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Whole grains vs. refined grains: what's the difference?

Medically reviewed on April 14, 2023 by Jillian Foglesong Stabile, MD, FAAFP. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

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As you examine your diet or adapt your food intake to support your health, you’ll likely come across a common debate during the research process: whole grains vs. refined grains.

What’s the difference? Simply put, whole grains contain the entire grain used to make the food product, while refined grains do not contain the entire grain, as some parts are removed during the milling process. [1] Both products are widespread in the US, and each one features its own array of benefits and drawbacks.

In this article, we’re exploring the whole grains vs. refined grains debate. We’ll explore each type of grain in detail and break down some considerations for incorporating them into a healthy diet.

What is a whole grain?

A whole grain is exactly as it sounds: whole. Whole grains have not been stripped of any of their components from the initial wheat crop. They’re grain products that haven’t been broken down into their component parts. [1]

To understand this concept and why it’s important, let’s zoom out and take a look at the entire grain aisle. There are a variety of grain product options on the market today, including [1]:

  • Wheat
  • Rice
  • Oats
  • Barley
  • Corn
  • Quinoa

Each of these grains features three component parts [2]:

  1. The bran is the thin, fibrous outer layer of a grain
  2. The endosperm is the starchy middle layer, typically the largest component
  3. The germ is the core of a grain that germinates when planted in soil

To really put this visual to work, imagine a piece of popcorn. Though it may be hard to believe, popcorn is a form of grain, and its air-expanded nature helps us see its grain components:

  1. The yellowish, crispy “shells” are a part of the bran.
  2. The fluffy, white “popped” part of a kernel is the endosperm.
  3. The crunchy nub where the popped part meets is a part of the germ.

Benefits of whole grains

One of the major benefits of consuming whole grains is that those holistic component parts offer a more dense nutrient profile. They are also considered heart-healthy foods. Whole grains can include [1]:

  • Complex carbohydrates
  • Dietary fiber
  • B vitamins like niacin, riboflavin, and thiamin
  • Minerals like iron, magnesium, and selenium

All of these nutrients are a crucial part of healthy, balanced diets for heart health.

Drawbacks of whole grains

On the other hand, the chief argument for not consuming whole grains (and the popular presence of refined grains in our food system today), is twofold [1]:

  • A coarser texture – Whole grains feature a different texture than milled (refined) grains. But, there’s good news: you’re probably used to the texture of numerous whole grain foods already. Popcorn, oatmeal, and brown rice are all whole grains that supply a more fibrous texture. [1]
  • A shorter shelf life – One of the major advantages of refined grains is that they’re manufactured to have a longer shelf life. If you swap out your white bread for whole wheat bread, you might notice that it goes stale faster when left on the counter. [1]

The US Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate program recommends that [1]:

  • Toddlers aged 12 to 23 months eat 1 ¾ to 3 ounces (oz) of grains per day
  • Children aged 2 to 3 years eat 3 to 5 oz of grains per day
  • Children aged 4 to 8 years eat 4 to 6 oz of grains per day
  • Girls aged 9 to 13 years eat 5 to 7 oz of grains per day
  • Girls and women aged 14 to 30 years eat 6 to 8 oz of grains per day
  • Boys aged 9 to 13 years eat 5 to 9 oz of grains per day
  • Boys aged 14 to 18 years eat 6 to 10 oz of grains per day
  • Women aged 31 and up eat 5 to 7 oz of grains per day
  • Men aged 19 to 30 years eat 8 to 10 oz of grains per day
  • Men aged 31 to 59 eat 7 to 10 oz of grains per day
  • Men aged 60 and up eat 6 to 9 oz of grains per day

While Americans generally eat enough grain products, many people don’t receive enough whole grains in their diet. While the figures above are recommendations for grains in general, MyPlate recommends that half of your total grain intake each day should consist of whole grains. [1]

Foods high in whole grains

To reap the nutritional benefits of whole grains, you can enjoy a much more versatile diet than the standard whole wheat toast. In fact, you can find whole grains in popcorn, whole wheat bread, bulgur, brown rice, and oatmeal. [1]

Additionally, you can add more whole grains to your diet by incorporating oat, corn, and barley products such as:

  • Breakfast cereals
  • Granola bars
  • Non-potato chips
  • Crackers
  • Corn tortillas

As the US becomes more aware of the health benefits of whole grains, food manufacturers are including more whole grains in their recipes to stay competitive on the shelves—so keep an eye out the next time you’re at the grocery store for your next serving of whole grains.

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What is a refined grain?

While whole grains feature all three parts of the grain—the bran, endosperm, and germ—refined grains typically contain just the endosperm. [1]

Most manufacturers use a process called milling to break grains down into their component parts, separating the endosperm from the other two components.

Benefits of refined grains

The process of separating out the endosperm part of the grain to produce the final food product has two primary benefits:

  1. Extends the shelf life – Since endosperms are generally low in fat and water content, products made from them typically don’t spoil as quickly as those made from whole grain. That’s why they’ve become a more favorable option for shelf stability.
  2. Lightens the texture and color – Flours made from refined grains offer a finer texture that’s more standardized for baking applications, and refined grains are typically whiter or lighter in color compared to whole grains. If you’ve eaten both white rice (a refined grain) and brown rice (a whole grain) you’ve experienced these differences firsthand.

Drawbacks of refined grains

While refined grains might produce a fluffier cake or a doughy cookie, they are generally less nutritious than their whole-grain counterparts because:

  • They lack the nutrient-packed bran and germ – The endosperm is mostly made from starches and features only a few proteins and vitamins. Where the majority of the nutrients lie in a grain is found in the bran and germ. [2]
  • They lack fiber – Although most refined grain products are enriched (a process that adds some B vitamins and iron back to the product after milling), enriched grains typically don’t feature every essential nutrient removed from the product during milling. Fiber, for instance, is typically not added back to refined grain products.

Because whole grains contain more nutritional content than refined grains, no true recommended amount of refined grains truly exists. Remember that at least half of your daily grain intake should be made up of whole grains, and refer to the list above to optimize your healthiest overall grain intake. [1]

Foods high in refined grains

Foods higher in refined grains, then, are the grains you may want to keep track of to balance your total grain intake between refined and whole grains. You won’t have much trouble finding refined grains in the US, as they can be found in items like:

  • Flour tortillas
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Rice cakes
  • Cookies
  • Crackers
  • White bread
  • Regular pasta

If you’re having a hard time swapping out your favorite refined grain products for whole grain alternatives, do your best to choose the most nutritious products you can. For instance, look for refined grain products that are both enriched and feature added fiber.

At the end of the day, experts don’t currently recommend that all of your grain intake should be made up of whole grains. [1] While you should do your best to incorporate whole grains to meet that 50% recommendation, it’s all about achieving a balanced diet with a healthy variety.

Swaps to add more whole grain to your diet

If you’re looking to add more whole grains to your diet, you don’t need to overhaul your entire grocery list. Consider some of the following simple swaps:

  • Swap white flour tortillas with corn tortillas
  • Swap white flour with whole grain flour in your baking recipe
  • Swap white rice cakes for a whole grain snack food, like popcorn
  • Swap refined breakfast cereals for oatmeal
  • Swap white bread for whole-grain bread

If you’re struggling to incorporate healthy foods or you suspect you might have a dietary deficiency, consider speaking to a healthcare provider. They can help you create a personalized diet that meets your needs.

Going beyond the grain

Whole grains, or a healthy balance of refined and whole grains, can offer a wealth of nutritional benefits. But if your diet is light on grain products, you can seek these vital nutrients in other starches, vegetables, or legumes.

  • Complex carbohydrates – You can find this energy booster in vegetables like peas, beans, and potatoes. [3]
  • B vitamins – Add B vitamins to your daily diet by incorporating foods like eggs, poultry, red meat, leafy green vegetables, and dairy products. [5]
  • Dietary fiber – You can find fiber in more places than you think, namely beans, peas, pumpkin, berries, coconut, and almond. [4]
  • Iron – Red meat isn’t the only food you can absorb more iron from. Oysters, beans, tomatoes, spinach, and cashews all supply an ample amount.
  • Magnesium – This mineral is essential for several body functions and can be found in pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, almonds, and some yogurt. [7]
  • Selenium – Turn to foods like tuna, cottage cheese, eggs, and lentils to add more selenium to your diet. [8]

As always, if you suspect that you have a nutritional deficiency of any kind, you should speak to a healthcare provider (preferably a Registered Dietitian).

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The whole grains vs. refined grains consideration ultimately comes down to nutritional value: Generally speaking, whole grains are more nutritious than refined grains. If you have a hard time incorporating whole grains into your diet, you can receive the nutrients from other foods.

In your pursuit of your most optimal health and wellness, Everlywell is here to help. Whether you’re trying to build a more nutritious diet plan, treat an STI, or set new health goals, we have the resources you need to take charge of your health.

Learn more about our virtual care services, at-home test collection kits, and more to empower your health tomorrow.

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  1. Grains. MyPlate. URL. Accessed April 14, 2023.
  2. Whole grains. The Nutrition Source. Published November 4, 2019. URL. Accessed April 14, 2023.
  3. Manetti S. Complex carbohydrates: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia Image. Published July 30, 2022. MedlinePlus. URL. Accessed April 14, 2023.
  4. Current dietary guidelines. Dietary Guidelines of America. URL. Accessed April 14, 2023.
  5. B vitamins. MedlinePlus. URL. Accessed April 14, 2023.
  6. Iron. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. Published April 5, 2022. URL. Accessed April 14, 2023.
  7. Magnesium. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. Published June 2, 2022. URL. Accessed April 14, 2023.
  8. Selenium. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. Published March 26, 2021. URL. Accessed April 14, 2023.
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