Food Faceoff: Whole Grain vs. Whole Wheat Breads

Written by Tim Skwiat

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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

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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

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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
  • Oats
  • Wheatberries

On the other hand, any of the following are likely indicators of refined grains:

  • Wheat or wheat flour
  • Semolina
  • 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
  • Degerminated
  • Bran
  • 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.

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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
  • Quinoa
  • Amaranth
  • Buckwheat
  • Whole wheat (e.g., bulgur, freekeh, farro, wheat berries)
  • Spelt (whole)
  • Kamut
  • Corn (i.e., non-GMO sweet corn)
  • Millet
  • Barley
  • Rye (whole rye or rye berries)
  • Teff
  • Sorghum
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  • American Association of Cereal Chemists International (AACC). Whole Grain. Accessed August 28, 2017.
  • Chanson-Rolle A, Meynier A, Aubin F, et al. Systematic review and meta-analysis of human studies to support a quantitative recommendation for whole grain intake in relation to type 2 diabetes. PLoS ONE. 2015;10(6). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0131377.
  • Aune D, Keum N, Giovannucci E, et al. Whole grain consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and all cause and cause specific mortality: Systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. The BMJ. 2016;353. doi:10.1136/bmj.i2716.
  • Helnæs A, Kyrø C, Andersen I, et al. Intake of whole grains is associated with lower risk of myocardial infarction: the Danish Diet, Cancer and Health Cohort. Am J Clin Nutr. 2016;103(4):999-1007. doi:10.3945/ajcn.115.124271.
  • Hu FB. Are refined carbohydrates worse than saturated fat? Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;91(6):1541-1542. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2010.29622.
  • USDA Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. USDA; 2015.
  • Artguy

    Not a word about sprouted grain bread.

    • Hi Artguy,

      Thanks so much for stopping by and for taking the time to both read and respond to the article. I’m really glad you pointed this out, and with all due respect, I disagree. Sprouted grains (e.g., Food for Life®) fit under the umbrella of “whole grains.” Sprouting is a cultivation technique.

      In other words, sprouted grains are whole grains, and products (such as bread) made with sprouted grains are made with whole grains. Along these lines, you’ll find the Whole Grain Stamp, which was recommended as a guiding tool, on products such as sprouted grain bread from Food for Life®.

      Having said that, I understand that sprouted grains weren’t explicitly mentioned despite the implication. For instance, if we look at the whole sprouted grains featured in one common loaf of sprouted grain bread, we’ll see wheat, barley, millet, and spelt, all of which are mentioned in the article.

      All that being said, I believe you may be implying a more elaborate discussion comparing sprouted grain to conventional whole grain products. That’s an excellent idea, and it’s something that we can certainly consider as a future topic. In fact, we’ll be discussing sprouted foods, including sprouted grains, in the near future.

      Thanks for your time and feedback, Artguy.

  • Hi abimanu,

    Thanks for taking the time to read the article; I’m glad that you found it to be interesting.

    One point that I should clarify is that whole grain isn’t necessarily “better” than whole wheat. You may recall from the article that whole wheat is a whole grain. Having said that, we may be able to speculate that consuming a variety of whole grains may be better than relying on a single one, if possible.

    Also, when possible, it is probably also a better idea to consume intact whole grains as opposed to products made with ingredients derived from whole grains. For instance, 100% whole wheat bread (made only with whole wheat flour) is better than wheat bread (made with wheat flour), but bulgur (or wheat berries) is a better option than 100% whole wheat bread.

    Does that make sense? I hope that’s helpful!

    • abimanu mathoorasing

      Hey, Of course, it made sense; I shall stick to whole grains because of its three ingredients
      Thanks to your invaluable information as regards nutrients, I consider I have discovered
      America,especially health is wealth.
      Thanks again and I welcome future emails with pleasure.

      • Hi abimanu,

        I really appreciate your follow-up response, and most importantly, I wanted to give you a huge pat on the back for your dedication to leading a healthy lifestyle. We encourage you to come back to our blog often. We publish a new article almost every day. We’d love to get your ideas and suggestions for future article topics. Thank you!

  • Thanks, Al!

  • Hi Robin,

    While I’m very sorry to hear that you felt like reading this article was a waste of time, I am grateful that you’ve taken the time to share your feedback. I’ll try to do a better job of summing up some of the main points here:

    *Whole grains contain all three parts of the fruit/seed: 1. bran, 2. germ, and 3. endosperm.
    *Whole wheat is a whole grain, and 100% whole wheat flour is an example of a whole grain.
    *Refined grains/flour (e.g., wheat flour) are made only from the endosperm, which is the starchy component. The bran (which contains fiber, antioxidants, and B vitamins) and the germ (which contains vitamins, minerals, protein, and fat) are removed.
    *Diets high in whole grains are associated with a reduced risk of several chronic diseases—including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers. Diets high in whole grains have a beneficial impact on weight management and mortality.
    *Diets high in refined grains (e.g., wheat flour and “foods” made with it) are NOT. In fact, 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.
    *As far as choosing bread, the best option is bread made with 100% whole grains. An example would be bread made with 100% whole wheat flour. Since this can be somewhat of a challenge, look for the Whole Grain Stamp, which can be a useful tool for identifying bread (and other foods) made with whole grains.
    *Even better than foods made with whole grains (e.g., whole wheat flour) is to choose whole-kernel intact grains, like those listed above.

    I hope that this provides better guidance, Robin. Thank you again for your time and for the opportunity to help you.

  • Hi Jackie,

    You are very welcome. I’m pleased to know that you found this to be helpful, and I, too, hope that you find it to be a useful tool as you navigate the bread zone. Keep me posted, let me know what you choose, and if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to let us know

    Thank you!

  • Hi Artguy,

    You are more than welcome. I really appreciate you taking time to engage in discussion, and I completely agree with you that this (i.e., sprouted grains/foods) is a topic that is deserving of more coverage. There’s some pretty compelling research that sprouting grains improves nutrient composition, and more importantly, consumption of sprouted grains enhances health. Stay tuned, my friend; thank you!

  • Hi Heather,

    You are very welcome, and thank YOU for taking the time to read the article and share your feedback, which is very well received. You make a very good point, especially considering that, for example, the usage of glyphosate on wheat in the U.S. has risen sharply in the last decade. Further to your point, there is evidence of pesticide residues in whole wheat flour. With that in mind, I concur that organic 100% whole grain bread is likely the optimal choice, and I would also tend to side with you and Artguy in suggesting sprouted grain bread when possible as well. Excellent contribution, Heather; thank you so much!

  • Hi Mary,

    This is a wonderful post; thank you so much for sharing!

    I couldn’t agree more about your opening statement, and my experience working with hundreds of people echoes that general sentiment. That is, knowledge is rarely the limiting factor, particularly when it comes to weight loss. I’m not saying that education on nutrition isn’t important; it most certainly is.

    But to your point, most people find that the limiting factor is the practical application of the information. Or, as you put it, life often seems to get in the way, and that can make old habits more attractive and new ones much more difficult to adopt. This speaks to the significance of habit- and lifestyle-based behavior modification approaches to weight loss that emphasize sustainable, progressive change.

    The example you provided is a good one. Instead of starting a new diet, you’re simply focusing on replacing foods made with refined flour from whole grains and/or foods made with whole grain flour.

    Your point is a very cogent one, Mary, and I’m glad that you took the time to share it. Thank you!