The Great Grain Debate: Whole Grains vs. Multigrains

By Perrin Braun, August 1, 2022


According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, we’re supposed to be eating 3-5 servings of whole grains every day. But what is a “whole grain”? What is the difference between “multigrain” and “whole grain”? You’re in good company if you’re unsure! Due to the fact that these two terms are not interchangeable, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about which product is healthier. An InsideTracker plan can help you figure out which nutrients you need and which grains may provide them. In the meantime, let’s look at the nutrition science behind the terms “whole grain,” “refined grain” and “multigrain” on food labels.image

What is a whole grain?

Whole grains contain all parts of the grain kernel: the germ, or outer covering, which is a good source of essential fatty acids and B-vitamins; the endosperm, which is high in starch; and the bran, which is very high in fiber. The fiber is a key component of whole grain products, and whole grains contain about 80% more fiber than refined grains. Fiber helps your body to slow the absorption of sugar into the blood, works to improve your digestion, and makes you feel fuller for longer. The Dietary Guidelines recommend that you get 21-38 grams of fiber per day, and whole grains are an excellent source! One slice of whole grain bread contains about 2.0 grams of fiber. In addition to whole grains, you can also get dietary fiber from fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

Click here to find out how InsideTracker can recommend new foods that are rich in fiber and healthy carbohydrates!

Minimally processed foods like oatmeal, bulgur wheat, brown rice, and popcorn typically contain whole grains. It’s more difficult to tell with processed grains like bread, crackers, pasta, and tortillas because those grains have been milled into flour. Unfortunately, whole grains make up only 10-15% of the available grain-products on the market, so read the nutrition label carefully to make the healthier choice!

What does multigrain mean?

Simply put, “multigrain” means that a food contains more than one type of grain. Sounds pretty healthy, right? The catch is that none of these grains are necessarily whole grains. For instance, a multigrain product could include several different types of refined grains, which are created by stripping the bran and germ from a whole grain. In the refining process, nutrients are lost so food manufacturers often enrich refined grains with extra nutrients. In many multigrain products, the germ and the bran have been removed, leaving the starchy endosperm, which is the least nutritious part of the grain. The same goes for other variations, such as “seven grain”, “stone ground”, or “100% wheat”. Manufacturers sometimes use molasses or food coloring to mimic the dark color of whole grains, so make sure you are not fooled by appearances!

What are some other nutrition benefits of whole grains?

In addition to the fiber and B-vitamins, whole grain products are a great source of complex carbohydrates. The chemical structure of a complex carbohydrate is three or more simple sugars, which are typically linked together to form a chain. complex carbohydrates digest slowly and don’t raise your blood sugar levels as quickly as simple carbohydrates, such as white flour. Complex carbs act as your body’s fuel, and make significant contributions to energy production. Whole grains also contain roughly 25% more protein than refined grains; protein is essential for many functions ranging from digesting food to repairing muscle tissue. Lastly, although some refined grains are enriched with some of the vitamins and minerals that were lost in during processing, they are still not as nutritious as whole grains, because not all the nutrients are returned and refined grains lack of fiber.

The specific nutrient content differs between various whole grains. For instance, barley and oats contain a special kind of fiber called beta-glucan, which is found to be especially effective in lowering cholesterol. Oats may also have a unique antioxidant, avenanthramides, which helps protect blood vessels from the damaging effects of LDL cholesterol. So be sure to check the label for these ingredients!

How do I know if I’m buying whole grains?

The bad news is that the United States Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) “has not defined any claims concerning the grain content of foods.” You’ll have to do a bit of sleuthing on the food label to discern the type of grain that is used. However, the FDA recommends that products labeled with “100 percent whole grain” or “100 whole grain oats” not contain grain ingredients other than those the agency considers to be whole grains (for example, only whole wheat flour or whole oats).

It’s easy to confuse “multigrain” and “whole grain” products, so be sure to read the list of ingredients carefully! Look for products that list the first ingredient as “whole wheat,” “whole oats,” or a similar type of whole grain. Since ingredients are listed in the order that they occur in a product, spotting whole grains first on a label means that the product is made predominantly from whole grains. In addition to the type of grain, also find the amount of fiber. Fiber varies from grain to grain, ranging from 3.5% in rice to over 15% in barley and bulgur, so be sure to check how much fiber is in your favorite product.

When you are reading a food label to see whether it is a whole-grain product, pay attention to the words shown below.

These ingredients designate a whole-grain product:

Whole grain Whole wheat Stoneground whole grain Brown rice Oats or oatmeal Wheatberries

These words sound healthy, but by themselves they don’t mean whole grains:

wheat flour or wheat semolina durum wheat organic flour stoneground

Lastly, these words never describe whole grains:

enriched flour corn meal  bran wheat germ

And remember that InsideTracker blood analysis shows which nutrients you need and recommends foods, including whole grains, which provide those nutrients! 

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