Whole grains - healthy or hype?

There are plenty of good reasons to include more whole grains in your diet.

Fancy some oven-fresh, wholegrain bread?

Modern-day carbophobia notwithstanding, whole grains 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, who tell the carb-averse and carb-loving alike to skip refined flour and grain products and embrace whole grains.

Common whole grains are:

  • Whole wheat, including wholemeal
  • Brown rice
  • Corn (even popcorn!)
  • Oats (as used in proper porridge and muesli)

Why they're good for us

Whole grains are high in many phytochemicals (plant substances), which have been shown to protect us from a wide range of health problems. They contain:

  • Phenolic compounds, which have an antioxidant effect.
  • 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 whole grains oats and barley) can lower cholesterol. Fibre can also improve insulin levels and blood sugar control, which not only helps with diabetes but also heart disease.

There are at least five good reasons for eating plenty of whole grains:

  • Heart health: Large studies have found that eating plenty of whole grains reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke.
  • Reduce your cancer risk: There's evidence that eating whole grains 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: Whole grains can improve blood sugar and insulin levels. Studies have shown a link between cereal fibre, which is highest in whole grains, and a reduced chance of developing type-2 diabetes.
  • Better weight control: There's evidence that whole grains 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 whole grains is essential to keep things moving in the bowel — which means less constipation and risk of diverticular 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 one-and-one-third cups of breakfast cereal, for example.

Health proponents say you should aim to eat half your intake of bread and cereals as whole grains – which means at least two serves each day.

To help consumers achieve these recommendations, the industry-based group, Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council, carries a range of fact sheets, food and nutrition guides, and recipe books on whole grains.

The whole truth?

'Wholegrain' is a labelling buzzword. Claims have exploded on products such as bread, cereals, crackers, biscuits and pasta. But not all 'wholegrain' foods are created equal.

Here are some common traps:

  • 'With whole grains' versus just plain old 'wholegrain'. You could be getting 100% whole grain goodness, or a whole lot less – the "with" suggests the latter. The percentage should be listed in the ingredients.
  • 'Source of whole grains'. They do contain some whole grains, but are also likely to contain refined grains.
  • 'Wholemeal'. Wholemeal is whole grains that have been more finely milled but still contain the same nutrients as whole grains. The label "wholegrain" can be used instead of wholemeal, even if there are no intact grains.
  • 'Wholegrain bread'. Although it does contain whole grains, these may have been added to a white flour mix. Wholegrain wholemeal bread is a better choice.

GLNC Certification of Foods

In attempt to address consumers being confused or misled about the use of 'wholegrain', the Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council (GLNC) offers a fee-based certification program, with a logo for use on labels.

To carry GLNC certification for whole grains, a product must meet all of the following criteria:

  • Must be a core food.
  • Must be a healthier choice in category (nutrient criteria apply).
  • Must contain at least 16 grams whole grain per serve.


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. 

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 mainly would be important for vegans – most of us have diets that are generally awash with high-quality protein from animal sources.

All these supergrains qualify as whole grains, 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 whole grains.


Pronounced keen-wa, this grain from South America is high in protein (about 15%) compared with many others and is also high in fibre, with about 8%. It's also gluten-free.


Another grain from the Americas, salba is high in fibre, minerals and the plant form of omega-3 fats, a healthy type of fat thought to help prevent heart disease. 


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. Amaranth is gluten-free.


An important food crop in Africa and India, 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.


This Ethiopian grain is used in a traditional sour bread called 'injera', which is a bit like a large spongy pancake. 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 is variable and may be due to the Ethiopian dust that can cling to unwashed tiny teff grains.


This is a registered trademark for a relative of durum wheat, which is higher in protein than regular wheat. It's not gluten-free and claims about its suitability for people who are allergic to wheat are controversial. If you have a serious wheat allergy, consult your doctor before experimenting with grains such as kamut.


This relative of normal bread wheat is 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, and although it's been suggested the protein in it is more digestible than regular wheat it's not recommended for coeliacs.