Nutrition - Whole vs Refined Grains

Nutrition - Whole vs Refined Grains

Many people buy and recommend whole grain foods to others as they have heard it is the ‘healthier’ option compared to refined grains. But is this actually the case? And if so, what is the rationale for choosing whole grains over refined grains?

What is a Grain?

A grain is composed of 3 different parts:

  • Bran – The outer-layer that protects the other two parts of the kernel. The bran is high in fibre and minerals.
  • Germ – The seed that becomes a new plant if allowed to sprout. It is micronutrient rich and includes anti-oxidants, B Vitamins, Vitamin E and omega 3.
  • Endosperm – The endosperm is the fuel for the germ and contains starchy carbohydrates, and small amounts of protein and B vitamins.

Whole Grains

A whole grain is exactly what it sounds like; it contains all of the grain - the bran, endosperm and germ. A whole grain can be a food on its own, such as brown rice, or used as an ingredient in food, such as whole-wheat flour in bread. Whole grain foods include: oats, wholemeal pasta, wholemeal bread, brown rice, corn on the cob, breakfast cereal (made from whole grains) and popcorn.

Refined Grains

When whole grains are refined, the bran and germ are removed, through a milling process, leaving only the endosperm. Refining a grain gives it a finer texture and increases its shelf life. Refined grains include: white bread, white pasta, white flour, white rice, and other products, such as pretzels, pitas, crackers and noodles are normally refined. Most refined grains are fortified, also known as enriched, with B vitamins and minerals (such as iron) that were removed during the refining/milling process.

Is one grain more beneficial for health than the other?

  • The simple answer, YES. When the bran and germ are removed during the refining process, many important nutrients are lost, such as fibre, B Vitamins, Vitamin E, iron and magnesium. As mentioned previously, most refined grains are enriched (fortified), however, the amount of nutrients added back after refining/milling is often less than what was removed.
  • The bran is high in insoluble fibre, which is fundamental for a healthy digestive system. Additionally, fibre increases feelings of satiety (fullness), subsequently decreasing food/calorie intake and aiding weight loss.
  • The bran and germ are a good source of iron and magnesium. Iron is important for producing red blood cells and subsequent oxygen transport, whereas magnesium is used in over 325 biochemical processes including muscle contraction, nerve transmission and bone health.
  • The germ contains omega 3, anti-oxidants and phytochemicals, which are linked with reducing inflammation, supporting immune function and protecting against disease.


  • Replace refined grains with whole grain foods. Simply swapping certain foods can easily achieve this. For example, swapping white bread/bagels for wholemeal bread/bagels, refined cereal to porridge or cereals made from whole grains, and white rice to brown rice.
  • Check food packaging and labels when shopping. Whole grain should be the first ingredient listed. Do not be fooled by slogans on the front of packaging such as “100% wheat” and “multi-grain” as these do not necessarily mean the food is made from whole grains.



About the Author

Mark Funnell holds a BSc (Honours) degree in Sport and Exercise Science and an MSc in Sport and Exercise Nutrition from Loughborough University. He is currently working as a Performance Nutritionist for the England and Wales Cricket Board with both the England Women’s Academy and Midlands Regional Disability Cricket squads. Additionally, Mark is a graduate member of the Sport and Exercise Nutrition Register (SENr), an ISAK Level 1 Anthropometrist and a UK Anti-Doping advisor.