Sunday, August 21, 2016

What are "Whole Grains?"

I hope you've all read Jane Karlsson's 2010 thoughts on whole grains from last week. In writing that piece, and in some follow-up comments, I realize that we all tend to use the term "whole grain" nonchalantly like everyone knows what it means. One comment from last week mentioned that quinoa was not a grain, but a seed. This had me scratching my head:


tl/dr - "Grain" is a term used to indicate that a seed is sold and traded on a worldwide scale. Any seed can be considered "grain." The term "grain" is most commonly applied to corn, wheat, oats, and soybeans. When someone gives the advice to eat more "whole grains," this does not limit you to corn, wheat, oats, and soybeans, but a world of seeds (ie. beans, lentils, pulses, rice, and more) eaten in their whole, unrefined state. 

"Cereal" grains are the seeds of plants in the grass family, most common: Corn, wheat, oats, rye, rice, barley.

"Gluten" is found in wheat, barley, rye, and oats. 

A quick Google search shows that quinoa is most certainly a seed, but classified as a "pseudo-cereal" type of grain.

Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa, or goosefoot) is in fact not technically a cereal grain at all, but is instead what we call a "pseudo-cereal" – our name for foods that are cooked and eaten like grains and have a similar nutrient profile. Botanically, quinoa is related to beets, chard and spinach, and in fact the leaves can be eaten as well as the grains. It's a testimonial to how far quinoa has come in the last five years, that most people now know it's pronounced KEEN-wah, not kwin-OH-a.

Side note: Quinoa originates from the Andes Mountains not far from where potatoes were born. How did such a great civilization rise with these two "non-paleo" plants as staples?

Grain Defined

Wikipedia has a good definition:

Grains are small, hard, dry seeds, with or without attached hulls or fruit layers, harvested for human or animal consumption.[1] Agronomists also call the plants producing such seeds "grain crops". The two main types of commercial grain crops are cereals such as wheat and rye, and legumes such as beans and soybeans. Ubiquity of grain as a food source encouraged use of the term to describe other particles with volume or mass similar to an individual seed.

I guess it's safe to say that all grains are seeds, but not all seeds are grains, but any seed could easily become a grain if the demand were there.

I had no idea before reading this Wikipedia article yesterday that beans and legumes are considered "grain." Did any of you?


Grains are further deliniated by calling some of them cereal grains.

A cereal is any grass cultivated for the edible components of its grain (botanically, a type of fruit called a caryopsis), composed of the endosperm, germ, and bran. Cereal grains are grown in greater quantities and provide more food energy worldwide than any other type of crop;[1] they are therefore staple crops. Some plants often referred to as cereals, like buckwheat and quinoa, are considered instead pseudocereals, since they are not grasses, however they are still considered grains.

To further refine our definition, all grains are seeds (but not all seeds are grain), and seeds from certain grass is considered a cereal grain.

The main cereal grain crops of the world are wheat, corn, and rice. These are followed closely by oats, teff, amaranth, and quinoa.

Beans and Legumes

While I have never heard anyone call a bean a grain, it kind of makes sense now. I grew up on a farm in Ohio. Soybeans, a legume, were one of the leading grain crops. From Wikipedia on "Beans:"

Seeds called "beans" are often included among the crops called "pulses" (legumes),[1] although a narrower prescribed sense of "pulses" reserves the word for leguminous crops harvested for their dry grain. 

But it looks like "beans" are simply any seed that matures inside a seedpod, like peas or greenbeans.


Legumes, are seeds that mature in a pod. Some of them are grains. Sweet peas and greenbeans are technically not "grain" because they are sold in an unripe state, considered "vegetables." Confused yet? What really makes a legume and legume, though, is that it is a plant that belongs to the Leguminosae family of plants which includes:
And a whole group of what are traditionally termed "pulses.":
It would appear that the terms "bean" and "legume" are interchangeable. But keep in mind that not all legumes are considered beans. Anyone who owns a horse would never refer to alfalfa as a bean, haha.



It would appear from this discussion that the term "grain" is simply a designation that a plant seed is grown on a large scale, stores well, is easy to transport, and is traded on global markets as a commodity. If the world suddenly fell in love with pumpkin seeds, we would have a new grain. The term "grain" has no bearing on what type of plant it came from or its health and nutrition properties.

Why, then, do several dieting strategies rely on banning "grain?" What's wrong with this stuff?

Common Arguments Against Grain

Phytates – "Phytates, also found in lesser quantities in nuts and seeds, are not inherently damaging, but they do bind to dietary minerals and prevent their absorption (from PaleoLeap)."

Not part of human history -  "...they are completely and utterly pointless in the context of a healthy diet. In fact, if your average unhealthy person were to ask for the top three things to avoid in order to get healthy, I would tell them to stop smoking, to stop drinking their calories (as soda or juice), and to stop eating grains. Period. Full stop. They really are that bad (Mark's Daily Apple)." 

Gluten - Apparently any protein found in grain is bad for us. "While there is no gluten or gliadin in corn and oats, they have related proteins that have similar effects. Corn products in particular are not immunologically safe for people following a gluten-free lifestyle (Wheat Belly blog)."

Toxic - "It’s a common observation that the toxic grains, especially wheat, can produce a potbelly or “beer belly.” Rice doesn’t seem to do that (Perfect Health Diet)."

Anti-nutrients - "...cereal grains contain a variety of “antinutrients” which actually adversely affect health.  I have described these effects in a paper I wrote called “Cereal Grains: Humanity’s Double Edged Sword (The Paleo Diet).”

As I looked for these items of why grains are so bad, it sort of dawned on me that the early proponents of these grain-free and paleo diets did not really have a good understanding what they were banning when they just discussed "grain." Also, it would appear that they looked at components of whole grains that may be harmful and applied them across the board to show that all grain is bad. "Ricin, a deadly toxin, comes from a bean!"

"Whole" Grains

The healthy, nutritious aspect of grain is destroyed when these foods are refined and turned into white flour or when eaten without regard to preparation. Corn, for instance, is best when nixtamalized.

The primary nutritional benefits of nixtamalization arise from the alkaline processing involved. These conditions convert corn's bound niacin to free niacin, making it available for absorption into the body, thus preventing pellagra. Alkalinity also reduces the amount of the protein zein available to the body, which improves the balance among essential amino acids, although the overall amount of protein is reduced (Wikipedia). 

Sprouting of grains is known to make them a healthier alternative to raw grains. Some grains/seeds/legumes/beans should never be consumed raw, while others are commonly eaten raw. But I think that when we discuss "whole grains" we are really saying that we eat the seeds of plants in a manner that does not rely on heavy processing which removes the outer covering (bran) and the oils, germ, and other components which make them a "whole" food.

Anatomy of a Grain

How to get the Whole Grains in your Diet


While I am far from an expert on cooking and eating whole grains, I have been experimenting the past couple of years. Oatmeal is a safe and easy whole grain, especially when you chose oat groats, steel-cut, oat bran, or thick rolled oats. These make a great breakfast food, and can be added uncooked into smoothies or no-bake cookies. Oats that you buy for eating are actually pre-cooked in part of the process that removes the straw husk. Uncooked oats are referred to as "oat berries."


Teff is easily found in supermarkets or online. It's really cool, too. Microscopic little grains, you'll enjoy just looking at it. Cook it like it says on the bag into a sort of pilaf or polenta. Can be used in lots of recipes. The light brown seeds in the background of my blog are teff (next to chia and oat groats).


Easily sourced and tasty, cook and eat it like oatmeal or add to recipes.


If you've given up on bread and want it back, learn to make your own using sourdough starters and the various whole grain flours like rye, spelt, or wheat. Ezekial Bread is sold in most supermarkets and seems a good, healthy choice. I get Dave's Killer Bread on occasion.

A whole year of whole grains!

Check this resource out:  The Whole Grains Council has recently started highlighting a different whole grain each month. Check it out for excellent ideas.

Grain of the Month Calendar!

WHY should we eat grains?

For about the past 10 years, grains have gotten a bad rap from some dieting circles, "Paleo" in particular. But the preponderance of the evidence suggests that whole grains are an important part of the human health nutrition puzzle. As Jane Karlsson frequently points out, there are metals and vitamins found in the whole portions of grains and seeds that cannot be found when eating a low carb, meat-heavy or Westernized diet of refined foods. The shift away from overly processed foods is great, but to banish whole foods is folly.

Study after study show that whole grains are good for us! [If you find an abstract, and want the full text, just ask and I'll get it to you.]

Putting the Whole Grain Puzzle Together: Health Benefits Associated with Whole Grains

Whole grains are rich sources of vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, lignans, β-glucan, inulin, numerous phytochemicals, phytosterols, phytin, and sphingolipids (3, 15). The bran is the multi-layered outer skin of the grain that protects the germ and the endosperm from damage, such as sunlight, pests, water, and disease. The bran contains phenolic compounds, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. The endosperm is the largest component of the whole grain; it contains carbohydrates (starch), protein, vitamins, and minerals and serves as the food supply for the germ and provides energy for the rest of the plant. The germ refers to the embryo, the part that forms the new plant, and contains vitamins, some protein, minerals, and fat. [Full text at link above, great paper to read!]

Whole-grain and blood lipid changes in apparently healthy adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled studies.

Conclusion: Consumption of whole-grain diets lowers LDL cholesterol and TC, but not HDL cholesterol or triglycerides, compared with consumption of non-whole-grain control diets. Whole-grain oat appears to be the most effective whole grain for lowering cholesterol.

Association between dietary whole grain intake and risk of mortality: two large prospective studies in US men and women.

Conclusion:  These data indicate that higher whole grain consumption is associated with lower total and CVD mortality in US men and women, independent of other dietary and lifestyle factors. These results are in line with recommendations that promote increased whole grain consumption to facilitate disease prevention.

Whole grains and human health.

Whole grains have high concentrations of dietary fibre, resistant starch, and oligosaccharides. Whole grains are rich in antioxidants including trace minerals and phenolic compounds and these compounds have been linked to disease prevention. Other protective compounds in whole grains include phytate, phyto-oestrogens such as lignan, plant stanols and sterols, and vitamins and minerals.

Why whole grains are protective: biological mechanisms.

...whole grains contain many other compounds that may protect against chronic disease. These compounds include phytate, phyto-oestrogens such as lignan, plant stanols and sterols, and vitamins and minerals.


Over the past couple of years, I've heard lots and lots of people say that their health has improved when they removed gluten from their diet.

There's been lots written on the topic of gluten sensitivities, and I think it's worth looking into to avoid gluten if you think it helps. I've avoided gluten for long periods, and eaten it for long periods recently.  Gluten does not seem to be a trigger of gut dysfunction or bad health for me, but I do avoid refined, white wheat as much as humanly possible. When dining out, perhaps a slice or two of bread.

You'll have to decide for yourself whether gluten is problematic. But hopefully now you see there is a world of "whole grains" beyond those that contain gluten, namely wheat, barley, and rye.


I realize I just scratched the surface on the healthfulness of whole grains and the diets that avoid them. Perhaps if you have been avoiding grains of all types it's time to start adding them back by experimenting with grains you didn't even know were grain. And remember, any diet that eliminates an entire segment of whole, real foods is not a diet that humans will thrive on long-term.

Let's hear your thoughts...what did I miss?



  1. Thank you Tim, for alleviating some of the fear of "grains" that I seem to carry around without having given much attention.

    1. Next time you hear someone bashing grains, ask them to specify exactly which grain and which component of that grain they are concerned about. Dollars to donuts that any compound one can point to in a commonly eaten grain as "bad" is actually good for us in the context of eating "whole grains."

      The term "grain" is so misleading, anyway.

  2. What do you think about people with digestive issues that are improved by avoiding foods such as wheat and other grains, dairy, eggs and maybe nuts, that contain difficult to break down, "sticky" proteins. I suppose it's that so many of us have a compromised gut biome. I remember reading somewhere that Sally Fallon, president of the Weston Price Society, said something to the effect that grains are not a problem if you have a healthy microbiome, but the majority of us don't. It could be a good thing to avoid grains for a period while we work to heal the gut - weed, seed and feed.

    1. Which grains and what components, specifically?

      Just kidding...sure, some people may have problems with some grains and some foods. My focus all along is in prevention of gut dysbiosis through the eating of high fiber plant foods, including grains. Once gut dysbiosis is firmly established, all bets are off as to what a person can and can't eat.

      But as you see from the blog post, using the term "grain" is quite inappropriate as the term is synonymous with "seed."

      Once you get past "grain=wheat" you'll find a whole world of healthy whole grains, something for everyone. The same people that warn against "grain" usually love quinoa and teff or seeds of all kinds (except seeds of wheat, lol).

    2. Definitely removing grains and legumes resolved my hand arthritis 16 years ago. But what I have never quite figured out is what exactly was the culprit.

      Was it the gluten,or other aspects of the grains, or the fact that my gut was not in the best shape due to too many refined flours and sweets or was there glyphosate in The wheat back then as much as today that messed with my microbiome? Plus antibiotics? My guess is a leaky gut from numerous factors and whatever it was in the grains was just the tipping point and needed to be removed while I healed.

      These days, after abstaining from all grains and legumes for years,I eat them all: oats regularly, teff, mostly as injera, quite often, sourdough rye quite often and even occassional sourdough white wheat bread when at a good restaurant. i eat legumes regularly too. Always organic ( except at the very occasional retaurant outing) to be sure to avoid the glyphosate.

      Enjoyed seeing Alfalfa again after all these years!

    3. I've never tried teff. I'll get some and try it. Don't know if I'll ever take up traditional cereal grains on a regular basis again but I do eat lots of beans and organic sunflower seeds, chia seeds and oat bran. I have a problem when I eat wheat, spelt, kamut and even almond flour because I have no off switch and I overindulge. My daughter is a baker\pastry chef who soaks dries and grinds her own grains. Still I have to limit eating her wonderful baked goods to birthdays and special occasions.

    4. haha, I was looking for a picture of an alfalfa hay bale but thought the Little Rascal was more appropriate.

      re: overeating grains. Me, too. I can plow right through a plate of brownies, but a panful of corn polenta lasts for days.

      Just as with everything, there is no reason to go out of your way to eat grains, but also no reason to avoid them. They should just be a part of your life, if you can tolerate them.

    5. elliebelly, my story is similar to yours. I experienced countless improvements when I eliminated grains and now I'm also curious as to why it helped. I think your guesses are on the right basic track. Also like you I can tolerate grains better now and do eat some, trying to be more careful this time around to eat the best.

  3. I'm hooked on stone ground whole wheat bread. I get it fresh from a local bakery called The Breadery. I'll eat the entire loaf in just a day sometimes; it's only 35 calls/slice

    1. Actually, bread is not a high calorie food item, a pound of wheat bread is about 1500 calories. A loaf of bread usually weighs about a pound. A couple slices a day is fine.

    2. Tim, is that a loaf that weighs a pound, or is that a loaf that has a pound of wheat in it? With my rye, I've found that a one pound loaf has 1/2 pound of rye in it. The rest is water, etc.

    3. I meant per loaf. 1/2 pound of rye per loaf? Cool. I was wondering. Such a shame that our society turned healthy, life-sustaining bread into empty calorie cake. About the only redeeming quality of modern bread is the added "fortifications" but from what I have read, they use the wrong type of minerals (iron, etc.) and when presented with no other components of whole grain, they are not utilized well. We need to put the "whole" back in whole grains!

  4. Just to confuse you more, there are also legume (Leguminosae) FRUITS--such as tamarind, which you listed--and legume TUBERS, such as jicama, and both are edible raw, fitting even Ray Audette's strict definition of what is Paleo (edible with nothing but a sharp stick). :) Beans (legume seeds) are a much more common type of legume food, but not the only type.

    1. Seems taht tiger nuts would easily fit the definition of "grain" as well. There really is no standard definition of "grain." One dictionary says grain is the "seeds of cereal crops used as food." Another: "the gathered seed of food plants, especially of cereal plants."

    2. Grain is a unit of measure, specifically, weight. Or maybe volume. So the use of "grain" in regard to legume's isn't so confusing. All the way back to Babylon, weights and measures were based on dual standards, wheat is one, barley the other.

    3. Ted - yeah, I was considering discussing that angle as well. Grains of sand, grains of truth, 1 grain = 64.798mg. But all these originate, as you said, from wheat or barley.

      Grain appears to come from Latin, granum meaning "seed."

    4. 'Seems taht tiger nuts would easily fit the definition of "grain" as well.'

      Close, though grains are typically seeds, whereas tiger nuts are tubers. A simple definition of grain would be staple seed food.

  5. Bravo Tim. Good topic. Before FTA, when I was LC, I would go a little crazy over bread. I would eat and couldn't stop.

    Now, I do whole grain (not enriched) and fermented. I get wonderful breads that are made from starters....REAL bread. At first, I would pig out. I think I had missed it for so long.... Now, it is just a regular part of my diet. No pigging out. My nutritional and especially microbiome needs are being met.

    Yesterday, I had one cookie. Just one!! That's all I needed. was a cookie from a country that doesn't enrich their wheat. It was satisfying. So was the refried beans I ate yesterday....and the oven roasted potatoes...

    And! For the first time in years... I am below 200. Today, I was 198. Yes, eating beans...potatoes and whole grains. N. :-) :-)

  6. I've been following along, not commenting, but this is a subject I've been thinking about a lot, having just read Tartine Book No. 3 described thusly on Amazon:

    "...a revolutionary, and altogether timely, exploration of baking with whole grains. The narrative of Chad Robertson's search for ancient flavors in heirloom grains is interwoven with 85 recipes for whole-grain versions of Tartine favorites. Robertson shares his groundbreaking new methods of bread baking including new techniques for whole-grain loaves, as well as porridge breads and loaves made with sprouted grains."

    Roberts has experimented extensively with natural leaven (aka sourdough) and long, slow fermentation which dramatically changes the digestibility of grains.

    There are even some interesting techniques where porridges of things like oat groats, barleys, Kamut, buckwheat, corn etc. are prefermented and included in bread. As a recovering no-carber, I'm experimenting with some of these foods and find naturally-leavened, long fermentation whole-grain bread to be very delicious and not at all hard on the digestion, quite the opposite!

    1. The long, slow fermentation seems to be a common theme in making gluten-containing breads healthier. I've been playing with sourdough spelt from pre-ground organic spelt flour. I would love to get a flour mill and grind my own. I checked around towm, no one has a flour mill. One health food store that sells all sorts of grains said that since the gluten-free. low carb crazes hit a few years back, everyone sort of started to move away from grains and baking. Such a shame.

      I've heard from numerous people who brought grains, even gluten grains, back into their lives in a big way after going completely grain-free for several years. Most of these people say that they are now eating whole grain breads and using whole grain flours with no problems whatsoever, but there are a few who seem to do better without gluten.

  7. Good to highlight the semantics of "grain." I like your reply up there in a comment about don't go out of your way, yet no need to avoid. Although, I do think that when someone is not doing well, taking things out certainly does help. Then, slowly working on health in many areas (including the gut) will probably allow these foods to just be food again---not fear. Fear is bad. :-)

    Earlier this summer I toyed with making Essene bread with buckwheat, teff, quinoa. It was pleasant. Awesome? No. But pleasant. Basically I just soaked 2 cups of the grain(s) (sometimes combined grains) until they sprouted. Then, I very lightly rinsed them. Then threw them in the food processor/blender to grind up, added a little water, maybe a cup or two. Poured in a wax paper/greased lined loaf pan. Let it sit on the counter to rise on its own via fermentation (never as high as a gluten bread, but it still rose). Baked. The kids liked it, but they liked the buckwheat and I didn't. I liked the teff and quinoa combo, and they didn't. Ha. It was fun to experiment, though.

    Take care!

    1. Terri

      I had never heard of such a procedure for making bread! Thanks for your comment!

      A question: How long do you leave your dough to ferment? I realize the actual time depends, but I just need an order of magnitude (hours vs days...)

      I'm so going to do this. Thanks again.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Let me try this again. It usually sat and fermented after I ground it for about 24-28 hours. But it was hot summer and everything happened faster. I also looked up Essene bread again. I guess it's not really Essene bread because I don't think they did the fermentation step. Just the sprouting. You can e-mail me, Wilbur: thehomeschoolingdoctoratgmaildotcom. I was going to put it on my site, but I wanted to perfect it and never got around to it before we left for a long vacation.

  8. Good to highlight the semantics of "grain." I like your reply up there in a comment about don't go out of your way, yet no need to avoid. Although, I do think that when someone is not doing well, taking things out certainly does help. Then, slowly working on health in many areas (including the gut) will probably allow these foods to just be food again---not fear. Fear is bad. :-)

    Earlier this summer I toyed with making Essene bread with buckwheat, teff, quinoa. It was pleasant. Awesome? No. But pleasant. Basically I just soaked 2 cups of the grain(s) (sometimes combined grains) until they sprouted. Then, I very lightly rinsed them. Then threw them in the food processor/blender to grind up, added a little water, maybe a cup or two. Poured in a wax paper/greased lined loaf pan. Let it sit on the counter to rise on its own via fermentation (never as high as a gluten bread, but it still rose). Baked. The kids liked it, but they liked the buckwheat and I didn't. I liked the teff and quinoa combo, and they didn't. Ha. It was fun to experiment, though.

    Take care!

  9. You've done it, Tim. I think I am hooked. I had to go back a few posts to figure out where the idea started, thus a comment on a relatively old post (given your recent posting frequency--yay fun stuff to read!).

    Barley. Whole barley, with just the inedible hull removed. I'd only had pearl barley before, but your posts got me thinking. Surely it could go either savory or sweet? Oats have not won my heart, but I think it was only because I was saving it for barley.

    Seriously, this seems like a flexible and tasty grain. I can get 25 pounds from Azure Standard, which I'm about to do, after starting with a measly 2 pounds from Amazon to see if the family revolted. Breakfast barley worked and pilaf-style dinner barley seems like a no-brainer, so I'll be getting 25 pounds later this week.



    1. Cool! I will try some barley. I don't recall ever eating whole barley before, just the littles bits in Campbell's Soup. MMmmMMMmmmGood

    2. Try purple and black barley. Awesome stuff

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