93 percent of North Americans eat too many refined grains, while only 7 percent eat enough whole grains in their diets. Refined grains do contain a substantial amount of starchy, or complex, carbohydrates, and they can provide the body with energy needed for exercise and for daily activities of living. However, if you are trying to eat a healthier diet, it is best to limit your intake of these refined foods.
What is a Refined Carbohydrate?
Refined carbohydrates are plant-based foods that have the whole grain extracted during processing. The process of refining a food not only removes the fiber, but it also removes much of the food’s nutritional value, including B-complex vitamins, healthy oils and fat-soluble vitamins. In many cases, food companies will then infuse, or enrich, the product with some of the nutrients that were extracted once the refining process is complete, but this does not always occur. Because refined grains often lack a desirable nutritional profile, the USDA recommends that only half of your daily 6 ounces of grains come from refined products.
Many of the breads found on grocery store shelves are considered refined carbohydrates. These breads are often made from enriched and bleached flours, and these flours are typically listed as the first or second ingredient on the nutrition label. In addition, the list of ingredients will often include vitamins and minerals that are added during the post-refining, enrichment process. Sourdough, white and plain wheat bread are excellent examples of refined breads, whereas 100 percent whole-wheat or whole-grain breads are not refined.
Like bread, some forms of rice are considered to be refined grains. White rice and most of the quick-cook rices are refined and, as a result, do not contain an intact grain. They may be enriched to enhance their nutritional profile, but they typically lack the fiber found in the non-refined brown rice. One cup of white rice counts as 2 ounces of refined grains.
Many of the sugary, cold cereals found in grocery stores are considered to be refined grains. They are typically made from enriched flour due to the refining of their original wheat, corn or oat grain. Refined cereals typically have 2 or fewer grams of fiber per serving, and one cup of a refined cereal, such as corn flakes, counts as 1 ounce of refined grains.
Unlike whole wheat or whole grain pasta, refined pasta lacks much of the fiber and the B-complex vitamins found in the unprocessed version. Like other processed starches, refined pasta may be enriched with nutrients such as folate, thiamin and riboflavin, and some versions of refined pasta may even have omega 3 fatty acids added during processing. Thus, if you prefer the less grainy taste of refined pasta, make sure that it has been fully enriched with the aforementioned nutrients.
Refined Snack Foods
Snack foods are typically made with refined carbs such as bleached flours and sugar in order to increase palatability. These snack foods have little nutritional value and, as a result, provide empty calories in the diet. Cakes, cookies, pie, candy and chips are all examples of refined snack foods, and according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, these foods should not constitute more than 120 to 330 calories per day.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, MyPlate: What Foods Are in the Grains Group?
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, Grains Food Gallery: White Rice
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, Grains Food Gallery: Cornflakes
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: The US Grain Consumption Landscape: Who Eats Grain, in What Form, Where, and How Much?
- U.S. Department of Agriculture My Plate: How Many Can I Have?
About the Author
Dr. Courtney Winston is a registered/licensed dietitian, certified diabetes educator and public health educator. She holds a Master of Public Health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and her doctoral degree from the University of Texas Health Science Center. Dr. Winston was recognized in 2012 with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Emerging Leader in Dietetics Award for the state of California.