Whole grains - healthy or hype?

There are five good reasons to include more wholegrains in your diet.
Learn more
  • Updated:7 Aug 2008

01 .Five good reasons

Whole grains

In brief

  • Wholegrains contain plant chemicals that can reduce your health risks. Eat at least two serves each day.
  • So-called supergrains are wholegrains, but not necessarily much more super than more common ones.
  • ‘Wholegrain’ on a label doesn’t always mean it’s all wholegrain.

Wholegrains are hot. They’re not just an ingredient, they’ve become a marketing tool food companies use to convince us to buy one product over another.

They’re also all the rage among doctors, dietitians and other health professionals, whose message is “eat more wholegrains” — and there are five good reasons why you should:

  • Heart health Large studies have found that eating plenty of wholegrains reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke.
    Reduce your cancer risk There’s evidence that eating wholegrains reduces the risk of some cancers, particularly of the digestive tract, but possibly breast and prostate cancer as well.
  • Reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes Wholegrains can improve blood sugar and insulin levels. Studies have shown a link between cereal fibre, which is highest in wholegrains, and a reduced chance of developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Better weight control There’s evidence that wholegrains can help people control their weight and (as long as they keep eating them) reduce the risk of gaining weight in later life.
  • Digestive health The insoluble fibre in wholegrains is essential to keep things moving in the bowel — which means less constipation and risk of diverticular disease.

CHOICE sifts through the marketing hype to give you the lowdown on wholegrains.

Please note: this information was current as of August 2008 but is still a useful guide today.


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02.What is a whole grain?


Wholegrains are cereals in which all the natural grain, including the outer bran layer, germ and endosperm layers (see Anatomy of a wholegrain), are retained. The most commonly eaten grains, white flour and white rice, have had these healthy components removed in the refining process.

Common wholegrains are:

  • Whole wheat, including wholemeal.
  • Brown rice. Corn (even popcorn).
  • Oats, which mean porridge and muesli to most of us.

In a consumer survey, most people knew wholegrains were good for them and many said bread and breakfast cereals were good sources of wholegrain. However, many people also thought rice, muesli bars and pasta were common sources of wholegrains, whereas in fact many are not. Only brown rice and wholegrain pasta would fit the bill, plus muesli-type snack bars that contain a majority of refined grains
Anatomy of a grain

What do they do

Wholegrains are high in many phytochemicals (plant substances), which have been shown to protect us from a wide range of health problems. They contain not just antioxidants, but such things as: Sterols, saponins, squalene, oryzanol and tocotrienols, which can reduce cholesterol levels.

Lignans, which lower the risk of heart disease, and may have anti-cancer effects. Phytates, which may affect how quickly starch is digested and reduce the GI of food. Vitamins and minerals such as magnesium and potassium.

Soluble fibre Numerous studies support the idea that foods rich in soluble fibre — such as the wholegrains oats and barley — can lower cholesterol. Wholegrains can also improve insulin levels and blood sugar control, which not only helps with diabetes but also heart disease.

How much is plenty?

The Australian dietary guidelines say we should eat ‘plenty’ of bread and cereals, preferably wholegrain. Aim for at least four serves of grain-based foods a day — even as many as nine or 12, depending on your age, sex and activity. A serve is two slices of bread, or a cup of cooked rice/pasta/porridge, or 1¹⁄³ cups of breakfast cereal, for example.

Health proponents say you should aim to eat half your intake of bread and cereals as wholegrain, which means at least two serves each day. Experts from the cereal-industry-based group Go Grains Health and Nutrition have developed a program to help us eat enough cereal foods and enough wholegrains. The group has members right through the food chain, from growers to cereal food manufacturers.

The 4+ serves a day program educates us how to include four or more serves of grain-based foods each day. It’s also set a target of at least 48 g of wholegrains a day, based on the scientific evidence. Manufacturers are encouraged to label their foods with statements such as, "Aim for 48 g or more of wholegrains each day. One serving (x g) of this product contains y g of wholegrains."

03.Labelling buzzwords


Wholegrain is the latest labelling buzzword. Claims have exploded on products such as bread, cereals, crackers, biscuits and pasta. But are all wholegrain foods created equal? Is there a difference between 'with wholegrain' and just plain old 'wholegrain'? You could be getting 100% wholegrain goodness, or a whole lot less.

“With wholegrain goodness”

Grain snacks…but how much? These “100% natural grain snacks with wholegrain goodness” combine “100% natural wholegrain goodness with delicious tastes”. If you think that suggests all the grain in there is wholegrain, think again. They’re 41% wholegrain flour, plus regular flour, cornflour and other ingredients.


"Source of wholegrain"

Wholegrain tortillasThese wholegrain tortillas do contain some wholegrains and three times the fibre of regular tortillas, and that makes them a better choice — but they ‘fess up on the back of the pack to being made with only 30% wholegrain flour.


"Wholemeal" — well, sort of

Premium wholemealThese Premium wholemeal crispbreads from Kraft contain more regular wheat flour than wholemeal wheat flour — just check the ingredients list. 


"Wholegrain" — this one's 100%

Wholegrain spaghettiWholegrain spaghetti that contains only wholemeal flour: 100%. No ifs or buts for San Remo — if only all manufacturers could be this clear.



Wholegrain pastaThe main difference between Latina Ricotta & Spinach Agnolotti and Latina Wholegrain Ricotta & Spinach Ravioli is the fine-print admission that the wholegrain version has 17% (wholemeal) rye flour. Durum semolina is the largest ingredient in both products.


“With wholegrain pasta”

Wholegrain soupThis soup contains 11% wholegrain pasta. The pasta also contains some regular flour — how much is anyone’s guess. While a bowl of this Country Ladle Hearty Vegetable Soup with wholegrain pasta will contribute some wholegrain to your diet, a bowl of Campbell’s regular Farmhouse Vegetable Soup in fact contains more fibre (4.2 g compared with 2.8 g per serve), simply because it contains more vegetables.


“Wholegrain 54% from wheat and rice”

Wholegrain cornflakesCongratulations to Kellogg’s for going with absolute clarity in the large print. The new Kellogg’s Corn Flakes Wholegrain clearly spells out it’s made from 54% wholegrains. No guessing or need for fine print here.




“Wholegrain cereals”

Wholegrain cerealsNestlé is more coy than Kellogg’s — its Milo cereal has “more wholegrain”, while Cheerios has the “wholesome taste of four wholegrains”. But to figure out how much wholegrain you’re getting in “Nestlé wholegrain cereals” you need to read the fine print. Cheerios has 59.4%, but Milo is only 32.5%.

All the unusual grains that are sometimes touted as ‘supergrains’ can make a claim to interesting origins: some are marketed as ‘ancient grains’, with us since biblical times, or secrets of the Aztecs, Incas or Egyptians. But are they really special?

Most have some aspect that sets them apart — at least to those charged with marketing them. Some are gluten-free or suitable for people with allergies to wheat, or there may be a nutritional aspect, such as a higher fibre level or better fat profile.

Two of them (quinoa and amaranth) have more complete protein than other grains, which is important in countries where there are few other protein sources and grain forms the main part of the diet. In Australia, however, this would be important for very strict vegetarians (vegans), but for most of us it’s of no real nutritional importance as our diets are generally awash with high-quality protein from animal sources.

All these supergrains qualify as wholegrains, and including them in the mix of your diet can only increase its variety and the range of phytochemicals you’re eating. But are they magic? For most of us, no — just useful, interesting wholegrains.

The 'supergrains'

Quinoa Pronounced keen-wa, this grain is high in protein (about 15%) compared with many others and is also high in fibre, with about 8%. It originated in South America, where it was grown by the Incas — which is interesting and sounds good in the marketing, but it doesn’t confer any special properties. It’s also gluten-free.

Salba Another grain from the Americas, salba was once used by the Aztecs. It’s high in fibre, minerals and the plant form of omega-3 fats, a healthy type of fat thought to help prevent heart disease. There are big claims that salba can reduce blood pressure, balance blood sugar and improve heart health, but not enough high-quality studies have been published in medical journals to draw firm conclusions.

Amaranth The Aztecs used amaranth grain, and it spread to other parts of the world such as Africa, India, China and Nepal. It’s high in protein and the essential amino acid lysine, which is often missing in more common cereal crops. Amaranth is also high in calcium and iron, compared with other cereals, and contains about 5–9% fats, which are mostly unsaturated. And it’s a source of squalene — a phytochemical found in olives and shark livers. Squalene is being investigated as one of the interesting components of the Mediterranean diet. Amaranth is gluten-free.

Millet There are numerous varieties of millet, grown in Africa and India for thousands of years, where it’s still an important food crop. In other countries it’s mainly grown as animal feed (and birdseed). Millet is a nutritious cereal and, compared with other common cereals, is higher in fat and energy (both important in developing countries) and also higher in iron and calcium. Millet is gluten-free.

Teff This Ethiopian grain is used in a traditional sour bread called ‘injera’, a bit like a large spongy pancake. It's the smallest grain in the world — 150 teff grains weigh about the same as one wheat grain — which may explain its name; teff is thought to come from the Amharic word for ‘lost’. Teff is gluten-free, and a good source of protein and fibre. It has more calcium and iron than common grains, but the high iron level isn’t always found when tested. It’s thought the iron may be due to the Ethiopian dust that can cling to unwashed tiny teff grains.

Kamut This is a registered trademark for a relative of durum wheat. Marketers do a good job of romanticising its history: after World War II, a US serviceman found seeds in an Egyptian tomb and posted them home to Montana. After a few false starts, some leftover seed in a jar was propagated and trademarked ’kamut’. It’s unlikely the grain sent by the airman really came from a tomb; it’s more likely the grain was grown over the years in Egypt by small farmers with diverse crops.

Kamut is higher in protein than regular wheat, but it’s not gluten-free. However, claims about the suitability of kamut for people who are allergic to wheat are controversial: www.kamut.com backs up its claims with a research paper on its website, but the only research we could find in the medical literature concluded that kamut doesn’t have a different allergenic potential from wheat. If you have a serious wheat allergy, consult your doctor before experimenting with grains such as kamut.

Spelt This relative of normal bread wheat is thought to have originated in Iran and Europe. Spelt has a tough hull that has to be removed as part of the milling process, which is why it fell out of favour in modern breadmaking. It’s somewhat higher in fibre than other grains. There have also been controversial claims about spelt's suitability for people who can’t eat wheat. It’s not gluten-free, but it’s been suggested the protein in it is more digestible than regular wheat. In the US, bread shops have been forced to stop selling spelt bread as ‘wheat-free’. The Coeliac Society in Australia doesn't recommend spelt as a suitable grain for coeliacs.

05.Contradictory definitions


The Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) food regulations’ definitions of wholegrain and wholemeal are clear: In a recent change to the food regulations, ‘wholegrain’ can now include ground-up grains, which is the same as wholemeal. Previously, wholegrain meant whole, unbroken grains only.

The definition is of the cereal itself and can be used for ingredients such as wholegrain/wholemeal flour. However, there’s no definition of how much wholegrain ingredient a mixed food must contain to be described as ‘wholegrain’. And that leaves things open to interpretation.

FSANZ says that to promote a product as exclusively ‘wholegrain’, when it contains ingredients that don’t use the whole of the grain, could breach the Food Standards Code and fair trading law in relation to misleading and deceptive conduct. FSANZ is developing a new standard that includes provisions on wholegrain claims.

It's proposed that a serve of a product only needs to contain 10% of the amount of wholegrains that the manufacturer deems is beneficial to health, in order to make a claim about the presence of wholegrain. The industry-based group, Go Grains Health and Nutrition, encourages manufacturers to use wholegrain claims only on foods that have at least 10% wholegrain content, or at least 4.8 g wholegrains per serve — though it encourages manufacturers to also say exactly how many grams of wholegrains a serve contains and how this relates to a daily target.

Confused? That’s not surprising. We found a whole range of different approaches to wholegrain labelling and claims on foods — see Labelling buzzwords. In the end, a judge would probably need to decide what a shopper might think the claims mean, and whether they were likely to be misled.

What do we want?

CHOICE thinks the proposed FSANZ regulation of wholegrain claims certainly could mislead consumers about the wholegrain content of foods, and that it doesn’t go nearly far enough. We think consumers would expect a product carrying a wholegrain claim to be substantially made from wholegrain ingredients.

In addition, we’d like to see factual ‘% wholegrain’ claims that tell consumers exactly how much whole grains are in a food. In the meantime, all you can do is check the labels — if there’s a claim about wholegrain, it should tell you the percentage in the ingredients list.