What are whole grains?

A whole grain consists of the entire seed of a plant. This seed, also known as the kernel, is made up of three key parts: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. Whole grains may be eaten whole, cracked, split, flaked, or ground. Regardless of how the whole grain is handled, a whole grain food product must deliver approximately the same proportions of bran, germ, and endosperm found in the original grain.


Anatomy of a Whole Grain Kernel


Sources of whole grains

Types of whole grains include whole wheat, whole oats/oatmeal, whole grain cornmeal, popcorn, brown rice, whole rye, whole-grain barley, wild rice, buckwheat, triticale, bulgur (cracked wheat), millet, quinoa, corn kernels and sorghum. Other less common whole grains include amaranth, emmer, farro, grano (lightly pearled wheat or “stampkoring”) and spelt.


Whole grains and fibre

The health advantages of whole grains are largely associated with consuming the entire whole grain “package,” which includes dietary fibre vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, phytochemicals, and other biologically active components such as certain fibers and acids


Health effects of whole grains

Since most of the health-promoting components are found in the germ and bran, foods made with whole grains can play an important role in maintaining good health.


Heart disease

Research shows a link between consuming whole grains as part of a low-fat diet and a reduced risk of heart disease. Studies have consistently found that individuals who consume three or more servings of whole grain foods per day have a 20 to 30 percent lower risk for developing heart disease compared to individuals with lower intakes of whole grains. It seems whole grain foods tend to decrease LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol), triglycerides, and blood pressure, and increase HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol).



Whole grains are associated with a reduced risk for the development of a number of gastrointestinal cancers as well as several hormone-dependent cancers (e.g. endometrial and ovarian).


Gastrointestinal health

Components of whole grains, including fibre, resistant starch, and oligosaccharides play roles in supporting gut health through acting as a prebiotic – providing food for beneficial bacteria. This helps to alleviate constipation and decrease the risk of developing diverticulosis and diverticulitis.



Research suggests that by improved blood glucose control, whole grains may lower fasting insulin levels and decrease insulin resistance. This contributes to a lower risk for developing Type 2 diabetes.


Weight management

Studies show that people who include whole grains as part of a healthful diet are less likely to gain weight over time. The mechanisms include enhanced satiety through prolonged gastric emptying which results in a lower energy intake. Whole grains contribute to an increased insulin sensitivity of our body cells that lower insulin demand and this also contributes to weight control.


How much do I need to eat?

To enjoy the health benefits a minimum of two to three servings per day is recommended or as prescribed by your dietitian in your meal plan. Remember, an adult needs a 30g fibre a day.

A portion is equal to:

  • One slice of whole grain bread
  • Half a cup of cooked whole grains
  • Half a cup whole grain porridge or breakfast cereal


Although the number of whole-grain food choices is growing, it is important read product labels to correctly identify foods that qualify as whole grain.


Product name: To verify that a product is whole grain, consumers should be encouraged to look beyond a product’s name. Descriptive words in the product’s name, such as stone-ground, multi-grain, 100% wheat, or bran, do not necessarily indicate that a product is whole grain. Words to look for include “whole grain” or “100% whole wheat.”


Color and Texture:The color of a food does not determine whole grain. Bread may be brown because molasses or caramel coloring has been added. Many whole-grain products, such as cereals, are light in color. Whole grain foods are not always dry or gritty, some whole-grain foods may be dense with a pleasant “nutty” flavor or light and flaky like a cereal grain.


Fibre Content: The amount of fiber in a whole grain food varies depending on the type of grain, amount of bran, density of the product, and moisture content. Some whole grain foods may not be a “source of” or “high in” fibre. Labeling regulations allow a food to be called a source of fibre if the food contains 3 grams of fibre per 100g; high in fibre if it contains more than 6 grams per 100g.


Ingredient Statement: The ingredient statement will list whole grains by the specific grain, such as whole wheat flour, whole oats, or whole grain corn. The phrase “whole grain” or “whole” will appear before the grain’s name. In many whole grain foods, a whole grain is among the first ingredients listed. Foods made with several different whole grains noted further down on the list of ingredients may also qualify as a whole grain food. However, the ingredient list does not clearly indicate the amount of whole grain present in the food, nor does whole grain appear on the Nutritional Information Table.


Health Claim: Health claims relating to whole grains are permitted in other parts of the world under certain conditions. These are not however permitted for use in South Africa at present.The table below gives a guide on how to interpret food labels for whole grains:


Words you may see on packages What they mean
  • whole grain [name of grain]
  • whole wheat
  • whole [other grain]
  • stoneground whole [grain]
  • brown rice
  • oats, oatmeal (including old-fashioned oatmeal, instant oatmeal)
  • wheat berries
YES — Contains all parts of the grain.
  • wheat, or wheat flour
  • semolina
  • durum wheat
  • organic flour
  • stoneground
  • multigrain (several whole grains or several refined grains, or a mix of both)
MAYBE — Some parts of the grain MAY be missing.
  • enriched flour
  • degerminated (on corn meal)
  • bran
  • wheat germ
NO — These words never describe whole grains.



Whole grains have a delicious nutty taste and flavor, are easy to prepare and affordable. Consider the following practical ways to include whole grains into your diet:


  • Replace brown/white bread and rolls with heavy whole grain breads.
  • Choose whole grain high fibre cereals such as bran cereals, rolled oats and certain muesli’s.
  • Replace potato and white rice with brown rice, brown rice mix with lentils, wild rice or brown rice mix with split peas.
  • Cook bulgur wheat or pearl wheat to replace the pasta or pap and serve with stir fry chicken or chicken casserole.
  • Replace pap, potato bake and garlic bread at the weekend braai with a crushed wheat salad or brown rice salad.
  • Replace all white crackers such as cream crackers with wholegrain crackers such as Provita and Ryvita.
  • Replace the potato crisps with home popped popcorn.


Make Easy Substitutions in Baking

Substitute half the white flour with whole wheat flour in your regular recipes for cookies, muffins, quick breads and pancakes. Replace one third of the flour in a recipe with quick oats or old-fashioned oats. Add half a cup of cooked crushed or pearled wheat, wild rice, brown rice, sorghum or barley to a chunky vegetable or chicken soup.


Experiment with New foods and Recipes

Ask your dietitian for a whole grain recipe suited to your likes and eating plan such as brown/wild rice risotto’s and salads made from quinoa, pearled wheat, corn or bulgur wheat (Tabbouleh).


Cooking guide for whole grains

The following water amounts and cooking time are based on 1 cup of grain. As for all whole grains, add water and grain in a pot and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce to low heat to simmer for the amount of cooking time specified.

Barley (pearled): 3 cups water, 15 minutes cooking time
Brown rice: 2 cups water, 35 to 40 minutes cooking time
Oats (quick cooking): 2 to 3 cups water, 12 to 20 minutes cooking time
Oats (rolled): 2 to 3 cups water, 40 to 50 minutes cooking time
Quinoa: 2 cups water, 15 minutes cooking time
Wild rice: 3 cups water, 50 to 60 minutes cooking time



  1. Slavin J. Whole grains and human health. Nutrition Res Rev. 2004;17:99-110.
  2. Anderson JW. Whole grains protect against atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. Proc Nutr Soc. 2003;62:135-142.
  3. Murtaugh MA, Jacobs DRJ, Jacob B, Steffen LM, Marquart L. Epidemiological support for the protection of whole grains against diabetes. Proc Nutr Soc. 2003;62:143-149.
  4. Koh-Banerjee P, Rimm EB. Whole-grain consumption and weight gain: a review of the epidemiological evidence, potential mechanisms and opportunities for future research. Proc Nutr Soc. 2003;62:25-29.


Yours in Health,

Mbali Mapholi – Dietitian

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