The Difference Between Whole and Refined Grains

How can the type of grain affect our health and our skin?

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Anna Pleet
Edited By:
Dermveda Content Team ,

Whole wheat, whole white, refined, enriched, fortified… all of these labels cover the packages of grains and grain products, leading to confusion for many. So what do these terms mean? And how does their meaning relate to our health, particularly the health of our skin?


Whole Grain Anatomy

Since we began the industrialized manufacturing of our food crops, scientists have been able to create new food products from original natural food sources. Refined grains are one example. The Oldways Whole Grains Council, an American non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public about whole grains and their health benefits, defines a whole grain as any grain that remains whole and intact, exactly as it comes from nature.[1] What this means is that in a whole grain, all three components of its seed remain in the kernel. These three parts are called the Bran, Germ, and Endosperm. Each of these components has a different “role” in maintaining the integrity of the seed kernel and to provide an environment for growth into a new plant. The roles of each component are outlined as follows: 

Bran – This is the outer husk of the seed. It is multilayered and edible. Nutrients such as B vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber are provided from its consumption.

Germ – This part is the embryo (the equivalent of a yolk in an egg) that has the ability to sprout into a new plant. This nutrient-dense part contains many B vitamins, Vitamin E, minerals, some proteins, and healthy fats.

Endosperm – This part is the food supply and energy for the rest of the grain seed if it were to grow into a new plant. It is proportionally the largest of the three components and contains starchy carbohydrates, as well as some protein and small amounts of vitamins and minerals.


Refined Grains

A refined grain is a grain that has been stripped of one or more of three components (bran, germ, and endosperm) by the food manufacturer. Most commonly, such as in the case of white flour or white rice, both the bran and the germ are removed and only the endosperm is left. By refining the grain, many of the nutrients (vitamins and minerals) and fat and protein-containing parts are removed, leaving mainly only the starchy carbohydrate substance.

This begs the question, why remove the nutrient-dense parts if doing so adds more work for a food manufacturer and the removed parts contain a significant amount of nutrition? Well, the endosperm, or the part often left after refining, gives a food product homogeneous color and texture. In making baked goods, such as pastas, breads, crackers, cakes, pastries, and more- a baker wants the products to maintain a specific texture and “crumb” (the soft inner portion of a bread). Maintaining a consistent texture becomes a more difficult task when protein and oil-containing parts are incorporated into the flour. Thus, by removing the bran and germ, a baker or chef can better control the elements of creating a consistent product.

Some products are created from a blend of flours. Recognizing these foods is crucial to understanding which grain products are truly whole grain. One example of this is brown store-bought breads labeled as “whole wheat.” Many times, a brown bread is composed of a majority of whole grain flour (51% or greater) and the rest is refined flour. This product may be labeled as “whole wheat/grain,” because the majority of its ingredients are true whole grains. However, this product is not 100% whole grain bread. The current US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) guidelines do not outline specific labeling requirements for whole grain products.[2] Because of this, understanding whole grain products can be confusing to the consumer.


Grains and Our Health 

How does grain refinement affect our health? When farmers and food manufacturers first began refining grains, many widespread health issues came about- such as pellagra, a deficiency of vitamin B3 (Niacin), or beriberi, a deficiency in vitamin B1 (Thiamin). Over time, scientists have learned how to overcome these challenges and developed “enriched” grains. 

Some countries, including the United States, require mandatory fortification of some key nutrients (for example: folic acid).[3] But overall, grain refinement is shown to reduce potential nutritional quality of the grains beyond the level of the whole grain form. In other words, whole grains are overall considered nutritionally superior to refined grains.[3]

Much scrutiny has surrounded refined grains over the past several decades. In general, refined grain products are higher in starchy carbohydrates and contain a higher glycemic index and load, meaning these foods can spike blood sugar and insulin levels higher after consumption. Many research studies have linked the consumption of refined grain products to chronic diseases such as heart disease, type II diabetes, stroke, and some cancers.[3-5] This is particularly an issue in Western cultures, where refined grain products are highly consumed.

Some food manufacturers are making new efforts to adapt grain refinement procedures. Since certain grains, namely oats and barley, are identified as foods rich with beneficial nutrients, including B vitamins, sterols, vitamin E, polyphenols, and more, efforts are now being made to better extract these beneficial nutrients from their crops.[6]


Grains and the Skin

Some research suggests that refined grain products affect the health of our skin. Generally speaking, refined grains contain higher amounts of simple sugars (starchy endosperm) and thus can be categorized as simple carbohydrate sources. Simple sugars are prevalent in the Western diet and in processed foods. Some researchers have determined that intake of simple sugars may be involved in the disease progression of acne.[7] Whether this association is due to a specific mechanism in the development of acne vulgaris or the generalized inflammatory response commonly seen with higher intakes of simple sugars is still unclear.

Some other grain products have evidence of therapeutic benefits to the skin. Oats applied topically have been clinically shown to aid in skin itching and eczema.[8,9] The application forms often used include oat-based emollient creams and oatmeal baths.[10] Oats ingested in our diets may also provide anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects as well as some ultraviolet radiation protection.[11] Learn more about the evidence for oats and skin and how to make your own oatmeal bath.


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  1. WholeGrainsCouncil. What is a Whole Grain? 2016; Link to research. Accessed November 6, 2016.
  2. U.S.FDA. Whole Grain Label Statements. 2006. Link to research.
  3. Seal CJ, Brownlee IA. Whole-grain foods and chronic disease: evidence from epidemiological and intervention studies. Proc Nutr Soc.2015;74(3):313-319; PMID: 26062574.
  4. Yu D, Zhang X, Shu XO, et al. Dietary glycemic index, glycemic load, and refined carbohydrates are associated with risk of stroke: a prospective cohort study in urban Chinese women. Am J Clin Nutr.2016;104(5):1345-1351; PMID: 27733400.
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  7. Melnik B. Dietary intervention in acne: Attenuation of increased mTORC1 signaling promoted by Western diet. Dermatoendocrinol.2012;4(1):20-32; PMID: 22870349.
  8. Kalaaji AN, Wallo W. A randomized controlled clinical study to evaluate the effectiveness of an active moisturizing lotion with colloidal oatmeal skin protectant versus its vehicle for the relief of xerosis. J Drugs Dermatol.2014;13(10):1265-1268; PMID: 25607563.
  9. Fowler JF, Nebus J, Wallo W, et al. Colloidal oatmeal formulations as adjunct treatments in atopic dermatitis. J Drugs Dermatol.2012;11(7):804-807; PMID: 22777219.
  10. Mengeaud V, Phulpin C, Bacquey A, et al. An innovative oat-based sterile emollient cream in the maintenance therapy of childhood atopic dermatitis. Pediatr Dermatol.2015;32(2):208-215; PMID: 25529232.
  11. Pazyar N, Yaghoobi R, Kazerouni A, et al. Oatmeal in dermatology: a brief review. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol.2012;78(2):142-145; PMID: 22421643.