Take a good, hard look at your next bagel or slice of toast. Do you know what's in it?

Canadians eat a lot of products made from grains, including breads, rice, and pasta. You've probably heard that grains are a good source of dietary fibre. They are, but not if they've been refined - a process that strips away much of that fibre and other nutrients.

According to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), recent research shows that whole grains - that is, unrefined grains - also contain vitamins, minerals, and a surprising amount of antioxidants. They can help reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, several forms of cancer, and certain gastrointestinal problems. Studies also demonstrate that whole grains may improve insulin control, lower triglycerides, help control weight gain, and slow the buildup of arterial plaque.

As their name implies, whole grains are entire grain kernels. There are 3 parts: the bran (outer layer, which is rich in fibre), endosperm (middle layer, which is the part that usually remains after processing), and germ (inner layer, which is rich in nutrients). Whole grains include wheat, oats, corn, flaxseed, millet, and many others. Canada's Food Guide recommends 3 to 8 servings of grain products per day, and at least half of those servings should be whole grains.

Refined grains have lost their bran and germ through milling. This gives them a longer shelf life and a finer texture, but it also strips them of healthy fibre, B vitamins, and iron. White bread, white flour, and white rice are examples of refined grain products. Often, refined products are enriched with vitamins and iron, meaning these are replaced after processing, but fibre isn't added.

Now that you know the good stuff that whole grains offer, you're probably ready to reach for them at your next meal. The problem is, how do you know that the breads, cereals, crackers, and other grain products that you buy are whole-grain? Look for words like "whole grain," "whole wheat," and "whole" on the food label. But be careful! Some food labels also boast other terms, such as "stone-ground wheat," "cracked wheat," and "wheat flour." But none of these terms guarantee that the product contains whole grains. In addition, many products have both refined and whole grains, so it can be difficult to figure out what you're eating - it may be mostly refined grains.

Confused? You're not alone. To make matters clearer, Health Canada released a position paper in 2006 outlining the definitions manufacturer's guidelines that will help consumers make food choices based on a term that is consistent and reliable. It defines "whole grains" as containing "100% of the wheat berry or all three principal anatomical components in the same relative proportions as in the intact grain." This last part prevents manufacturers from sneaking in some bran and germ after processing. Items that may live up to this definition include oats, wheat, barley, rice, corn, buckwheat, bulgur, millet, rye, and sorghum. Health Canada also indicates that products derived from legumes (soybeans), oilseeds (sunflower seeds), and roots (arrowroot) are not considered whole grains.

Now that you've got the goods on grains, check ingredient lists the next time you buy groceries to make sure that grains such as oats, wheat, and corn are referred to as "whole."