The phrase “refined carbs” pops up in a lot of conversations about food and nutrition, generally in a negative way. You may have been advised to stay far away from them—by your doctor, a friend, the internet—but you’re still a little fuzzy on what they are, actually.
What technically makes something a refined carb? And do they really deserve their bad rap? We asked nutrition experts these questions and more.
What “refined carbs” actually means
The loose label is an umbrella term generally used to describe carbohydrates that have had the bulk of their nutritional value removed during the manufacturing process, Lisa Young, R.D.N., C.D.N., Ph.D., adjunct professor in the department of nutrition and food studies at New York University and author of Finally Full, Finally Slim, tells SELF. It’s often used interchangeably with its equally nebulous cousin, “processed carbs.”
To be more specific, “refined carbs” and “processed carbs” are generally used in reference to grains and grain products in particular, Young adds. Some people would also consider any products containing large amounts of added sugars to be “refined carbs.” But if you look at the technical meaning of the word “refined” and the foods that most nutrition pros agree belong in that category, refined grains and grain products are the clearest fit. So that’s what we’re going to focus on here.
“Refined grains” does have a precise definition: It describes any grain (like white rice) or grain product (like bread) that is not made of whole grains, according to the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
In their whole, natural form, grain seeds, or kernels, consist of three parts: the bran (the tough outer layer), the germ (the tiny, nutrient-dense core), and the endosperm (the largest, starchy part) the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) explains. In whole grains, like brown rice, the entire kernel has been left intact; in products made from whole grain flours, like whole wheat flour, the flour is ground from these intact grains, so it contains the contents of the bran, the germ, and the endosperm.
Refined grains, on the other hand, have had the bran and germ removed during processing, according to the FDA, leaving only the starchy endosperm. This process yields a finer texture and lighter color—resulting in delightfully fluffy carbs that also have a prolonged shelf life.
The most common example of a refined grain as a single food item is white rice—brown rice that’s had the bran and germ removed. Most of the refined grains we consume, though, are in the form of flours milled from refined grains. The most ubiquitous example is wheat flour, which is ground from wheat that has had the bran and germ removed, and used as a main ingredient in a number of baked goods and packaged foods like bread, muffins, crackers, pretzels, and cookies. (This is the same thing as good ol’ white flour, or all-purpose flour, which is just wheat flour that has been bleached.)
How refining a grain alters its nutritional value
When you consume a whole grain or whole grain flour, you’re getting all of the fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, and nutritious fats that they have to offer, per the FDA. In refined grains, the bran and germ have been removed—along with all of their nutritional value. That’s the main beef that nutrition experts have with refined grains. “You are missing out on the many nutrients provided by the whole grain,” board-certified health and wellness coach Kim Larson, R.D.N., tells SELF.
The particular nutrients that are lost during the refining process depend on what whole grain you start with. In general, though, much of the grain’s fiber and key vitamins and minerals, like iron and the B vitamins niacin, riboflavin, and thiamin, per the FDA, and sometimes some protein, are removed during processing. Refined flours are then usually “enriched,” meaning some of those key nutrients lost during processing have been added back in, the FDA explains. But fiber isn’t typically added back in, meaning most refined grains are low or devoid of it.
Take a grain that’s common in both whole and refined iterations: wheat. According to the USDA nutrient database, 100 grams of whole wheat flour contains about 71.4 grams of carbs and 10.7 grams of fiber. Refined and enriched wheat flour, on the other hand, contains a similar amount of carbs (76.3 grams), but considerably less fiber (2.7 grams) per 100 grams, according to the USDA. It also contains less protein—only 10.3 grams per 100 grams versus whole wheat flour’s 14.3.
For an example of how that translates into packaged foods, consider a slice of 100 percent whole wheat bread vs a slice of white bread (of the same size and from the same manufacturer). The whole wheat slice has 12 carbs, 2 grams of fiber, and 3 grams of protein, while a slice of the white bread has 13 carbs, 0 grams of fiber, and 2 grams of protein. Of course, differences of one or two grams of fiber and protein seems small, and they are in the grand scheme of your overall food intake. But if you’re consistently choosing refined grains over whole ones, you’ll miss out on some pretty good chances to consume these good-for-you nutrients.
Fiber is probably the most concerning nutrient loss, Larson says, given that most Americans aren’t getting enough of it, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Fiber has a slew of health benefits—helping to regulate digestion, bowel movements, blood sugar levels, LDL cholesterol, and more—that you don’t really get from refined grains.
How to distinguish between whole and refined grains on nutrition labels
When you’re just talking grains by themselves, it’s pretty simple. If you’re buying a whole grain to cook with, for instance—like oats, bulgur, or rice—then the only ingredient on the package should be that whole grain. (Or, it should at least be first in the case of something like microwave popcorn that also contains oil and salt.) Where it gets tricky is on the ingredients lists of the countless packaged foods made with grains at the grocery store.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), most whole grain products will contain the word “whole” or “whole grain” first in the ingredient list—like whole wheat flour or whole rye flour. If it just says “wheat flour” or “rye flour,” that means it’s probably been refined, Young explains. Sometimes, foods like whole wheat bread or whole wheat pasta will indicate “100 percent whole grain” on the label.
Of course, lots of products will contain both whole grains and refined grains, Larson says. In these cases, the placement of the whole grain or whole grain flour on the ingredients list indicates the relative amount in the product. If you’re looking for a mostly whole grain product, the whole grain or whole grain flour should be either first on the ingredients list or high up, according to the Dietary Guidelines (and certainly before any refined grain flours). Foods made from at least 50 percent whole grain ingredients by weight may have a “whole grains” claim on the label, per the Dietary Guidelines. It’s a good idea to also peek at the nutrition facts to see how much fiber and protein is in the product, if you want to make sure you’re getting some nutrients even though a product contains both whole and refined grains.
So, do you actually need to worry about refined carbs?
At the end of the day, most of us could probably stand to eat fewer refined grains and more whole grains, Larson adds. As a baseline, the Dietary Guidelines recommend getting at least half of your grains from whole grains. The average refined grain intake, though, is “well above” recommended limits among men and women in most age groups while the average whole grain intake is “far below” the recommended amount, according to the Dietary Guidelines.
So, if you notice that your own diet leans pretty heavy towards refined carbs and you want to incorporate more whole grains into your diet, Larson suggests swapping out refined grains for whole grain versions where you can—such as brown rice instead of white rice and 100 percent whole wheat bread instead of wheat bread or white bread.
But there’s nothing wrong with eating refined carbs. “Sometimes refined carbs are demonized in diet culture,” Larson says. But they’re not gonna kill you. Assigning a moral value to grains (like considering white pasta as “bad” and whole grain pasta as “good”) isn’t productive and could contribute to an unhealthy relationship to eating something that gives your body fuel and pleasure.
“Certainly eating a few refined grains every day, along with a healthy diet and at least half of your grain intake as whole grains, is fine,” Larson says. “Everyone needs treats and sweets in their life to enjoy and enhance eating pleasure, for celebration, and for many other reasons.” Just make sure whole grains get invited to the party, too.