Whole Grains, Flours & Starches

Refined vs. Whole Grains

When it comes to real food, sorting through different grains, flours and starches can be SO CONFUSING. Because there are so many varieties and foods they're used in; for example, bread, crackers, tortillas and cereal, just to name a few, shopping for nourishing, real food can feel complicated to navigate.

Finding balance between a traditional way of eating and the modern world

Years ago, our ancestors harvested their own grains and starches and made their food at home with a few essential ingredients. It was their way of life. They brought in wheat from the field, ground it down into flour and made their own bread.

Today, in the busyness of life, spending the time necessary to prepare every meal from scratch just isn't feasible for most of us. Instead, we have to find a way to balance homemade food with the convenience of some pre-made foods, like bread. Thankfully, including convenience foods in our diet doesn't necessarily mean we're no longer following a real food way of eating, we just have to know what to look for.

The word WHOLE

Because grains often get a bad rap, we'll start with why the word WHOLE is so important and how processing can change something from nourishing to nutritionally void.

All grains start life as whole grains in their natural state (as an entire seed of a plant) out in a field. During their time basking in the sunshine and blowing in the breeze, these whole grains are just that - WHOLE. They're made up of three parts of the kernel (the bran, germ and endosperm) and contain an array of complex carbs, fiber, proteins, healthy fats, important antioxidants, vitamins and minerals (a.k.a. the "good" stuff).

When our grandmother's grandmother made flour, she ground down whole grains to create a nutrient-rich powder. Today, the grocery store aisles, where the majority of our food comes from, are stocked with a range of products made primarily with processed and enriched (wheat and white) flour. By removing the nutrient-dense bran and germ, manufacturers are able to produce refined flour, which has a very long shelf life (can you see the dollar signs in their eyes?).

In an attempt to make up for the loss of dietary vitamins, minerals and fibers, they "enrich" the flour by adding synthetic components back in. The problem is, they neglect key nutrients that a laboratory can't duplicate. What's left is flour that's now high in calories and low in nutrients (i.e., empty calories and simple carbs that our body processes as sugar). So, these highly processed, refined grains (such as white flour) have become one of our generation's greatest nutritional disasters and a culprit in America's obesity epidemic.

You see, it's not necessarily carbs that are making Americans obese... it's in part, the types that we're eating.

Recognizing WHOLE grains

Companies have made it increasingly difficult to navigate through food choices in the grocery store. The only way to tell if something is truly 100% whole grain is to look past the marketing hype and health claims (words like multigrain, heart healthy, made with fiber, gluten-free) and read the ingredients list.

Some things to look for when checking whole grain, flour and starch labels and ingredients:

  • Unrefined
  • Unenriched
  • 100% WHOLE wheat, 100% WHOLE grain or 100% WHOLE meal/flour (“WHOLE” should be listed as the first ingredient on the label.)
    • Many times, a box will state it is whole grain when, in fact, it is made with a combination of whole and refined grains. Check the ingredients listed and look for the 100% Whole Grain Stamp that was developed by the Whole Grains Council.

Some things to look for when checking whole grain, flour and starch labels and ingredients:

Flours (not grain-free)

  • 100% unenriched/unrefined whole wheat or whole grain, stone-ground flour
  • 100% whole grain stone-ground rye flour
  • 100% whole grain stone-ground buckwheat flour
  • 100% whole grain stone-ground brown rice flour
  • 100% whole grain quinoa flour

Grain-Free Flours (100% ground)

  • almond flour
  • coconut flour
  • amaranth flour
  • garbanzo flour
  • arrowroot flour

Grains and pseudo grains (preferably WHOLE grain)

  • Steel cut, whole, or rolled oats (oatmeal)
  • Brown rice
  • Wild rice
  • Oat bran 
  • Farro
  • White, red and black quinoa (pseudo grains)
  • Spelt
  • Millet
  • Barley

Pasta

The fewer ingredients, the better! Basically, look for pasta containing only the grain or bean and water.

  • 100% WHOLE wheat or WHOLE grain pasta
  • 100% WHOLE grain spelt pasta
  • 100% black bean pasta (gluten-free)
  • 100% red lentil pasta (gluten-free)

Bread

Our biggest piece of advice when looking for bread products is to completely ignore the marketing labels on the front of the packaging (natural, made with ancient grains, heart healthy, etc.). Remember, these words don’t tell you anything about what’s actually used to make that food. Instead, find the ingredient list, then read it.  

  • Choose breads with limited ingredients that you recognize, such as grain, water, yeast and salt.
    • We typically eat locally produced whole wheat three-seed bread. The ingredients used are: organically grown fresh-ground whole wheat, water, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, honey, yeast and salt.
  • Look for 100% whole grain or whole wheat.
  • Whenever possible, choose bread with unrefined and unenriched ingredients.
  • If you prefer breads with a slightly sweeter taste, choose breads sweetened with natural sweeteners, such as honey.
  • Consider storing your bread in the fridge when it is bought from a local bakery. Due to the need for a longer shelf life, grocery store bread often uses preservatives that local bakeries do not.
  • If you cannot buy bread from a local bakery, the refrigerator and freezer section is often the best place to find bread with limited FfL-friendly ingredients.

Panko and bread crumbs

Make your own bread crumbs, if possible. You can easily do this by placing a few pieces of stale bread in a warm oven set at 200 degrees F. Bake for 1-2  hours until the bread is  dried out. The pieces can then be ground up into breadcrumbs by using the grating blade in the food processor or with a hand grater. Make a big batch and store them in an airtight container in the freezer.

If purchasing store-bought, be sure to check the ingredients listed. Choose panko and bread crumbs with limited ingredients that you recognize, such as grain, water, yeast and salt.

Tortillas

We love to make our own tortillas and freeze leftovers for future meals. If you purchase store-bought tortillas, choose ones with limited ingredients that you recognize, such as 100% whole grain, whole wheat flour, almond flour or brown rice flour, water and salt. The refrigerator and freezer section are often the best places to find tortillas with limited, FfL-friendly, real-food ingredients.

Whole Grain Corn Tortillas

Where to find your whole grains, flours and starches

  • When it comes to bread, try to find a local bakery that uses simple ingredients.
  • If local is not an option, consider checking the refrigerated or freezer sections. Frozen breads and tortilla wraps may have healthier ingredients and omit more preservatives than commercial breads found on the shelf. We sometimes purchase frozen bread or English muffins in a pinch, such as Ezekiel 4:9 bread made from sprouted grains with no added sugars. As always, check the ingredients.

Some fun facts

  • Our bodies are designed to need carbs. They help us feel full and give us energy. By limiting but allowing yourself carbs at each meal, you satisfy carb cravings, reap the benefits of healthy carbs and are able to maintain a healthy weight.
  • Boxed grain (and pseudo grain) mixes, such as wild rice mixes, often contain other additives and flavoring. When possible, cook and flavor your own grains and pseudo grains.
  • Gluten-free is another word that's often associated with healthy. But just like organic, gluten-free chips are still chips and gluten-free bread doesn't mean it's made with the best ingredients. While we try to keep our household relatively gluten-free, we're careful not to just pick something up off the shelf because it states it doesn't contain wheat.

Try some of our fabulous whole grain recipes!

Take Action Today


  1. Replace white rice with whole grain brown rice, wild rice, farro or quinoa.
  2. The next time you purchase bread, check the label and make sure it is 100% whole grain or whole wheat bread with limited ingredients.

To learn more about real-food basics, check out the rest of our Healthy Staples!

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