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Wholegrain 101

You’ve decided to eat better, and you know adding fresh fruit and veggies to your diet is paramount. But what about the food that’s not in the fresh-produce aisle? We take a look at that great South African staple: grains.

One small thing:The next time you bake – whether it’s biscuits, muffins, bread or pancakes – experiment a little by substituting half the white flour with wholewheat flour.

Maize, wheat and rice are the three main grains we consume in South Africa. The others are barley, oats and sorghum, and then there are a few lesser-known varieties such as spelt, millet, rye and quinoa.

What’s great about grains is that they’re low in fat, and they provide varying quantities of fibre and essential nutrients. And, of course, grains are high in carbohydrates. The nutritional content of any grain will depend on its type as well as the growing conditions, particularly the composition of the soil.

But just because there’s grain in a product, doesn’t necessarily mean it has all the nutrients associated with that grain. And that’s mainly due to the way grains are processed today. Before we get into that, let’s take a quick look at the elements of a single grain.

The composition of grain

Every grain consists of the following three elements:

  • bran – the outer skin, rich in vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fibre
  • endosperm – this is the actual food supply, dense in carbohydrates and proteins
  • germ – this is the embryo that holds the genetic material for a new plant, and is full of essential fatty acids, vitamin E, many of the B-group vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.
Wholegrain vs refined grain

When we talk about “wholegrain”, we’re describing a product that uses all three parts of the grain, whether it has been kept intact or processed into flour or another food.

Refined grains have been milled, a process that removes the nutrient-rich bran and germ from the grain. Why do it, you may wonder. Well, milling gives grains a finer texture (like white bread, for example) and also improves the shelf life of grain-based products. The problem is that milling also removes many important nutrients as well as dietary fibre from the grain.

It’s worth noting that in South Africa, as is the case in many other countries, some nutrients are added back to refined grains; these are called enriched or fortified grains. As a result, some of our white maize and wheat flours have had their nutritional quality improved in an effort to provide a public-health benefit.

How do I know I’m buying wholegrain?

It’s not always easy to tell the kind of grains inside a product, especially bread. Just because a bread is brown, doesn’t necessarily mean it contains wholegrain wheat. So, start getting into the habit of checking food labels before you buy anything. Look for the word “whole” and make sure “wholegrains” appears among the first items in the ingredient list.

If you have a question for our dietitians, click here, or to find a dietitian in your area, visit To get in touch with us, email