Proceedings of the Nutrition Society (2003), 62, 129–134
© The Author 2003
Abbreviation: GI, glycaemic index.
Corresponding author: Dr Joanne Slavin, fax +1 612 625 5272, email firstname.lastname@example.org
CAB InternationalPNSProceedings of Nutrition Society (2003)0029-6651© Nutrition Society 2003 621 PNS 221Health effects of whole grainsJ. Slavin1291346© Nutrition Society 2003
Why whole grains are protective: biological mechanisms
Department of Food Science and Nutrition, University of Minnesota, 1334 Eckles Avenue, St Paul, MN 55108, USA
Dr Joanne Slavin, fax +1 612 625 5272, email email@example.com
Epidemiological studies find that whole-grain intake is protective against cancer, cardiovascular
disease, diabetes and obesity. Potential mechanisms for this protection are diverse since whole
grains are rich in nutrients and phytochemicals. First, whole grains are concentrated sources of
dietary fibre, resistant starch and oligosaccharides, carbohydrates that escape digestion in the
small intestine and are fermented in the gut, producing short-chain fatty acids (SCFA). SCFA
lower colonic pH, serve as an energy source for the colonocytes and may alter blood lipids. These
improvements in the gut environment may provide immune protection beyond the gut. Second,
whole grains are rich in antioxidants, including trace minerals and phenolic compounds, and these
compounds have been linked to disease prevention. Additionally, whole grains mediate insulin
and glucose responses. Although lower glycaemic load and glycaemic index have been linked to
diabetes and obesity, risk of cancers such as colon and breast cancer have also been linked to high
intake of readily-available carbohydrate. Finally, whole grains contain many other compounds
that may protect against chronic disease. These compunds include phytate, phyto-oestrogens such
as lignan, plant stanols and sterols, and vitamins and minerals. As a consequence of the traditional
models of conducting nutrition studies on isolated nutrients, few studies exist on the biological
effects of increased whole-grain intake. The few whole-grain feeding studies that are available
show improvements in biomarkers with whole-grain consumption, such as weight loss, blood lipid
improvement and antioxidant protection.
Whole grains: Bioactive compounds: Large bowel: Glucose and insulin: Antioxidants
GI, glycaemic index.
Whole grains are rich in a wide range of compounds with
known health effects (Fig. 1). When evaluating the mecha-
nisms by which whole grains are protective against chronic
disease, use can be made of the existing data describing
mechanisms by which each of these individual nutrients and
phytochemicals is protective. Additionally, it is clear that
whole-grain consumption is protective beyond what would
be predicted if the protection found with these individual
compounds was just added up (Slavin et al. 2001a). Thus,
there appears to be a synergy among the wide range of
protective compounds in whole grains, suggesting that the
whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
In the present paper four mechanisms that have been
studied for the protectiveness of whole grains will be
(a) large-bowel effects of whole grains;
(b) glucose and insulin changes seen with whole-grain
(c) the antioxidant theory for whole-grain protectiveness;
(d) other bioactive compounds in whole grains.
Mechanistic studies of whole grains
Despite dietary recommendations to increase intake of
whole grains, little research has been conducted on the
physiological effects of a diet high in whole grains.
Generally, mechanistic studies have been conducted using
the magic bullet approach, where one dietary ingredient is
isolated and fed to either animals or human subjects. Thus,
more published research supports a protective role for
dietary fibre, trace minerals, vitamins or other nutrients, or
phytochemicals than for the whole grain. Yet, epidemio-
logical studies provide evidence that whole foods, including
whole grains, are protective against a wide range of
diseases, and generally this protectiveness is greater than
that seen with any individual ingredient (Pereira et al. 2001).
Components in whole grains associated with improved
health status include lignans, tocotrienols and phenolic
compounds, and anti-nutrients such as phytic acid, tannins
and enzyme inhibitors. In the grain-refining process the bran
is removed, resulting in loss of dietary fibre, vitamins,
minerals, lignans, phyto-oestrogens, phenolic compounds
and phytic acid. Thus, in refined grains the relative concen-
tration of starch is higher because most of the bran and some
of the germ is removed in the refining process. The structure
of all grains is similar and includes the endosperm, germ and
bran. The absolute amount of each of these components
varies among grains. For example, the bran content of maize
is 6 % while that of wheat is 16 %. Important grains in the
US diet include wheat, rice, maize and oats.
To conduct feeding studies in human subjects whole
grains must be fed in a form acceptable to the participants.
Often, feeding studies use processed whole grains for the
dietary intervention. Most research indicates that processing
of whole grains does not remove biologically-important
compounds (Slavin et al. 2001b). Additionally, epidemio-
logical studies that report protection with whole-grain
consumption relate whole-grain intake to processed whole-
grain products, such as breads, cereals and brown rice.
Large bowel effects of whole grains
Whole grains are rich sources of fermentable carbohydrates,
including dietary fibre, resistant starch and oligosaccha-
rides. Undigested carbohydrate reaching the colon is
fermented by intestinal microflora to short-chain fatty acids
and gases. Short-chain fatty acids include acetate, butyrate
and propionate, with butyrate being a preferred fuel for the
colonic mucosa cells. Short-chain fatty acid production has
been related to lowered serum cholesterol and decreased risk
of cancer. Undigested carbohydrates increase faecal wet and
dry weight and increase intestinal transit.
No studies have examined the effects of whole grains on
gut fermentation. Research has been conducted on grain
components, including dietary fibre, resistant starch and
oligosaccharides. A comparison of the dietary fibre contents
of various whole grains shows that oats, rye and barley
contain about one-third soluble fibre and the rest is insoluble
fibre. Soluble fibre is associated with cholesterol lowering
and improved glucose response, while insoluble fibre is
associated with improved bowel emptying. Wheat is lower
in soluble fibre than most grains, while rice contains
virtually no soluble fibre. Refining of grains results in a low
total dietary fibre content and removes proportionally more
of the insoluble fibre than soluble fibre.
Disruption of cell walls can increase the fermentability of
dietary fibre. Coarse wheat bran has a greater faecal bulking
effect than finely-ground wheat bran when fed at the same
dosage (Wrick et al. 1983), suggesting that the particle size
of the whole grain is an important factor in determining
physiological effect. Coarse bran delays gastric emptying
and accelerates small bowel transit. The effect seen with
coarse bran was similar to that of inert plastic particles,
suggesting that the coarse nature of whole grains as
compared with refined grains has a unique physiological
effect beyond composition differences between whole and
refined grains (McIntyre et al. 1997).
Not all starch is digested and absorbed during gut transit.
Factors that determine whether starch is resistant to
digestion include the physical form of grains or seeds in
which starch is located (particularly if they are whole or
partially disrupted), size and type of starch granules,
associations between starch and other dietary components,
and cooking and food processing, especially cooking and
cooling (Bjorck et al. 1994).
In addition to dietary fibre and resistant starch, grains
contain substantial amounts of oligosaccharides. Oligo-
saccharides are defined as carbohydrates with a low (2–20)
extent of polymerization. Common oligosaccharides include
oligofructose and inulin. Wheat flour contains 10–40mg
fructans/g dry weight (Van Loo et al. 1995). Fructans have
also been found in rye and barley, with very young barley
kernels containing 220mg fructan/g. Van Loo et al. (1995)
have estimated that wheat provides 78 % of the North
American intake of oligosaccharides. Oligosaccharides have
similar effects to those of soluble dietary fibre in the human
gut. Moreover, it has consistently been shown that oligo-
saccharides can alter the human faecal flora. Human studies
(Gibson et al. 1995) indicate that consumption of fructo-
oligosaccharides increases bifidobacteria in the gut while
decreasing concentrations of Escherichia coli, clostridia and
Although little research has been conducted directly on
whole grains and bowel function, it is well known that
dietary fibre from grains such as wheat and oats increases
stool weight and speed transit (Marlett et al. 2002).
Furthermore, the ability of components in whole grains to
alter the microflora has important implications in health and
disease (Fig. 2).
Glucose and insulin changes seen with whole-grain
It is well accepted that glucose and insulin are linked to
chronic diseases, especially diabetes. Whole-grain con-
sumption is part of a healthy diet described as the ‘prudent’
diet. Epidemiological studies consistently show that risk for
type 2 diabetes mellitus is decreased with consumption
of whole grains (Van Dam et al. 2002). Additionally,
Giovannucci (1995) proposed that insulin and colon cancer
are linked. He suggests that insulin is an important growth
factor of colonic epithelial cells and is a mitogen of tumour
cell growth in vitro. Epidemiological studies indicate a
similarity of factors that produce elevated insulin levels with
those related to colon cancer risk, including obesity and low
physical activity. Schoen et al. (1999) found that incident
colon cancer was linked to higher levels of blood glucose
and insulin and larger body weight. Hu et al. (1999) noted
Fig. 1. Phytonutrient content of whole grains.
Health effects of whole grains131
the similarity of lifestyle and environmental risk factors for
type 2 diabetes and colon cancer. They examined the
relationship between diabetes and risk of colo-rectal cancer
in the Nurses’ Health Study, and found that they were
related, with women with diabetes having increased risk of
To determine the relationship between whole-grain intake
and glucose and insulin metabolism requires biomarkers.
Glycaemic index (GI) is one marker used to compare the
glycaemic response to foods. The GI is defined as the
incremental area under the blood glucose response curve for
the test food divided by the corresponding area after an equi-
carbohydrate portion of white bread, multiplied by 100. It is
known that glycaemic response is affected by many physio-
logical factors. Other factors affecting the response include
the form of the food, cooking, processing, fat content of the
food and soluble fibre content of the food.
Whole foods are also known to slow digestion and
absorption of carbohydrates. Postprandial blood glucose and
insulin responses are greatly affected by food structure. Any
process that disrupts the physical or botanical structure of
food ingredients will increase the plasma glucose and
insulin responses. Food structure has been found to be more
important than gelatinization or the presence of viscous
dietary fibre in determining glycaemic response (Granfeldt
et al. 1995). Another study suggested the importance of
preserved structure in foods as an important determinant of
glycaemic response in diabetic subjects (Jarvi et al. 1995).
Refining grains tends to increase glycaemic response and,
thus, whole grains should slow glycaemic response (Jenkins
et al. 1986).
Intact whole grains of barley, rice, rye, oats, maize,
buckwheat and wheat have GI of 36–81, with barley and
oats having the lowest values (Jenkins et al. 1988). Lower
blood glucose levels and decreased insulin secretion have
been observed in both normal and diabetic subjects while
consuming a low-GI (67) diet containing pumpernickel
bread with intact whole grains, bulgar (parboiled wheat),
pasta and legumes compared with a high-GI (90) diet
containing white bread and potato.
Heaton et al. (1988) compared glucose response when
subjects consumed whole grains, cracked grains, wholegrain
flour, and refined grain flour. Plasma insulin responses
increased stepwise, with whole grains<cracked grains<coarse
flour<fine flour. Oat-based meals evoked smaller glucose and
insulin responses than wheat- or maize-based meals. Particle
size influenced the digestion rate and consequent metabolic
effects of wheat and maize, but not oats. The authors
suggested that the increased insulin response to finely-ground
flour may be relevant to the aetiology of diseases associated
with hyperinsulinaemia and to the management of diabetes.
Some feeding studies have been conducted to evaluate the
relationship between whole grains and glucose metabolism.
Pereira et al. (2002) tested the hypothesis that whole-grain
consumption improves insulin sensitivity in overweight and
obese adults. Eleven overweight or obese hyperinsulinaemic
adults aged 25–56 years consumed two diets, each for
6 weeks. Diets were identical, except that refined-grain
products were replaced with wholegrain products. At the end
of each treatment, subjects consumed 355ml of a liquid
mixed meal and blood samples were taken over 2h. Fasting
insulin was 10 % lower during consumption of the whole-
grain diet. The authors concluded that insulin sensitivity
might be an important mechanism whereby wholegrain
foods reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Juntunen et al. (2002) evaluated the factors in grain
products that affect human glucose and insulin responses.
They fed the following grain products: whole-kernel rye
bread; wholemeal rye bread containing oat β-glucan
concentrate; dark durum wheat pasta; wheat bread made
Fig. 2. Interactions between components in whole grains and the microflora that have important implications
in health and disease.
132 J. Slavin
from white wheat flour. Glucose responses and the rate of
gastric emptying after consumption of the two rye breads
and pasta did not differ from those after consumption of
white wheat bread. Insulin, glucose-dependent insulino-
tropic polypeptide and glucagon-like peptide 1 levels were
lower after consumption of rye breads and pasta than after
consumption of white wheat bread. These results confirm
that postprandial insulin responses to grain products are
determined by the form of food and by botanical structure
not by the amount of fibre or the type of cereal in the food.
Other feeding studies have looked at different biomarkers
relevant to cardiovascular disease. Truswell (2002)
concluded that there is enough evidence to indicate that
wholegrain products may reduce the risk of CHD. Katz et al.
(2001) measured the effect of oat and wheat cereals on
endothelial responses in human subjects. They report that
daily supplementation with either wholegrain oat or wheat
cereal for 1 month may prevent postprandial impairment of
vascular reactivity in response to a high-fat meal. In a
randomized controlled clinical trial consumption of whole-
grain and legume powder reduced insulin demand, lipid
peroxidation and plasma homocysteine concentrations in
patients with coronary artery disease (Jang et al. 2001).
Finally, consumption of wholegrain oat cereal was asso-
ciated with improved blood pressure control and reduced
the need for anti-hypertensive medications (Pins et al.
2002). Thus, clinical studies to date suggest that whole-
grain consumption can improve biomarkers relevant to
diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Antioxidant theory for whole-grain protectiveness
The primary protective function of antioxidants in the body
is their reaction with free radicals. Free radical attack
on DNA, lipids and protein is thought to be an initiating
factor for several chronic diseases (Miller, 2001). Cellular
membrane damage from free radical attack and peroxidation
is thought to be a primary causative factor. Cellular damage
causes a shift in net charge of the cell, changing osmotic
pressure, leading to swelling and eventual cell death. Free
radicals also contribute to general inflammatory response
and tissue damage. Antioxidants also protect DNA from
oxidative damage and mutation that can lead to cancer. Free
radical compounds result from normal metabolic activity as
well as from the diet and environment. The body has
defence mechanisms to prevent free radical damage and to
repair damage, but when the defence is not sufficient,
disease may develop. It follows that if dietary antioxidants
reduce free radical activity in the body, then disease
potential is reduced.
Wholegrain products are relatively high in antioxidant
activity (Fig. 3). Antioxidants found in wholegrain foods are
water-soluble and fat-soluble, and approximately half are
insoluble. Soluble antioxidants include phenolic acids, flavo-
noids, tocopherols and avenanthramides in oats. A majority
of the insoluble antioxidants are bound as cinnamic acid
esters to arabinoxylan side chains of hemicellulose. Wheat
bran insoluble fibre contains approximately 0·5–1·0 %
phenolic groups. Covalently-bound phenolic acids are good
free radical scavengers. About two-thirds of whole-grain
antioxidant activity is not soluble in water, aqueous methanol
or hexane. Antioxidant activity is an inherent property of
insoluble grain fibre. In the colon hydrolysis by microbial
enzymes frees bound phenolic acids (Kroon et al. 1997).
Colon endothelial cells may absorb the released phenolic
acids and gain antioxidant protection, and also these phenolic
acids may enter the portal circulation. In this manner, whole-
grain foods provide antioxidant protection over a long time
period through the entire digestive tract.
In addition to natural antioxidants, antioxidant activity is
created in grain-based foods by browning reactions during
baking and toasting processes that increase total activity in
the final product as compared with raw ingredients. For
example, the crust of white bread has double the antioxidant
activity of the starting flour or crust-free bread. Reductone
intermediates from Maillard reactions may explain the
increase in antioxidant activity. The total antioxidant
activity of wholegrain products is similar to that of fruits or
vegetables on a per serving basis (Miller, 2001).
Phytic acid, concentrated in grains, is a known anti-
oxidant. Phytic acid forms chelates with various metals,
which suppress damaging Fe-catalysed redox reactions.
Colonic bacteria produce oxygen radicals in appreciable
amounts and dietary phytic acid could suppress oxidant
damage to the intestinal epithelium and neighbouring cells.
Vitamin E is another antioxidant present in whole grains
that is removed in the refining process. Vitamin E is an
intracellular antioxidant that protects polyunsaturated fatty
acids in cell membranes from oxidative damage. Another
possible mechanism for vitamin E relates to its capacity to
maintain Se in the reduced state. Vitamin E inhibits the
formation of nitrosamines, especially at low pH.
Se is another component that is removed in the refining
process. Its content in food grains is proportional to the Se
content of the soil in which the grain is grown. Se functions
as a cofactor for glutathione peroxidase, an enzyme that
protects against oxidative tissue damage. It has a suppressive
action on cell proliferation at high levels.
Other bioactive compounds in whole grains
Lignans are hormonally-active compounds in grains that may
protect against hormonally-mediated diseases (Adlercreutz
& Mazur, 1997). Lignans are compounds possessing a 2,3-
dibenzylbutane structure that are present as minor constit-
uents of many plants, where they form the building blocks for
05 10 15 2025 30
Antioxidant activity (mmol Trulox equivalant/kg)
Fig. 3. Average antioxidant activity of vegetables, fruits and cereals
determined using a diphenyl picrylhydrazyl radical-scavenging
Health effects of whole grains133
the formation of lignin in the plant cell wall. The plant lignans
secoisolariciresinol and matairesinol are converted by human
gut bacteria to the mammalian lignans enterolactone and
enterodiol. Limited information exists on the concentration
of lignans and their precursors in food. Due to the association
of lignan excretion with fibre intake, it is assumed that plant
lignans are contained in the outer layers of the grain.
Concentrated sources of lignans include wholegrain wheat,
wholegrain oats and rye meal. Seeds that are also concen-
trated sources of lignans include flaxseed seeds (the most
concentrated source), pumpkin seeds, caraway seeds and
sunflower seeds. These compositional data suggest that
wholegrain breads and cereals are the best means of
delivering lignans in the diet.
Grains and other high-fibre foods increase urinary lignan
excretion, which is an indirect measure of lignan content in
foods (Borriello et al. 1985). Mammalian lignan production
of plant foods was studied by Thompson et al. (1996), who
used an in vitro fermentation method with human faecal
microbiota. Oilseeds, particularly flaxseed flour and meal,
produced the highest concentration of lignans, followed by
dried seaweeds, whole legumes, cereal brans, wholegrain
cereals, vegetables and fruits. Lignan production from
flaxseed was approximately 100 times greater than that
produced from most other foods.
Differences in the metabolism of phyto-oestrogens
among individuals have been noted. Adlercreutz et al.
(1986) found total urinary lignan excretion in Finnish
women to be positively correlated with total fibre intake,
total fibre intake per kg body weight and grain fibre intake
per kg body weight. Similarly, the geometric mean
excretion of enterolactone was positively correlated with the
geometric mean intake of dietary grain products (kJ/d) for
five groups of women (r 0·996).
The association between lignan excretion and fibre intake
suggests that plant lignans are probably concentrated in the
outer layers of the grain. As current processing techniques
eliminate this fraction of the grain, lignans may not be found
in processed grain products on the market and would only be
found in wholegrain foods.
Serum enterolactone was measured in a cross-sectional
study in Finnish adults (Kilkkinen et al. 2001). In men
serum enterolactone concentrations were positively asso-
ciated with consumption of wholegrain products. Variability
in serum enterolactone concentration was great, suggesting
the role of gut microflora in the metabolism of lignans may
Plant sterols and stanols are found in oilseeds, grains, nuts and
legumes. These compounds are known to reduce serum
cholesterol (Yankah & Jones, 2001). Structurally, they are
very similar to cholesterol, differing in side-chain methyl and
ethyl groups. It is believed that phytosterols inhibit dietary
and biliary cholesterol absorption from the small intestine.
Phytosterols have better solubility than cholesterol in bile-
salt micelles in the small intestine. Phytosterols displace
cholesterol from micelles, which reduces cholesterol
absorption and increases its excretion (Hallikainen et al.
2000). In order to inhibit absorption of dietary cholesterol the
sterol must be consumed at the same time as cholesterol. The
amount of plant sterols and stanols necessary to achieve a
significant cholesterol-lowering effect has been the subject of
debate. Although a significant effect has been reported for
<1g/d, intakes of 1–2g/d are usually suggested. A dose–
response effect is reported for phytosterols that plateaus at
about 2·5g/d (Nair et al. 1984). The average Western diet
contains an estimated 200–300mg plant sterols/d. Vege-
tarians may consume up to 500mg/d. Increased whole-grain
consumption would increase total phytosterol intake and
potentially contribute to cholesterol reduction.
Unsaturated fatty acids
Wholegrain wheat contains about 30g lipids/kg and whole-
grain oats contain about 75g lipids/kg. Grain lipids comprise
about 75g unsaturated fatty acids/100g, of which there are
approximately equal amounts of oleic and linoleic acid and
1–2g linolenic acid/100g. Palmitate is the main saturated
fatty acid. There are approximately 20g unsaturated lipid/kg
whole wheat and about 55g/kg whole-oat foods. Both oleic
and linoleic acid are known to reduce serum cholesterol and
are important components of a heart healthy diet (McPherson
& Spiller, 1995). There has been considerable emphasis on
low-fat diets for reduced heart disease. However, the type of
fat consumed is important as well as the amount of fat. If the
fat is saturated, LDL-cholesterol and total cholesterol levels
increase, but these levels decrease when the fat is unsaturated.
In studies with individual fatty acids stearic acid, oleic acid
and linoleic acid were associated with lowering total choles-
terol and LDL-cholesterol. Other studies have confirmed the
cholesterol-lowering effect of grain lipids and high-lipid bran
products (Gerhardt & Gallo, 1998).
Anti-nutrients found in grains include digestive enzyme
(protease and amylase) inhibitors, phytic acid, haemagglutinins
and phenolics and tannins. Protease inhibitors, phytic acid,
phenolics and saponins have been shown to reduce the risk of
cancer of the colon and breast in animals. Phytic acid, lectins,
phenolics, amylase inhibitors and saponins have also been
shown to lower the plasma glucose, insulin and/or plasma
cholesterol and triacylglycerols (Slavin et al. 1999). In grains
protease inhibitors make up 5–10 % of the water-soluble protein
and are concentrated in the endosperm and embryo.
Whole grains are rich in many components, including dietary
fibre, starch, fat, antioxidant nutrients, minerals, vitamins,
lignans and phenolic compounds that have been linked to
reduced risk of CHD, cancer, diabetes, obesity and other
chronic diseases. Most of the components are found in the
germ and bran, which are reduced in the grain-refining
process. The most potent protective components of whole
grains need identification so that efforts can be directed to
minimising the losses of physiologically-important constit-
uents of grains during processing. There is also a need to
educate the public to increase their intake of whole grains to
the recommended levels.
134 J. Slavin
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