Eating is a Blessing and a Curse — Processed Grains vs Whole Grains

Note: This article is not suggesting a particular diet that contains or eliminates carbs. Comparing different eating styles will be discussed in a future article.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), processed food is defined as any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing, packaging, or other procedures that alter the food from its natural state. This may include the addition of other ingredients to the food, such as preservatives, flavors, nutrients and other food additives or substances approved for use in food products, such as salt, sugars,colorings, and fats.

Food fads have been with us for a long time. Every food group has been seen as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at some point in time. Some foods that may have once been appropriate to eat are no longer so due to environmental stresses such as pesticides and herbicides, depletion of nutrients in our soil, food and chemicals used to feed animals that will be eaten, subsidies provided by the government of certain foods such as dairy and wheat, and the desire by agricultural companies to make more food that can be preserved for long periods of time for less money. Profit is the key motivator. What our forefathers ate does not resemble the same foods we consume today (1)

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, processed food falls on a spectrum from minimally processed, to heavily processed.

  • Foods such as sliced fruits and vegetables, bagged salads and leafy greens and roasted nuts are all examples of minimally processed foods.
  • The next category of processed foods includes canned foods such as beans, tuna, fruits and vegetables, as well as frozen fruits and vegetables. Oils are also considered a processed food.
  • Jarred pasta sauces, yogurt and salad dressing have added oils, sweeteners and preservatives, which makes them a processed food as well.
  • Examples of heavily processed foods include crackers, deli meat, cereals, bread.
  • The most heavily processed foods examples include pre-packaged and/or frozen meals, baked goods and snack foods.

Processed Grains and Starches (1),(2)

Highly processed grains have the following stripped out as part of the processing:

  • Bran: The hard outer layer of the grain. It contains fiber, minerals and antioxidants.
  • Germ: The nutrient-rich core that contains carbs, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and various phytonutrients. The germ is the embryo of the plant, the part that gives rise to a new plant.
  • Endosperm: The biggest part of the grain, contains mostly carbs (in the form of starch) and protein.

Examples of refined carbohydrates include any product with any type of flour, most commercial cold cereals, pasta, and white rice. Processed grains digest quickly and have a high glycemic index. This means that they lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels after meals and can lead to weight gain (2). Refined grains lack essential nutrients found in their whole-grain counterparts. Consuming them provides little to no value-added calories and takes space away in your stomach for high-value calories that are needed to maintain good health (Furman).

Whole Grains (3)

Minimally processed food retains most of its inherent physical, chemical, sensory and nutritional properties and can still be nutritious. Just like every other food group, grains have received their share of criticism. However, if you choose whole unprocessed and untreated whole grains, they can add important nutrients and benefits. There are so many different types of grains to experiment with and they can add variety, new textures and flavors to your meals. They are easy to cook and do not take a lot of time. Servings of grains should be limited per day but should always be in their natural state before cooking.

Less common healthy grains to try, especially if they are new to you:

  1. Amaranth
  2. Kamut
  3. Freekeh
  4. Millet
  5. Buckwheat groats (Kasha)
  6. Farro
  7. Barley
  8. Black Rice

Other healthy starches should be used as you would a grain. They should be unprocessed and preferably in their original form. These include:

  1. Sweet potatoes or Yams
  2. Regular potatoes
  3. Acorn squash, butternut squash and other winter squashes
  4. Rutabagas
  5. Corn on the Cob
  6. Turnips
  7. Jerusalem Artichokes

The Bottom Line and Challenge

Replace chips and dip with veggies and homemade guacamole or store bought guacamole that contains only vegetable ingredients. If you are looking for convenience and want to purchase pre-packaged lettuces, salads, veggies etc., which are considered minimally processed, make sure they contain no added ingredients. Bagged lettuce should just be lettuce. Make sure they are washed thoroughly. Likewise for all produce products that are packaged for convenience.


Fuhrman, joel MD, Eat to Live, Little Brown, 2003,2011