Whole Grains Demystified … How to Make the Right Choice


Whole Grain CerealIn a prior story, Jon Barron from the Baseline of Health Foundation explained the difference between whole grains and refined, and the benefits whole grains may provide in the prevention of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.  The story that follows is Part 2 of his research, which delves deeper into whole grains, discussing how grains differ, which whole grains to choose, allergy issues, organic vs non-organic, GMO vs non-GMO, and other related topics …

Not all grains are equal

The first problem lies in lumping all whole grains together. Grains vary wildly in their composition and in their effects on the human body. These differences range from the very basic such as:

  • What type of fiber they contain: insoluble, or water-soluble?
  • How they effect pH?
  • How are they cooked? Are they alive or dead?
  • Do they contain phytates that block the absorption of minerals?
  • How quickly are they broken down? Are they long chain, or ultra-long chain?
  • How allergenic are they?

But beyond the basics, there are more complex questions that also impact the equation. These more complex issues include:

  • What other phytochemicals matter?
  • How are they grown (GMO VS non-GMO), and does it make a difference?
  • Organic versus non-organic?
  • And yes, the studies compare the benefits of refined grains VS whole grains in the diet, but how do whole grains compare to no grains in the diet?

With that in mind, let's address each of these questions one at a time.

There are two types of fiber: water-soluble and insoluble

At heart, fiber is a carbohydrate like sugar, but more complex. It is composed of elongated, threadlike, indigestible structures and is found in fruits, vegetables, and grains. It has no calories because the body cannot absorb it. The more fiber present in food, the more slowly the carbohydrates bound to that fiber break down. That's why high fiber fruits and vegetables such as broccoli and prunes and berries tend to be very low on the glycemic index. In general, these foods, although they are pure carbohydrates, can be eaten abundantly on any low-carb program.

Fiber has long been recognized as one of the best food ingredients for maintaining bowel regularity and preventing constipation and acts to normalize bowel movements. Consuming fiber reduces transit time and results in a more thorough evacuation of waste materials from the bowel. Bottom line: fiber improves all aspects of colon function. There are two types of fiber: insoluble and water soluble (and this is where things start to get interesting).

Both insoluble and soluble fiber are indigestible. As such, they do not break down in the digestive tract and are not absorbed into the bloodstream. Instead, they are excreted from our bodies. The difference between the two types of fibers is rooted in how they respond in the presence of water.

Insoluble fiber, which is found in most brans, vegetables, and cereal grains, cannot be dissolved in water and passes through the digestive tract largely intact. When consumed in sufficient quantity, insoluble fiber collects water as it passes through the digestive tract, causing it to swell up and increase stool bulk in the large intestine, thereby promoting regular bowel movements and preventing constipation. It also works to scour intestinal walls of waste matter, which helps expedite the removal of toxic waste. And it helps optimize the pH in the intestinal tract to prevent microbes from producing cancerous substances. Primary sources are leafy vegetables, fruit skins, whole wheat and corn bran, and seeds and nuts.

Water-soluble fiber, on the other hand, actually dissolves in water (as when you mix a tablespoon of Metamucil in a glass of water) and is found in oats and oat bran, dried beans and peas, barley, flax seed, vegetables such as carrots, fruits such as apples and oranges, and, most notably, psyllium husk. As it dissolves in the water found in the intestinal tract, it forms a bulky gel that regulates the flow of waste materials through the digestive tract. It also binds with fatty acids and prolongs stomach emptying time so that sugar is released and absorbed more slowly.

Water-soluble fiber lowers total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) by binding with bile acids and preventing their re-absorption into the body. This lowers cholesterol as cholesterol is a major component of bile acids, which are used by the body to aid in the digestion of fats. If soluble fiber is present in the intestinal tract, it binds with the bile acids after they have helped break down the fats in your diet, and escorts them out of the body. Since they are not reabsorbed in the presence of water soluble fiber, the liver has to draw more cholesterol from the blood to make more bile acids to be used for further digestion. The net effect is to lower cholesterol levels in the blood.

Water-soluble fiber also helps slow down the absorption of carbohydrates into the bloodstream, which slows down the body's glycemic response. This both reduces stress on the pancreas, but also works to lower blood sugar levels. Psyllium supplementation, in particular, has been shown to improve blood sugar levels in diabetics.

The bottom line is that, based on fiber content alone, grains vary wildly in their effect on the body. Whole grain wheat and corn produce their primary effect by helping produce "better" stools. Oats and barley, on the other hand, are high in water soluble fibers (primarily, beta glucans) that can help lower cholesterol, reduce sugar levels in the blood, and improve stool quality at the same time.

So, here we have our first key point of differentiation. Different grains have different types of fiber. Oats and whole wheat, for example, cannot be lumped together when talking about health benefits in this regard.


When grains are metabolized, proteins, fats, and carbohydrates produce various acids in our bodies. Proteins produce sulfuric acid and phosphoric acid. Fats and carbohydrates (including most grains) produce acetic acid and lactic acid. Since these acids are poisonous to the body, they must be eliminated.

Our bodies function in a very narrow range of acid/alkaline balance (pH). Our blood in particular is very sensitive to these changes. Ideally, blood pH should be slightly alkaline at about 7.45. If it varies by even as little as a few tenths of a point, severe illness and death may result. Unfortunately, most of the food we eat is highly acidic (meat, dairy, sodas, alcohol, cooked grains). In the end, it becomes too much for our bodies to handle. If we don't correct the problem by "alkalinizing" the body, disease, sickness, and death are the inevitable result.

Obviously, the major way to correct acid/alkaline imbalances in your body is to eat more alkaline foods. For the most part, only fresh fruits and vegetables and superfoods (primarily green foods such as chlorella, spirulina, barley grass, etc.) are alkaline-forming and help your body maintain a proper pH. But your choice in grains can have a significant impact, depending on how much you eat.

  • Some grains are actually mildly alkaline, such as amaranth, millet, lentils, wild rice, and quinoa.
  • Some are only mildly acidic, such as barley, spelt, oats, and brown rice.
  • And some are highly acidic, such as wheat (both whole and white), white rice, rye, corn, and buckwheat.

So once again, we see that not all grains are equal, and that the choices you make have an impact on your health.


Grains are packed with stored nutrients that are held in suspension until moisture starts the germination process. Enzymes that trigger the germination process in seeds and grains are far more abundant in sprouts than in the ungerminated grain. In fact, enzyme levels are 10 to 100 times higher in sprouted seeds and grains than in the fully grown vegetables, fruits, or grains — let alone the seeds and grains.

Why are enzymes important?

Enzymes are proteins that facilitate chemical reactions in living organisms. In fact, they are required for every single chemical action that takes place in your body. All of your cells, organs, bones, muscles, and tissues are run by enzymes. Anyone who has any understanding of health has got to be eating enzyme rich foods and taking enzyme supplements with every single meal they eat. Dr. Howell, in his book on enzyme nutrition, puts it quite clearly when he says that a person's life span is directly related to the exhaustion of their enzyme potential. And the use of food enzymes decreases that rate of exhaustion, and thus, results in a longer, healthier, and more vital life.  For more information on the importance of enzymes check out The Enzyme Story.

Increasing the enzyme content of grains may be a primary benefit of sprouting them, but it is not the only one. Sprouting grains also makes them more alkaline, raises their nutritional content (vitamin levels can increase 300-1400% during sprouting), decreases their allergy levels, and eliminates phytates — which we'll talk about in a moment.

First however, we need to mention another "form" of grain that gives us many of the advantages of sprouts — cereal grasses. We're talking about barley grass, wheat grass, and oat grass to name the main ones. These green grasses (either juiced or freeze dried and powdered) have been called some of nature's finest medicines. They contain chlorophyll, enzymes, vitamins, and nutrients that are essential for a healthy body. The benefits of these grain grasses are enormous. These include correcting blood sugar imbalances, purifying the blood, enhancing hemoglobin production, neutralizing toxins, purifying the liver, and removing heavy metals from the body. (For more information, check out The Shake of the Gladiators.)

So, not only are the grains themselves different, but how you process any particular grain also changes its health benefits dramatically.

Incidentally, it's actually possible to cook oatmeal so that it's still alive and will grow. Use whole oat groats (available at a health food store), not rolled oats. Put them in a thermos and add hot water. Leave overnight. In the morning you have oatmeal. But because the enzymes are still active, you can plant the groats and they will grow. Try that with instant oatmeal — or steel cut, whole grain Irish oatmeal, for that matter.

When whole grain is not actually whole grain

A product label that says "Whole Wheat Bread," may actually contain very little whole wheat. Labeling laws are loose enough that if the bread contains any whole wheat at all, it can feature the phrase "whole wheat" on the label. Unless, it says "100% Whole Wheat" or "100% Whole Grain," there are no regulations in the United States governing the use of the term. Quite simply, the FDA has not defined any claims concerning the grain content of foods. (FDA Whole Grain Statements — See question 7.) If you actually want to know what's in your bread, you have to read the small print — the ingredients list.

When you get to the other grains, it gets even more complicated. For example:

  • Both rolled oats and whole oat groats can be called "whole grain" — yet only, whole oat groats will actually still grow.
  • Dehulled barley qualifies as "whole grain," but pearled barley does not.
  • Whole-grain cornmeal and grits are difficult to find on the market as they turn rancid quickly at room temperature and need to be refrigerated, but they are available. You'll probably have to look in your local health food store for brands such as Bob's Red Mill.

If you want whole grain, you're going to have to pay attention and look closely at the fine print on the label. There is a world of ambiguity when it comes to labeling. When reading labels, look for statements like:

  • 100% whole grain.
  • Whole oat groats — not cut, rolled, or instant.
  • Dehulled barley, not pearled.
  • Cracked millet, not hulled.
  • Rye is typically used in its whole grain form. Thus 100% rye and pumpernickels are usually whole grain.
  • Buckwheat likewise is typically whole grain. Look for the phrase "buckwheat groats."
  • Other grains that typically come in whole grain form are: brown rice, wild rice, amaranth, and quinoa.


Phytates (the salt form of phytic acid) are the principle storage form of phosphorus compounds found primarily in cereal grains, legumes, and nuts. Their role in plants is to hold nutrients in stasis, in readiness for use in sprouting and growing. Unfortunately, when consumed in grain foods before they have been "used up" in the germination process, particularly in grains high in bran, they are a concern because they can bind iron, zinc, and calcium in foods, making those minerals unavailable for absorption. For people with a particularly low intake of essential minerals, especially young children and those in developing countries, this can be a problem.

It should be noted that simply cooking the food will reduce its phytic acid content — but only to some degree. However, soaking grains and seeds in water overnight (being sure to pour off the soaking water) and sprouting will almost totally get rid of the phytates, thus maximizing your food's nutrition potential.

On the other hand, when not consumed with meals, where they can absorb minerals in the food, phytates can play a positive role. As I mentioned above, phytates are generally found in high-bran foods, i.e., high-fiber foods. Some studies now indicate that phytates may contribute significantly to the beneficial effects of fiber by binding to "free" minerals hanging around in the intestines after food has passed through. This becomes key in the case of iron. Excessive iron is also known to increase the risk of heart disease and colon cancer. Even a small amount of phytates in food can reduce harmful iron absorption by half.

So, does that make phytates good or bad? Neither. It actually depends on when you have them. If you consume them in grains (particularly whole grains) as part of your main meal, their effect is negative — removing key nutrients from the value of the meal. If you have them as part of a fiber supplement, apart from the meal, they appear to be beneficial, working as an antioxidant in the colon without compromising the nutrition in your meals.


Carbohydrates, as found in grains, are essential for good health, and yet short chain carbs and sugars are without a doubt one of the major causative factors of ill health. On the other hand, ultra-long chain carbohydrates may be one of the single best foods you can consume to optimize your health.

The key to how carbohydrates are used in the body is how quickly they break down in the digestive tract. This is largely determined by their fundamental structure.

  • Simple, or short-chain, carbohydrates don't need to be broken down at all. They are instantly available to the body. These are the sugars. The sustained high-level intake of most sugars spikes insulin levels and eventually contributes significantly to major health problems such as obesity, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, and diabetes.
  • Complex, or long-chain, carbohydrates cannot be utilized by the body until they are broken down. Complex carbohydrates consist of hundreds or thousands of sugar units linked together in single molecules. Theoretically, since they are not instantly available to the body, they should raise glucose levels more slowly and be healthier than simple sugars. But that is not always the case. Some long-chain carbs, such as, potatoes, bananas, all refined grains (in point of fact, many whole grains too), and maltodextrin (which is frequently added to processed foods) break down very quickly and are virtually indistinguishable from straight sugar when it comes to their glycemic effect on the body.

Whichever form of carb you take, after digestion, it appears in the circulatory system as glucose, on its way to the cells where it is used for energy. The key is how long that process takes. If spread out over several hours:

  • There is no spike in blood sugar and insulin levels
  • The body does not store fat
  • You get sustained energy over a prolonged period of time

Here grains vary wildly. Certainly, the whole grain versions of all grains are less glycemic than their refined versions, but even then some are still highly glycemic.

  • High glycemic grains: Refined wheat, rice, and corn — including all breads, pastas, and cereals made from them. And millet.
  • Moderate glycemic: Whole wheat, whole grain corn, and brown rice. Plus whole commercial oat products, buckwheat and bulgur.
  • Low glycemic grains: Cracked or sprouted wheat (most sprouted grains in general). And barley, the ubermensch of low glycemic grains. (For more information about pre-sprouted barley, one of the worlds great superfoods, check out: Designing a Superfood Formula.)

How allergenic are they?

Wheat, corn, and dairy are the big three when it comes to food allergies. Almost everyone is allergic to all three to some degree. For most people, however, the level of allergic reaction is so low that the effects are not immediately noticeable but will still end up compromising your health over time. For others, such as those who suffer from celiac disease, for example, the allergic response can be both quick and profound.

The keys behind the allergies are large proteins that do not get sufficiently broken down in the intestines. Being too large, they are not available to the body to be used as food and are, instead, treated as allergens and are attacked by the immune system. In the intestinal tract, this can take the form of gas, bloating, cramping, IBS, and even Crohn's disease. If the large proteins make their way into the bloodstream, they trigger a major immune response, form Circulating Immune Complexes, and may ultimately trigger severe autoimmune disorders.

Millions of people around the world are unable to eat foods from grains such as wheat, barley, rye and oats. A smaller number may also react to millet and buckwheat. As I mentioned earlier, this condition is known as Celiac Sprue disease. For people who suffer from this condition, avoiding problem foods may be necessary.

Rice is an option for most people who suffer from Celiac Sprue because it is gluten free. However, nothing is perfect. Although far less common than gluten allergies, some people are indeed allergic to rice — particularly among those societies that use rice as a dietary staple. Thus, rice allergies are almost unknown in the United States but may affect as many as 10% of the population in Japan.

What other phytochemicals matter?

The word "phytochemicals" just means plant based chemicals. Many of these are vitamins and super antioxidants just waiting to be discovered. A more technical definition would be that phytochemicals are non-nutritive plant chemicals that contain protective, disease-preventing compounds. It has been estimated that there may be more than 100 different phytochemicals in just one serving of vegetables (Polk, Melanie. 1996. Feast on Phytochemicals. AICR newsletter. Issue 51).

Many of the beneficial phytochemicals in grains have not been identified yet — or at least their functional benefits are unknown. Some that we do know of, however, include the plant sterols, saponins, and beta-glucans, which have been shown to have a cholesterol-lowering effect, and lignans, which are polyphenolic phytoestrogens that perform three primary functions in the human body:

  • Function as powerful antioxidants.
  • Play a major role in lowering cholesterol.
  • Combat cancers such as breast cancer and prostate cancer. (1, 2, 3, 4)

The problem is that the functions of only a handful of seed and grain based phytochemicals such as those found in flax, sesame seeds, and oats) have been identified and even fewer have had their benefits studied. For now, though, the important point to remember is that different phytochemicals and different amounts of those phytochemicals are found in each of the various grains. In other words, when it comes to phytochemicals, not all grains are equal.

GMO versus non-GMO

Are genetically modified cereal grains harmful? Answering that question is beyond the scope of this newsletter. Certainly Europe and the United States have very different opinions on the matter, with Europe tending towards making Europe a GMO-Free zone. Certainly, no major health disasters have yet appeared. Nevertheless, genetically modified corn has been linked to leukemia, high blood pressure, kidney inflammation, blood sugar problems, and kidney and liver lesions.

My opinion on the matter is that if you don't have to take the risk, why would you. Buy organic, or at least non-GMO, when possible. There are certainly a number of red flags on the issue. And yes, in the end, it may all turn out to be a tempest in a teapot, but why not let others play the role of lab rats — just in case.

Organic versus non-organic?

To be sure, organic no longer means what it once did. Nowadays, all it guarantees you (and that's assuming that the grower and distributor aren't cheating on the label) is that the fertilizer used to grow the crop is "organic" and that no pesticides have been used. There's no guarantee on how much organic fertilizer is used. The use of organic matter in an organic farm can vary from 3-5 tons an acre (in most farms) to as much as 100 tons per acre in the best farms. This obviously creates a huge disparity in nutritional value. Nevertheless, even at the bottom end, organic grains are nutritionally superior to conventionally grown grains. Preliminary findings from a major study conducted throughout Europe show that organic produce, including wheat, has higher nutrition levels than conventionally grown produce.

Pesticide residues are another issue. Grains such as wheat tend to suffer from high exposure to pesticides. And interestingly enough, whole grain products tend to be higher in pesticide content than refined grain products. That means that if you're going to eat whole grains for their health benefits, then you probably want to eat organic whole grains so that you don't lose those benefits to higher pesticide exposure.


In the last issue of our newsletter, we explored the health benefits associated with whole grains. In this issue, we explored the complexity behind those claims. With that in mind, if you're going to eat grains, then:

  • You definitely want to use whole grains as much as possible. (Earlier we discussed what phrases to look for on a label that tell you how much whole grain is used.)
  • You probably want to lean to the more alkaline grains such as amaranth, millet, lentils, wild rice, quinoa, barley, spelt, kamut, oats, and brown rice versus the more acidic grains such as wheat (both whole and white), white rice, rye, corn, and buckwheat.
  • You want organic.
  • You want non-GMO.
  • You want grains with water soluble fiber.
  • You may want to lean to the low allergy grains such as brown rice and barley as opposed to the high allergy grains such as wheat and corn.
  • When possible cook at low heat (below 118 degrees F) to maintain the enzyme content.
  • And when possible, you're better off consuming your grains as sprouts and cereal grasses.
  • You also might want to consume digestive enzymes with your grains to help break down the more indigestible components and the large, highly allergenic proteins.
  • And finally, you might want to use a mix of natural fibers as a supplement whenever you eat grains to minimize the glycemic response from those grains.

But all of the above is if you're consuming grains. Should you consume grains at all? Is it healthier to go on a no-grain diet?

Certainly, there are those who recommend a no grain diet, Dr. Mercola, for example. Considering the negatives associated with the excessive consumption of grains (most notably associated with high glycemic responses and allergies), I cannot argue with the basic premise. On the other hand, consumption of certain grains in moderation, if selected carefully, can provide significant health benefits with little downside. For example, sprouted grains and cereal grasses have all the positives associated with grains and virtually none of the negatives.

And let's quickly single out barley, maybe the king of grains. It's high in beta-glucans; it's one of the least acidic grains; and it's one of the lowest of all foods on the glycemic index. And when consumed in its sprouted, pre-sprouted, or cereal grass forms, it's a monster of nutrition.

Visit Jon Barron at The Baseline of Health Foundation, his blog and website hold a ton of interesting information.  Subscribe to his newsletter and receive great nutrition articles like the one above (including Part II of the whole grain series!). 

Photo & Article Credit: The Baseline of Health Foundation

About Author

Alisa is the founder of GoDairyFree.org, Senior Editor for Allergic Living magazine, and author of the best-selling dairy-free book, Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook for Milk Allergies, Lactose Intolerance, and Casein-Free Living. Alisa is also a professional recipe creator and product ambassador for the natural food industry.

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