Difference Between Cereals & Grains

By Jess Kroll

There are so many different types of cereals that they often they occupy an entire half-aisle at the grocery store. These cereals, which are often heavy on carbohydrates alone, make various nutrition claims. While most of these cereals are grain-based, very few have all the vitamins and minerals found in the natural state of the a whole grain.

Whole grains consist of three parts: bran, germ and endosperm.

Cereal and Breakfast Cereal

The terms "grain" and "cereal" actually refer to the same item, grasses cultivated from the edible portions of their fruit seeds, which also leads to the term "cereal grains." In their natural state, all cereal grains are whole grains. In more common usage, the term "cereal" refers primarily to commercial breakfast cereals, which consist of refined grain instead of whole grain. In this sense, the terms "grain" and "cereal" refer to very different things.

Whole Grain and Refined Grain

Whole grains consist of the bran, the outer layer of the seed, the endosperm, the tissue inside the seed, and the cereal germ, the embryo or reproductive part of the seed, which grows into a plant. Previous to milling or any refining, the grain contains all three of these parts. Once refined, the process by which most commercial breakfast cereals are made, the three are generally separated, with most breakfast cereals using the endosperm and others using the bran. This separation strips away much of the nutrition found in the whole grain by eliminating the pieces where the various minerals are located.

Nutritional Differences

Specific nutritional content of various breakfast cereals depends on which part of the grain is used for that particular cereal; however, most cereals are created from refined white flour, which consists primarily of grain endosperm. The endosperm itself contains the highest concentration of the grain's carbohydrates; most of the fiber, iron and other vitamins are found in the bran, and the majority of the protein, fat and certain minerals are in the bran. Generally, white flour contains greater levels of iron, thiamin and riboflavin, all of which are added in the refining process, than the whole grain, while all other vitamins and minerals are left at a fraction of the original grain.

Whole Grain Cereals

Fortunately, there are many breakfast cereals that include whole grains. Numerous cereals from major manufacturers General Mills (Cheerios, Golden Grahams, Cinnamon Toast Crunch), Post (Grape Nuts, Shredded Wheat) and Kelloggs (Mini-Wheats, Healthy Choice, Nutri-Grain) contain whole grains. Other cereals, most of which use the term "bran" in the name, have a high fiber and iron content through the abundance of bran. However, other cereals, most of which are marketed for children, use refined white flour and are mostly carbohydrates and sugar with very little else.