low-fat cooking technique. Baking cookies, cakes and pies can still be high fat, but you can use your oven for low-fat, moist foods too. Follow these suggestions for low-fat, moist, flavorful baking:

  • Bake quick breads and muffins by substituting all or part applesauce (cup for cup) or prune butter (available in baking section of your supermarket) for margarine, but- ter, or oil in the recipe.
  • Healthy quick bread mixes available by Hodgson Mill®; whole wheat muffin mix, cornbread (whole grain corn meal and wheat flour), Apple Cinnamon Muffin Mix, Whole Wheat Wild Blueberry Muffin Mix, Honey Whole Wheat Bread Mix.


  • Whole grains are an excellent source of carbohydrate. Whole grains should be eaten daily. Your Health Discovered dietitian can recommend in your food plan of how many whole grains you need based on your individual needs.
  • Carbohydrates function as the best source for energy. We want to burn carbohydrates for energy so that we are not burning protein, which is needed to maintain muscle and immunity. If you do not eat the proper amount of carbohydrate, your body breaks down muscle.
  • Carbohydrates often are viewed negatively as many people believe that they cause weight gain. Any food can cause you to gain weight if you eat too much. More often than not, it is what is added to carbohydrates (such as butter and jams on bread, white cream sauce on pasta, sour cream and butter on baked potatoes, etc.) that is cause for concern.
  • There are different types of carbohydrates. Whole grains are examples of complex carbohydrates. They are digested more slowly in your body and do not affect your blood sugar level as drastically as simple carbohydrates (see below.)
  • Simple carbohydrates digest more quickly and often are less nutritious. Some examples are table sugar, candy, soda and corn syrup used as sweeteners in foods and beverages.

In summary, whole grains are an important source of complex carbohydrates, which provide energy, important nutrients and fiber. It is best to incorporate a blend of carbohydrate, protein and fat in your food intake and not eliminate any one nutrient over the other.