Have you seen “whole grain” and “whole wheat” on labels in your grocery cart and wondered what the big deal is?

The quick answer. Eating whole-grain and whole-wheat foods has links to better health, like a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some types of cancer.

Eating foods made from whole grains (including whole-wheat) gives you the extra fiber and nutrients that manufacturers throw out when they process grain into refined grain products, like plain white bread.

Whole grain vs. whole wheat: What’s the difference in a nutshell?

The difference between whole grains and whole wheat is simple:

  • Whole grains. The manufacturing process in the bran, germ, and endosperm of the original grain.
  • Whole wheat. The above, but just for wheat.

When you hit the supermarket, look for “whole grain” and “whole wheat” on labels, check the ingredient list for particular types of whole grain, and check the nutrition facts for more fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

That’s your cheat sheet to picking healthy grains at the store. Read on for the finer details only science can provide.

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Yaroslav Danylchenko/Stocksy United

The types of grains in a food product determine whether food qualifies as whole-grain or whole-wheat. When we talk about a “whole” grain, we mean all the parts of the kernel turn up to the party:

  • Bran. This is the fibrous outer layer that has B vitamins and minerals.
  • Germ. This provides healthy fats, vitamin E, B vitamins, and antioxidants.
  • Endosperm. This is the carb-ilicious part of the kernel, or what’s left after grains are refined into white flour, white rice, etc.

By using the whole grain in a food product like bread or cereal, there are more nutrients and more fiber to work their wonders throughout your body.

A “whole-wheat” product is made from… you guessed it, the whole wheat kernel. If a product is called “whole-grain,” it contains the whole kernel of one or more grains, such as:

And yes, whole-wheat is also technically a whole grain. Think of whole grains as “action movies” but whole-wheat as “Die Hard“. It’s a good one, but it’s not every action movie! (It is still a Christmas movie, though.)

Processing is not a bad word when it comes to grains and doesn’t always prevent food manufacturers from keeping the bran, germ, and endosperm. A research review showed that milling grains can break down the tough outer layers, making some nutrients more available during digestion.

As long as all parts of the grain are included, all the nutrients are still there.

Whole-grain foods include the entire grain kernel — remember, that’s the bran, germ, and endosperm — from wheat, rice, oats, corn, barley, rye, or another grain.

Yep, that includes yummy starchy foods like bread, pasta, cereal, tortillas, popcorn, oatmeal, and rice.

The Department of Agriculture’s recommended daily intake of grains varies depending on your age and sex. They recommend that at least half of your daily grains are whole grains.

So, how do you find what you need at the store? You can’t just look for words like “wheat,” “grains,” or “multigrain” on the label.

Look for “whole grain” or “whole wheat”, or even better, “100 percent whole-wheat” or “100 percent whole-grain.” Check out this handy-dandy table for deciphering grain labels.

TypeWhat it meansIs it whole-grain?
whole grainmade from one or more grains (like wheat, oats, rice, corn, barley, millet, rye, etc.) and including the entire grain kernel: bran, germ, and endospermyes
whole wheatmade from the entire wheat kernel, including the bran, germ, and endospermyes
multigrainmade from two or more grainsno
white whole-wheatmade from the whole kernel of white wheat so it contains the bran, germ, and endosperm but is white in coloryes
wheat bread/crackers/pastamade with refined wheat flourno
100% whole-graingrain content is completely whole-grainyes
100% whole-wheatgrain content is completely whole-wheatyes

Both whole-wheat and other whole grains are nutritious because of the extra goodies (nutrients) bran and germ bring to the party.

We tucked into the current research on the health benefits of eating whole grains and whole-wheat.

Weight control

A meta-analysis of studies on whole grains found an association between higher whole-grain consumption and lower body mass index (BMI) in observational studies, but not in randomized control trials.

It’s uncertain if the relationship between whole grains and BMI is due to the extra fiber and nutrients or some other lifestyle factor that is more common among people who eat more whole grains.

Disease prevention

A research review showed that there is a link between eating whole grains and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, cancer, and death from respiratory disease, infection, and diabetes.

But scientists who conducted this review of research acknowledge that the association may be due to different lifestyles, diets, or socioeconomic status of people who eat whole grains.

Less risk of dying from all causes

In two large studies, scientists concluded that there’s a connection between whole grains and lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and other causes, independent of other diet and lifestyle factors.

An analysis found that eating more whole grains is associated with a lower risk of death, especially from cardiovascular disease. A meta-analysis showed that there was also evidence of a lower risk of death from cancer for people who consumed more than 30 grams of whole grains per day.

Limitations in research

Wanting to understand how whole grains impact heart health, a research review analyzed the effects of whole grains, fiber, and bran separately.

A limited number of studies and inconsistent definitions for measuring whole-grain, bran, and fiber consumption made it hard for them to draw any solid conclusions.

While more research is needed to really understand how whole grains (including whole-wheat) are good for you, evidence is strong that they are good for you, so aim for eating more.

When it comes to what whole grains are the healthiest options, the question might be better phrased as which whole grains are the most nutrient-dense? The reason for this is that there are instances in which other ingredients are added to a whole-grain product, not just the whole grain itself. You might see extra ingredients like sugars and sodium.

Reading labels is vital to making the most informed decision possible. After all, just because a product is labeled as “whole grain” doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the whole picture. Harvard’s School of Public Health recommends that folks try to purchase whole-grain products highest in fiber and lower in other added ingredients (even if they feel more convenient).

When possible, though, if you really want to get into what whole grains are the healthiest for you, picking whole grains in their whole forms is your best bet. Some of the most nutrient-dense whole grains include:

  • whole-wheat
  • whole rolled oats
  • brown rice
  • rye
  • barley
  • amaranth
  • sorghum

When we talk about whole grains or whole wheat, we are referring to how much processing a grain goes through before being made into food. Whole grains contain the entire grain kernel, including bran, germ, and endosperm.

Whole wheat means manufacturers use the entire wheat kernel in food production. Whole-grain can refer to wheat products or foods made from other grains like rice, barley, corn, quinoa, rye, and others.

All whole-wheat products are whole-grain, but not all whole-grain products are made from wheat.

Whole-grain foods are important because they contain more nutrients than refined grains and are associated with improved health. See above for details on how to identify whole-grain and whole-wheat products and why they are good for you.