Raisin Your Nutrition

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How to Spot a Whole Grain Contender from a Pretender

December 11, 2015 by

The following blog is the second post in a three-part series focusing on carbohydrates and grains. In part one (Wheat’s the Truth?), Dr. Nelson talked about the difference between whole grain foods and refined grains.


When it comes to whole grains, looks can be deceiving. First of all, color is not an indication of whole grain. Bread can be brown because of molasses, food coloring, or some other added ingredient. And wheat bread (refined flour) is not the same as whole wheat bread (whole grain flour). The only way to know if a product actually contains whole grains is to read the Nutrition Facts label. This takes a little time and patience, but the nutritional pay-off is worth it!


First, take a look at the list of ingredients. Choose foods that name one of the following whole-grain ingredients as the first (main) ingredient on the label:


  • brown rice
  • buckwheat
  • bulgur
  • farro
  • kamut
  • millet
  • oatmeal
  • popcorn
  • quinoa
  • rolled oats
  • spelt
  • teff
  • whole-grain barley
  • whole-grain corn
  • whole-grain sorghum
  • whole-grain triticale
  • whole oats
  • whole rye
  • whole wheat
  • wild rice


Second, don’t be fooled by clever marketing and package claims such as “multi-grain”, “7-grain”, “100% wheat”, “stone-ground” or “cracked wheat”, or “all-brain” that want you to believe that the product is whole grain. These pretenders may actually only contain a small amount—if any—whole grains. Look carefully at the label on these products and you will find that “unbleached enriched wheat flour” is typically listed as the first ingredient. Translation? “refined flour.” And lastly—even though it has nutritional value—a cereal or bread that is labeled “all-bran” is actually not considered a whole grain—it only contains the bran portion of the whole grain kernel.


Third, remember that many, but not all, whole grain products are good or excellent sources of fiber. To maximize fiber intake, check the label and select whole grain products with a higher % Daily Value (% DV) for fiber.


Eating More Whole Grains


So, how can you move away from refined grains to nutrient-rich whole grains? Start slowly. Each week swap a whole-grain product for a refined product that you’ve been eating. Depending on your calorie needs it’s important to substitute the whole-grain product for the refined one, rather than adding the whole-grain product.


An easy first step is to buy whole grain staples in place of their refined counterparts. Choose whole grain versions of the following: Breads, bagels, tortillas, English muffins, pita bread, crackers, cereals, pasta, rice. Next, be creative and incorporate these staples into your meal plan. I’ve suggested some meal and baking ideas below to get you started.


Meal Ideas with Whole Grains

  • For breakfast — try rolled oatmeal with raisins and walnuts; Spread peanut butter on a whole wheat English muffin and top with raisins and honey; Fill a whole wheat tortilla with scrambled eggs, chopped avocado, salsa, and brown rice.
  • For lunch or dinner — cook a vegetable stir-fry with brown rice; stuff green bell or chili peppers with lean ground beef and wild rice; Fill a whole-wheat pita with grilled chicken, spices, cashews, and raisins; Make a hearty vegetable soup and eat with a thick slice of whole wheat bread topped with cheese; Create a whole grain pilaf with a mixture of wild rice, brown rice, broth, herbs, toasted nuts and raisins; Mix whole wheat pasta with lean meat and marinara sauce.


Baking with Whole Grains

  • Substitute whole wheat or oat flour for up to half of the flour in pancake, waffle, muffin or other flour-based recipes. Try different flours like corn, oat, rye, etc.
  • Make/buy whole wheat pizza dough.
  • Use rolled oats as breading for baked chicken or fish.
  • Add breadcrumbs or oatmeal to meat loaf.


Next time, I’ll talk about how to move beyond rice and pasta.


  1. Faylinn says:

    I want to start incorporating whole grains into my diet more and so I really appreciate your advice about choosing foods that list whole-grain ingredients first. I especially appreciate the list that you provide of such ingredients, because I normally think of brown rice and oatmeal when I think of the term “whole”. However, now that I know that more such ingredients exist, I think that I have so many more options. I mean, I never knew that popcorn would be considered to be whole.

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About The Author
Suzanne Nelson

Dr. Nelson recently joined the staff of Bryn Athyn College in Pennsylvania as a nutrition and wellness advisor and sports nutritionist. Previously, she was the Director of Sports Performance Nutrition in the athletic department at the University of California, Berkeley. While in California, she was the team nutritionist for the San Francisco 49ers and provided nutrition consultation to the San Francisco Giants and Golden State Warriors. In addition, Dr. Nelson has advised elite amateur athletes at the national, world, and Olympic level. She is a nationally known speaker in sports nutrition and is the author/editor of several books and numerous scientific journal articles. Dr. Nelson is the Nutrition and Health Advisor for Sun-Maid.

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