Definition of Whole Grain

Whole grains are defined as those that are used in their entirety in the food production process, so that all three layers are present within the product. This distinguishes them from refined grains. Regardless of how much of the grain is used, the milling process determines particle size and hence has an impact on handling within the body. Many whole and refined grains are processed in some way to enhance flavor, texture, color, and shelf life. As long as the whole of the grain is used in the process, the food is described as whole grain. However, there is some debate as to whether the disruption of the intact grain modulates the health impact. Certainly, it tends to increase the glycemic index of the food, which may have implications for the risk of metabolic disease, especially type 2 diabetes.

The vast majority of grains consumed within Western countries are refined, and the outer germ and bran layers are removed to leave only the starchy endosperm. The refining process may reduce some nutrients such as zinc, selenium, and vitamin E by as much as 90%. In some cases vitamins and minerals are reintroduced through fortification and restoration, but the bioavailability and relative health effects of these nutrients when consumed in their natural state compared to artificial methods of fortification is not known.

At present there is no uniform definition of a whole-grain food, but for the purposes of health claims the proportion of whole-grain cereal used within a food product is critical. In 1999 the Food and Drug Administration in the US approved a health claim for use on packing to help consumers choose foods that contained a significant amount of the whole grain. Products must contain at least 51% whole grain by weight, i.e., must be the largest component of the product, to be entitled to carry the health claim. This allows a clear distinction between the refined and partially or nonrefined products available to the consumer. For example, a product made of 100% whole wheat could be labeled as whole grain, but a multigrain loaf containing 75% white flour and 25% wholemeal flour could not. In the UK, the Joint Health Claims Initiative has adopted a similar definition.

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