The Whole (And Half) Truth About Whole Grains

You’ve had your morning whole-wheat bagel. You’re thinking a stuffed whole wheat pita might fit the bill for lunch and later maybe a little brown rice salad for dinner.  After all, whole grains are really healthy, aren’t they?

Yes and no.  What do we mean when we talk about “whole grains” anyway?

It’s a big category –from white and brown rice to quinoa and barley,  corn, oats, rye, wild rice, spelt, amaranth, and bulgur. Plus the less commonly eaten grains such as sorghum, triticale, amaranth,  farro, and teff. They are each in their own way, important sources of a range of much-needed nutrients, including complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, several B vitamins, and minerals many of which are short in the American diet (iron, magnesium, and selenium)..

According to the Whole Grain Council, grains are whole “when consumed in a form including the bran, germ, and endosperm.” That is when they are indeed whole and not refined or ultra-refined into the ubiquitous processed foods and snacks that crowd our shopping aisles and which make up an incredible 51% of the typical American diet. The USDA’s MyPlate recommends that at least half of all grains consumed daily should be whole grains. This means eating 3 to 5 servings or more of whole grains daily, as bread, cereal, pasta, your choice. Eating whole grains lowers the risk of many chronic diseases, including heart disease and diabetes. Other benefits include reduced risk of asthma, healthier blood pressure levels, and better weight control.

Most health organizations, including the American Heart Association, the American Institute for Cancer Research, the American Diabetes Association, and the Alzheimer’s Association, recommend whole grains as an important part of a healthy diet. Indeed, the journal Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Disease examined whole grain intake among 17,424 adults over 10 years and found that those who ate the most had a 47% lower risk for developing heart disease. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, whole grains contain unique anticancer compounds like resistant starch (fiber your body doesn’t digest), along with polyphenols (compounds that act as antioxidants).  Some studies suggest that as little as 6 ounces of whole grains per day can reduce colorectal cancer risk by 21%. Furthermore, certain types of fiber in whole grains act as prebiotics — food for probiotics which are the good bacteria in your gut microbiome, important for digestive health.

There’s plenty of research showing that folks who consume whole grains are typically healthier than those who don’t. But the products in question should be breads, cereals, noodles, and such that have no added ingredients listed and carry the 100% Whole Grain” stamp which guarantees that the grain is whole and unrefined. Why do we need this guarantee?  Because the FDA allows the food industry to advertise products with as little as 51% of whole grains by weight as “whole grain.”  Yes, you read that right. That so-called whole grain bagel in your hand may only be delivering half of what you came for.

Actually, getting our whole grains on should come naturally. Domestication of grains, for the last few millennia have been the principal source of human caloriesThese days, our species only gets about 50% of all calories directly from grains such as wheat, corn, and rice and indirectly through livestock that feeds on huge quantities of grain.

Processing is the bad news and it is not the only bad news. Processing involves fractionating the grains and removing their healthy fiber-filled outer coverings along with iron and B vitamins; without that nutritious fiber, the remaining carbohydrates can cause spikes in blood glucose, leading to inflammation and insulin disregulation.

The next bit of bad news about grains besides what’s not in them anymore is what’s on them– thanks to the widespread use of agricultural chemicals. In recent years, USDA has tested over 700 conventional wheat flour and 600 conventional rice samples and found 50 different pesticides on them, including the neurotoxic pesticide chlorpyrifos and the pyrethroid insecticide deltamethrin. Rice samples also contained the fungicides tricyclazole and propiconazole

Perhaps more alarming is the presence of Glysophate, a widely used weed killer applied especially on wheat, barley and oats and corn.  It is an endocrine disruptor, antibiotic, and probable carcinogen. Glyphosate is used as a desiccant to dry out crops prior to harvest.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies Glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. Recent tests by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency found glyphosate contamination in 80 to 90 percent of popular wheat-based products including pizza, crackers, and pasta. The Environmental Working Group has detected the pesticide in more than 95 percent of the samples of oat-based products, including children’s cereals. Glyphosate is especially nefarious because of how it damages gut health, as well. Exposure to glyphosate has been shown to loosen the tight junctions that make up the walls of the intestinal tract. That means everything that those cells need to do is compromised, putting both your gut function and gut health at risk. A 2017 study found that Americans’ exposure to glyphosate has increased approximately 500 percent since Roundup Ready (in which it is an ingredient) GMO crops were introduced in the U.S. in 1996.

Beyond Glysophate

Beyond what is added, there are naturally occurring compounds like arsenic, saponins, phytates, and lectins in grains that may (or may not) be problematic. And arsenic is obviously best avoided at any dose. Most of the world’s rice includes higher than healthy levels of arsenic. Arsenic is a heavy metal found in much of the soil in which rice is cultivated. Over the last couple of centuries, arsenic levels in our soil have risen dramatically as a result of pesticides and industrial pollution. Unfortunately, brown rice (which is healthier than white) is especially problematic because the arsenic tends to concentrate in its outer hull. This may be a very good reason to minimize rice and rice products in your diet, choosing other whole grains instead.  While it’s true that lectins may interfere with the absorption of vitamins and minerals such as calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, and zinc, there’s an easy fix. Cooking your grains eliminates the damage lectins might do. And phytates (also called anti-nutrients since they can block the absorption of some minerals) aren’t all bad. They can also be disarmed before cooking, so to speak, and may also offer positive properties that aid in the prevention of cancer, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and other illnesses.


And then there is the contentious issue of gluten which occurs primarily in wheat, rye, and barley, making it a no-no for people with celiac disease. Symptoms of gluten intolerance can include headaches, joint pain, skin problems, seizures, mental disorders, and digestive problems.

And last but not least, there’s the issue of GMO or genetically modified grains. Fortunately, only corn presently figures as a bioengineered grain, not wheat or oats, or other grains.

On balance, grains are too good to abandon and thankfully there are ways to have your grains and safely eat them.


  • Buy organic grains—they are not chemically treated thus making the glysophate and other chemicals a non-issue.
  • Soaking grains for a few hours, or even overnight, can enhance their nutritional benefits, make them easier to digest, and removing problematic compounds like arsenic. Note that the so-called “anti-nutrients” like saponins( found in oats, quinoa, and amaranth) and phytates may actually be beneficial to your health– in moderation,
  • Parboiling Fix: you can reduce the arsenic concentrations in rice while maintaining levels of beneficial nutrients by parboiling with absorption. Bring water to a boil, using four cups of fresh water for every cup of raw rice. Add the rice and boil for five minutes. Discard the water, rinse the rice, and add two cups of water for each cup of rice. Then cover the pot and cook on low to medium heat until the water is absorbed and the rice is the desired texture.
  • Saponin removal in quinoa: Soak grain at least five minutes before rinsing and cooking. (For increased nutrition and absorption soak overnight), then pour off the water before cooking in fresh water. The presence of saponin can affect taste.
  • Avoid cookware coated in Teflon, aluminum, or copper. These can off-gas or leach chemicals into the water. Stainless steel is a safer choice. Even better, consider a  rice cooker which is a valuable investment since they come with sensors that determine precisely how long and how hot various kinds and quantities of grain need to prepare.
  • Store properly: Whole grains can last a long time without going bad, thanks to the phytonutrients that protect and preserve the oils and the germ. As long as they’re sealed (to keep out bugs) and dry (to prevent fungal or bacterial growth), dried grains are good for months.   Store whole grains in an airtight container. Use glass or silicone (not plastic) and keep in the freezer. Note: Cooked whole grains keep approximately 3–4 days in the fridge.

-Frances Goulart



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