Food Faceoff: Whole Grain vs. Whole Wheat Breads
I don’t know about you, but when I walk down the bread aisle, I’m overwhelmed. Well, in truth, I only walk down the bread aisle to grab my favorite nut butters and honey. I’m not implying that bread is “bad.” It’s just that we rarely eat it. In fact, I can’t tell you the last time we bought a loaf of bread.
Having said that, I’ve seen the abundance of bread options, and I even stop from time to time to take a look at the marketing claims and ingredients…there’s “whole wheat,” “whole grain,” “100% whole wheat,” “100% whole grain,” “made with whole wheat,” “made with whole grains,” “multigrain,” and more.
And if you’re courageous enough to look at the ingredients, chances are you might find “whole wheat flour” somewhere on the list—typically sandwiched (pun intended, of course) by 10 – 20 other ingredients (including added sugar and refined oils)—as well as “wheat flour” or “enriched wheat flour,” which are better known as “white flour.”
It’s no wonder so many bread lovers are confused!
With all that in mind, let’s try to cut through the confusion a bit by defining some terms and put the whole grain vs. whole wheat argument to bed.
What’s a Whole Grain?
According to the American Association of Cereal Chemists (AACCI), whole grains “consist of the intact, ground, cracked, or flaked caryopsis, whose principal anatomical components—the starchy endosperm, germ, and bran—are present in the same relative proportions as they exist in the intact caryopsis.”1
The important thing to note here is that true whole grains consist of all three naturally-occurring layers of the intact grain in the same relative proportions found in nature:
- The bran, which contains fiber, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and B vitamins
- The endosperm, which contains starch, protein, and small amounts of vitamins and minerals
- The germ, which contains B vitamins, protein, minerals, and healthy fats
Why Are Whole Grains Important?
There’s a fairly substantial body of research—albeit mostly observational studies—suggesting a diet rich in whole grains reduces the risk of several chronic diseases—including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers—and has a beneficial impact on weight management and mortality.2,3
Whole grains contain dietary fiber (including β-glucan), minerals, vitamins (e.g., B vitamins), and phytochemicals (e.g., antioxidants) that may have a variety of favorable health effects, including:4
- Lowering blood pressure
- Lowering blood lipids (e.g., cholesterol)
- Improving insulin sensitivity
- Improving markers of inflammation
- Improving endothelial function
What’s Whole Wheat?
Wheat is one of several types of grains (a comprehensive list is provided below), and therefore, “whole wheat” is a whole grain. In other words, all whole wheat is whole grain, but not all whole grains are whole wheat.
Having said that, since we’re talking about bread, it’s likely you can find one or more of the following on the ingredients list:
- Whole wheat flour
- Wheat flour
- Enriched flour
Only the first example above means the product contains all three parts of the grain (i.e., true whole grain). However, the other two are examples of refined grains (i.e., white flour), which have the bran and germ removed during the milling process, leaving only the carbohydrate-rich endosperm.
In other words, refined grains—with the most glaring example being white flour (and the “foods” made with it)—are substantially lower in nutrient density. For example, refined wheat flour contains only 25% of the fiber, 8% of the vitamin E, 11% of the B6, and 16% of the magnesium found in whole wheat.
Along those lines, a diet rich in refined grains (like the Standard American Diet) does NOT lead to the same health benefits associated with a diet rich in whole grains. In fact, research suggests that consumption of refined grains is linked to an increased risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, metabolic syndrome, certain types of cancer, and more.5
How Many Whole Grains Should You Eat?
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the USDA recommends we consume at least three ounces, or 48 grams, per day of whole grains. Along those lines, one full serving of whole grains is equivalent to one ounce, or 16 grams.6 In terms of bread, one slice of 100% whole grain (e.g., whole wheat) bread is considered one serving of whole grains.
Even so, it can still be incredibly difficult to navigate the bread aisle and answer the whole grain vs. whole wheat debate. Fortunately, the Whole Grains Council has developed a “search tool” to aid consumers: The Whole Grain Stamp, which is a yellow and black logo that is shaped like a postage stamp that can be found on various whole grain foods, including bread.
There are three versions of the Whole Grain Stamp:
- 100% Stamp: All the grain ingredients are whole grain, and there is a minimum of 16 grams (a full serving) of whole grains per serving.
- 50% Stamp: At least half of the grain ingredients are whole grain (i.e., the product contains a combination of whole and refined grains). Each serving of the product provides at least 8 grams (a half serving) of whole grains per serving.
- Basic Stamp: The product contains at least 8 grams (a half serving) of whole grains but may also contain refined grains.
Obviously, of the three versions listed, the first would be the “best.”
Additional Helpful Tips
Because using the Whole Grain Stamp is optional, many products don’t carry it. With that in mind, the Whole Grain Council provides some additional useful guidance. For instance, the following words signify a whole grain:
- Whole grain [name of grain]
- Whole wheat
- Whole [name of grain]
- Stoneground whole [name of grain]
- Brown rice
On the other hand, any of the following are likely indicators of refined grains:
- Wheat or wheat flour
- Durum wheat
- Organic flour
- Stoneground [name of grain]
- Multigrain (may contain several whole grains or refined grains, or a combination of the two)
- Enriched flour
- Wheat germ
So, What’s Best: Whole Grain vs. Whole Wheat Breads
Admittedly, the goal here is to help you navigate the bread aisle, and it’s beyond the scope of this article to discuss topics like gluten and FODMAPs, which are found in grains like wheat. The assumption is that if you are including foods like bread in your diet, then you are doing so mindfully—paying attention to how your body responds and consuming it in amounts that are appropriate for your activity levels, carbohydrate needs, and goals.
What’s Really the BEST Choice?
When it comes to whole grains, arguably the best bet is to choose whole-kernel, intact grains (rather than processed flours or the breads, bagels, noodles, baked goods, cereals, etc., made with them), such as:
- Whole or steel-cut oats
- Brown, red, and wild rice
- Whole wheat (e.g., bulgur, freekeh, farro, wheat berries)
- Spelt (whole)
- Corn (i.e., non-GMO sweet corn)
- Rye (whole rye or rye berries)