Grains as a food group are the most commonly consumed foods in the world.   Wheat, rice and corn are the three most important grains and are the largest crops worldwide.  These grains are also some of the oldest foods.  Their use is known to go back for at least 10,000 years.

Most grains are the seeds of a type of grass and are referred to as “cereal” grains.  The word “cereal” is derived from the Roman goddess of agriculture, Ceres. 

History of Grains

Grains were among the first crops to be cultivated.  There is archaeological evidence that barley and wheat were used more than 10,000 years ago by the people living in the Fertile Crescent, a broad area which curved northward and eastward up from Egypt to the mountains of southern Turkey and down to the Persian Gulf.  In 5,000 B.C.B., cultivation of grains was well established along the Nile.  Because dried grains travel well, their cultivation spread through many new lands.

Millet farming is known to have begun in China by around 4,000 B.C.E., and rice was being farmed about the same time in Southeast Asia.  Rice seeds dating back 9,000 years have been found in parts of China.  The development of foods such as breads helped contribute to the growth of civilization. 

Not only did grains provide a food source for many cultures, the advent of cultivation in agriculture led to improved nutrition, which increased reproduction of humans.  As the population increased, more cropland was needed to feed the growing masses.  One source claims that every major ancient civilization which was densely populated was due to the presence of grain farmers.

Just as the cultures of old depended on grain as their populations grew, the same holds true today.  Current dependence on grains continues to increase.   This dependence also leads to improved farming methods and technology which can increase the yields on croplands. 

The world is currently going through a “Green Revolution” when it comes to grain production, an event which began in the 1970s.  Agricultural scientists then began attempts to double or triple the world’s supply of grains in order to feed the ever-expanding population.

Grains Health Benefits

There are three main parts to each kernel of the cereal grains.  They are the central core (the endosperm, which comprises about 80% of the kernel), the germ (the future sprout, which is about 3% of the grain), and the bran covering, which is approximately 15% of the kernel. 

The endosperm is mainly starch, with some protein mixed in.  This part has the nutrients to help the seed (or as a food, we humans) to grow.  This part of the grain has fewer vitamins and minerals than the bran coverings and the germ.  It also has lower levels of fiber.  Therefore, when the grain is highly refined, many of these nutrients are lost. 

The germ is the most essential part of the grain.  The germ is the part of the grain which sprouts and grows, and contains the most nutrients.  The germ holds many vitamins and minerals, as well as protein and oils.  This part of the grain is very high in the B vitamins, particularly niacin, riboflavin, thiamin and pyridoxine.  This part also contains moderate amounts of zinc, potassium, magnesium and iron.  Wheat germ oil is one of the best sources of vitamin E.

The bran of the grain has several coverings, which add most of the fiber to grains and a lot of nutrients as well.  These include B vitamins and a few minerals, including zinc.  The outer coverings come off easily and contain very few nutrients.

The fact that these coverings come off easily can be a good thing, as they contain most of the phytic acid which is present in grains.  These acids can bind minerals such as iron, zinc, calcium and magnesium in the stomach and allow them to leave through the intestines before they are assimilated and utilized in the body. 

Cereal grains are also a fairly good source of complex carbohydrates, energy, calories, and some protein.  Vitamins found in these grains include B1, B2 and B3.  Most grains contain very small amounts of vitamins A and C.  The germ of the grain contains vitamin E.   Wheat and rice are often good sources of selenium, which is hard to find in many other food products.

Fiber content found in whole grains can sometimes equate to the difference between good health and poor health.  Lack of fiber in the diet can lead to many chronic, often fatal diseases.  Thus, it is important to consume whole grains when possible and make good choices when selecting grain products for dietary health.

The starch found in refined, or white, flour is quickly turned into simple sugars by the human body.  This spikes blood sugar and is easily turned into fat. 


Food allergies are often thought to be caused by excessive consumption of processed foods, sugars, and refined flours when children are very young. This could possibly be avoided by introducing whole grains at a young age by encouraging breakfast foods such as cooked brown rice or oats and cream of white or rice.  This practice also instills a “taste” for natural foods which will prove to be important throughout the individual’s lifetime.

One of the best (healthiest) ways to prepare grains is simply to boil or steam them.  The high water content which is found after boiling a grain also aids in satisfying one’s hunger. 


Whole-grain flours should be refrigerated so they do not become rancid.  This greatly increases their longevity as well. 

Most individuals are not allergic to whole grains, so these foods are good additions to a healthy diet.



  1. Holford, P. The optimum nutrition bible, Little Brown Group (2004)
  2. Holford, P & Lawson, S. Optimum Nutrition Made Easy How to achieve optimum health, Piatkus Books (2008)
  3. Murray, M.T. et al., Encyclopedia of healing foods, London : Piatkus (2005)
  4. The National Research Council. Recommended Dietary Allowances, 10th ed, National Academy of Sciences (1989)
  5. Werbach, M. Nutritional Influences on Illness, 2nd ed, Third Line Press (1993)

Types of Grains


Corn differs from other grains in that its kernels are much larger and it can be eaten fresh as a vegetable. Dried corn is ground into flour or can be used for feeding livestock. Corn is probably the only grain that originated in the United Sates, and was used as a staple food by Native Americans.


Oats can be traced back to Asian ancestry and the wild red oat. The last type of grain to be formally cultivated worldwide, oats are somewhat of a “newcomer” to the grain scene, only going back as far as 500 B.C.B. when it comes to European usage.


The first traces of rice being cultivated date back to China around 7,000 B.C.E. One Chinese myth has rice being used as a gift to humans from the animals. The myth states that after a flood wiped out food production for the humans, they noticed animals with rice on their mouths. They imitated the animals and consumed the rice. Rice was then planted and many people were saved by its ability to feed the masses.


Wheat is the oldest of the cereal grains and is a very important staple in many parts of the world. This grain is cultivated more than any other grain except in very cold climates and in tropical areas. The top three wheat-producing countries are China, the United States and Russia.


Barley may be best known for its use in making beer and whiskey, but when it comes to making soup, barley is often a popular ingredient as well. The gluten content of this grain gives it a pasta-like consistency and makes it a good, heat-generating food.


Buckwheat is not a cereal grain but is a fruit seed from a herbaceous plant. The plant produces an aromatic flower and then buckwheat groats, which are small, triangle-shaped seeds covered by a hard shell. While buckwheat does not have bran and germ (characteristic of grains), the flavor, consistency and nutrient content are so much like those grains that it is treated as one.


At one time millet was used in the United States primarily as fodder and birdseed. However, this grain has been growing in popularity as a food for human consumption. This grain alternative does not contain wheat or gluten and is a good choice for gluten sensitive people who are anxious to consume nutritious foods.


The Incas called quinoa "the mother of all seed." This grain was also known as "the gold of the Aztecs." Known to give strength and stamina to those who consumed it, cooked quinoa seeds are fluffy and creamy while still being a little crunchy.

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