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How to decode whole grains

Scratching your head over whole grains? We offer a comprehensive user's guide to the healthy, unprocessed, fiber-rich carbohydrates. Plus, healthy whole grain recipes to try. 

You may think you can decipher the various terms and seals on whole-grain foods. Still, before you grab a loaf of 12-grain bread or bag of multigrain cereal, scan the ingredient list carefully for refined grains in disguise. “Packages touting the terms stone-ground, wheat flour, enriched flour, multigrain, and cracked wheat often contain mostly refined, nutritionally inferior grains,” says Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RD, author of The Superfoods Rx Diet (Rodale, 2008). “Always make sure the first grain or flour on the ingredient list says ‘whole,’ such as whole oats, whole wheat, or whole rye.”

Minimally processed whole grains retain the bran and germ, which are rich in disease-fighting phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. In a 2010 study, people who regularly ate whole grains rather than their refined counterparts packed on less visceral abdominal fat, which has been linked to a higher risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Scan this chart and then head to the bulk aisle for versatile, flavorful grains.

Fiber and protein profiles are for 1 cup cooked.


  • Flavor: Nutty, slightly sweet
  • Fiber: 5 g
  • Protein: 9 g
  • Notable nutrients: Iron, magnesium, phosphorus
  • How to use: Toast in a dry skillet until seeds pop like miniature popcorn; add to salads, soups, stews, and stir-fries. Simmer for 15 minutes with apple juice, cinnamon, nuts, and dried fruit for a porridge.


Amaranth with Chipotle and Mushrooms 

Amaranth-Nut Energy Bars 

Spicy Amaranth Wayfarer's Bread 

Buckwheat (kasha)

  • Flavor: Earthy, grassy, tender
  • Fiber: 5 g
  • Protein: 6 g
  • Notable nutrients: Magnesium, copper
  • How to use: Combine 1:2 grain to liquid; cook for 20 minutes. Use to bulk up chilis, meatloaf, salads, casseroles, and stews. Use buckwheat flour in pancakes and waffles.


Buckwheat-Flaxseed Blueberry Pancakes 

Buckwheat and Calamari with Mango and Roasted

Kamut (khorasan wheat)

  • Flavor: Chewy, buttery
  • Fiber: 9 g
  • Protein: 14 g 
  • Notable nutrients: Selenium, manganese, thiamin
  • How to use: Soak kernels overnight, add three parts liquid to one part Kamut, and cook for 30–40 minutes. Use in lentil salad, tabbouleh, and pilaf. Kamut pasta or flour can replace its whole-wheat counterparts.


  • Flavor: Nutty, mild
  • Fiber: 5 g
  • Protein: 8 g
  • Notable nutrients: Manganese, magnesium, folate
  • How to use: Mix one part quinoa with scant two parts liquid; cook for 12 minutes. Mix with mashed beans and spices for veggie burgers. Substitute for couscous. In baked goods, replace ¼ cup wheat flour with quinoa flour.


Warm Quinoa and Roasted Vegetable Salad 

Roasted Asparagus and Quinoa Salad 

Green Tea-Scented Quinoa with Corn

Quinoa and Salmon Stew with Tomatoes

Southwestern Quinoa and Edamame Salad 

  • Flavor: Nutty, sweet
  • Fiber: 8 g
  • Protein: 11 g
  • Notable nutrients: Phosphorus, niacin, magnesium
  • How to use: Prepare like Kamut. Combine with herbs, diced vegetables, and lemon juice for a side dish. Substitute spelt flour 1:1 for wheat flour in baking.


Spelt Bread Stuffing with Red Delicious Apples and Dried Cherries

Oatmeal Spelt Apple Crisp

Sprouted Spelt and Seed Bread

Sprouted grains

Sprouted grains, seeds, and legumes stand out among their whole-grain brethren, showing up increasingly in tortillas, breads, and even chips. Germinating grains amplifies some nutrient levels as the plant works to grow. Believed to be rich in enzymes, “sprouted products appear to be more hypoallergenic than whole grains,” says Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RD. They tend to spoil faster, so they usually need to be refrigerated.

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