What is the difference between whole grain and refined grains?

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There are two types of grains, whole grains and refined grains. Whole grains, such as wheat flour, contain nutrients and fiber. Refined grains, such as white flour, lose vitamins, minerals and fiber when processed.
To provide the most health benefits, grain should be left whole. That means it still has all three of its original elements: the bran (outer shell), which contains fiber and B vitamins; the germ, which contains phytochemicals and B vitamins; and the endosperm, which contains carbohydrates and protein. When the grain is refined, the nutritious bran and germ are stripped away, leaving you only the aptly named endosperm.
Manuel Villacorta
Nutrition & Dietetics
The difference between whole grains and refined grains is that whole grains include all three parts of the grain (bran, germ, and endosperm), while refined grains do not include the bran or germ (these are removed during processing, leaving only the endosperm). With the removal of the bran and germ, 25 percent of the grain's protein and about seventeen key nutrients are lost.
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A truly whole grain or food made from whole grain includes all three parts of the grain: bran, germ, and endosperm. Refined grains or foods made from them include only one of the parts, usually the starchy endosperm. Generally speaking, a "white" grain product has had the germ and the bran removed, along with most of the nutritional value. There are a few exceptions to this rule (some rice, such as Arborio, is naturally white) but it's a good guideline.

Removing the nutrients from the grain has implications. On the upside, it makes things like bread doughy and spongy -- textures we like and have come to crave. On the downside, the nutritional value of the food is severely compromised, and these stripped grain products actually deplete our body's reserves of important vitamins and minerals. The body needs the B vitamins found in the bran and germ of wheat to digest and absorb the wheat. With these vitamins removed, we must supply them from our own reserves, depleting our nutritional stores. It's because of this that nutrition expert Sally Fallon describes calories from such refined foods as "negative" calories, rather than simply "empty" calories -- their net impact is negative since they deplete the body of important vitamins and minerals.

This is a big deal when you consider how much of our diet is based on foods made from refined grains. Author Marion Nestle estimates that "foods made from white flour account for nearly one-fifth of the calories in American diets." And here she's only writing about white flour, not all the other "white" and otherwise refined foods we're consuming.
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When choosing grain foods, read food labels to make sure they are enriched. Also, for healthy eating and a healthy weight, at least half of everyone’s daily grain choices should be whole grains:
  • Whole grains are the whole grain kernel with the bran, germ, and endosperm intact.
  • Refined grains started out as whole grains, but they are processed to give them a finer texture and longer shelf life. During this process, the bran and germ are removed, which also removes dietary fiber, iron, and many B vitamins. Most refined grains are enriched with all of these missing nutrients except dietary fiber.
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Chad Kramer on behalf of dotFIT
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Refined grains are grains that have been processed where typically the germ and the bran have been removed. This process removes nearly 80% of the nutrition from the grain and what is left is, basically, starch. Conversely, a whole grain has not had the germ or bran removed and therefore provides important nutrients and fiber to a diet. Regular daily consumption of whole grains is associated with longer life, where refined grains have been linked with a higher risk of disease.
Vandana  R. Sheth
Nutrition & Dietetics
Whole grains are grains that have their entire kernel (bran, endosperm and germ) intact therefore retaining valuable nutrients.

Refined grains on the other hand are grains that have been milled and stripped off parts of their kernel therefore lowering their nutritional quality. 
Ximena Jimenez
Nutrition & Dietetics
Whole grains retain all their wonderful components the bran which contains fiber and B vitamins; the germ which has the antioxidants and vitamin E; and the endosperm which has carbohydrates and protein. In contrast with refined grains which contain only the endosperm. No wonder whole grains are considered nutrient powerhouses.
Michael T. Murray, ND
Naturopathic Medicine

In grains, the bran is composed of the tissues between the outer seed coat and the aleurone, which is the granular protein layer in the outermost layer of endosperm. The endosperm, the storage compartment of the grain, is composed primarily of protein and carbohydrates. The germ contains the embryo or sprouting section of the grain. In the production of flour, the bran, aleurone layer, and germ are removed, leaving only the endosperm. Removing the bran and germ results in the loss of many key nutrients.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.