The Whole Truth About Grains

What do barley soup, couscous, cookies and beer have in common? They’re all made with grains grown in Canada. They’re all good for you, too, though some grains have more nutritional value than others.

Wheat, rice and corn may be the world’s most popular grains, but more and more people are adding variety by eating rye, oats, barley and quinoa, not to mention multigrain breads with as many as 14 different grains. Sometimes it’s hard to know which grain to choose.

Cereals and pseudocereals

As you wander the aisles of your local health food store, or even many super¬markets, you’ll notice that grain-based products are taking up more and more shelf space. Here’s a simplified classification to help you get your bearings.

Most of the time, grain comes from cereals, the edible seeds of plants from the grass family (graminaceae). The main cereals are oats, wheat (including spelt, kamut and the durum wheat found in pasta), corn, millet (including teff), barley, rice and wild rice, rye and triticale (a wheat–rye hybrid).

There are also plants called pseudocereals that, unlike cereals, aren’t part of the grass family but whose seeds have long been prepared similarly to true cereals. The most commonly eaten pseudocereals are amaranth, quinoa and buckwheat.

Whole grains for health

Although we don’t need to avoid refined grain products entirely, there’s no denying that whole grains have significant nutritional advantages over their highly refined counterparts. By eating all the edible parts of a grain (bran, germ, endosperm), you obtain far more fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, including phytoestrogens and antioxidants.

Cereal-quality specialist Pierre Gélinas, a researcher at the Food Research and Development Centre in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, prefers whole-grain products for a few simple reasons: “They taste good, they’re filling and they keep me going longer. It’s true that most people like sweet foods and coffee in the morning, but I prefer something more substantial.”

A question of taste

According to Mr. Gélinas, whole grains can be something of a culture shock as well as a revelation for the palate. There are so many different kinds! The first time you try them, you need to adjust your expectations because whole-grain breads are so much more flavourful than white bread and have a slightly bitter taste. Whole-wheat pasta tastes different too, and requires more care to avoid overcooking. And let’s be frank—some people never get used to whole-grain foods at all. However, as long as you refuse to eat anything but white bread, you’ll come up against its nutritional limitations, even though it may not be a completely bad choice.


When flour is refined, two parts of the grain are separated out: the germ and the fibre- and protein-rich bran. To make up for some of the resulting nutritional loss, Canadian law stipulates that white flour must be enriched with iron and four B vitamins: thiamine, niacin, riboflavin and folic acid.

While enrichment doesn’t replace the lost fibre, there are sliced white breads on the market that, if you can believe the label, are just as nutritious, or even more so, than whole-wheat bread. These breads do represent an improvement over regular white bread. “But to get the biggest benefit from fibre,” explains Mr. Gélinas, “it’s better to eat large particles of bran, the husk of the grain. You should be able to see the bran with the naked eye. The more you can see, the better the bread is for you. Check the label for whole-wheat flour listed as the first ingredient. For example, wholemeal flour, sometimes listed as stone-ground or integral, is an excellent whole-wheat flour.” While some flours are considered “whole” despite losing a small part of their edible mass in the milling process, those listed as wholemeal, integral or stone-ground contain 100% of the edible portion of the grain.

What we eat

Despite nutritionists’ attempts to increase consumption of dietary fibre, Canadians eat about 15 to 19 grams of fibre per day, well below the recommended daily intake of 25 to 35 grams—in other words, many of us need to double our daily fibre ration. What’s the best way? Bread is an obvious place to start. Two slices of white-bread toast will provide anywhere from 0.8 to 2.4 grams of fibre. Use whole-wheat bread instead of white, and you will have as much as 6.5 grams of fibre for breakfast, a significant boost. Likewise, if you skip cornflakes and have bran flakes instead, you’ll add another 5 grams. A bowl of barley and vegetable soup has 3 grams more fibre than chicken–noodle. And a bowl of brown rice is good for 2 grams more than its white-rice counterpart

Whole-grain product

  • Whole-wheat bread
  • Whole-wheat noodles and pasta
  • Whole-wheat couscous
  • Whole-wheat and pot (or hulled) barley*
  • Brown, black and wild rice
  • Oatmeal
  • Popcorn
  • Whole-rye pasta
  • Quinoa
  • Buckweat and buckweat flour

No bran, no germ...

  • White bread, including those made with enriched flour (wheat, splet, kamut)
  • Wheat or durum wheat noodles and pasta
  • Pre-cooked couscous
  • Pearl barley
  • White rice (including minute rice and basmati)
  • Oat flour
  • Cornmeal
  • Rye bread

Althought these grains have had part of their outer husk removed, they retrain enough fibre to be considered whole grains for nutritional purposes.

Bread facts

Just as the miller separates wholesome wheat from inedible chaff, it’s important for consumers to know how to tell whole-grain products from those that may appear to be more complete than they really are. Food labels can easily leave you with the wrong impression. When you see any of the following on a food package, you’re looking at a product made with low-fibre refined flour:

  • White flour
  • Enriched white flour
  • Wheat flour
  • Enriched wheat flour
  • Unbleached flour

To make sure you’re getting whole-grain bread, the word “whole” has to be the very first on the list of ingredients. Breads with at least 2 grams of fibre per slice are best.

The colour of bread might also influence your choice. That’s why it’s important to remember that darker-coloured bread isn’t necessarily better for you. The addition of brown sugar or molasses will produce a brown bread with no more fibre or vitamins than otherwise similar white bread.

Finally, some products have names that can lead you astray. For example, cracked wheat, multigrain and sesame bread are often made with white flour and are correspondingly low in fibre. Take extra care to read the label when trying a new brand of bread, breakfast cereal, cookies or crackers.

Hélène Laurendeau

A nutrition and health enthusiast who loves to share: this description fits Hélène Laurendeau to a tee. She has been active for more than 25 years in the media and communications field. Nutritionist, host, columnist, author and speaker, Hélène holds a Bachelor degree in Nutrition and a Master degree in Epidemiology. She has spread her knowledge alongside Ricardo every week since 2005, as part of his daily show broadcast on ICI Radio-Canada Télé, as well as in Ricardo magazine, where she pens the Bien se nourrir (Eating Well) column.