Whole Wheat, Whole Grains, and Refined Grains: What’s the Difference?

To understand the differences between whole grain, whole wheat and refined grains, it helps to understand a little bit about the structure of grains such as wheat, oats, and barley.

To be considered a whole grain product, a food must contain all three parts of the grain kernel (or seed).

  • Bran is the term used to describe the outer layer of the grain kernel. Whole grain bran is rich in fibre, B vitamins and minerals.
  • The endosperm is the part of the grain seed that lies just under the bran coating. It is the largest part of the grain kernel and is rich in carbohydrate and protein, essential nutrients needed for good health.
  • The germ is found in the centre of the grain kernel. The germ is a rich source of vitamin E, B vitamins, and some minerals.


Whole wheat flours or foods made with whole wheat flour, such as breads and rolls, are not whole grain products because of the way they are produced. During the milling process to make whole wheat flour, some of the kernel is removed, which results in a loss of the germ portion As a result, foods labelled as whole wheat are not as nutritious as foods labelled as being whole grain.

Some whole wheat flours are made by production methods that keep the kernel intact. These flours (or foods made from them) are considered whole grains and will be labelled using the words whole grain, whole wheat or whole wheat flour with added germ. To make sure the food is actually a whole grain look for the words

whole grain whole wheat


whole wheat flour with added germ

on the label and the ingredient list when you choose whole wheat products.

Refined grain products have the germ removed, or the bran, or both. These foods, which include white rice, white flour, and cream of wheat cereal, are less nutritious than whole grain products.

Some refined grains have been enriched. This means that some vitamins and minerals that were lost during processing are added back. Many refined grains are enriched with iron and some B vitamins. An example of an enriched grain is white flour. Enriched refined grains are still missing some nutrients that are found only in whole grains.

See: Try a new whole grain for ideas on how to add whole grains to meals and snacks.

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