Whole Wheat: The Whole Truth
Are you getting what you pay for?
Everyone's heard that whole wheat's good for us, so we often
lunge for products bearing labels like " multi- grain,"
or "cracked wheat." We pay premium prices for what
we believe are better-bred loaves.
It's easy to be misled, since flour comes from wheat. Unfortunately,
you might as well munch on those meaningless labels: most American
breads are made of plain white flour that's been processed and
refined, stripping away valuable nutrients in the kernels' outer
layer. Shopper-tempting vocabulary cannot replace the richness
of the original grain.
Whole Grains - Health Gains
Is it worth a little extra effort to hunt for whole (or unrefined)
grains? Two separate studies of women in the ongoing Nurses Health
Study at Harvard Medical School found some dramatic benefits.
One study followed more than 75,000 women, ages 38 to 63,
for at least ten years, and discovered big benefits to the heart.
"We find a 30% to 40% lower risk of coronary heart disease
associated with at least two or three servings of whole grain
each day," says Simin Liu, M.D., a professor of epidemiology
at Harvard. Another study among the same group of women found
that those consuming the largest amount of whole grains (2.7
servings per day) had a 43% lower risk of stroke. A study at
the Harvard School of Public Health also found that eating whole
grains brings a 30% reduction in risk for Type 2 Diabetes, reports
A 10-year study of 40,000 women, ages 55 to 69, by the University
of Minnesota School of Public Health found a death rate 15% to
20% lower among those who consumed at least one serving of whole
grains each day. Surveyed by mail, participants answered questions
about how often they ate brown rice, breakfast cereal, and dark
bread. "Dark bread is more likely to be whole grain than
not. Despite the uncertainty, we still saw a mortality decrease,
as well as reduced rates of heart disease and diabetes,"
reports David Jacobs, Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology who
conducted the research.
A Kernel of Knowledge
Whole grains have three layers: the germ (the inner layer),
the endosperm (the middle layer) and bran (the outer layer).
The germ and bran contain B vitamins and proteins; the bran contains
copper, zinc and magnesium. The outer layer consists of one of
two kinds of fiber: soluble (found in oats and barley) and insoluble
(found in wheat, corn, and rice).
While recent studies say fiber may not protect against colon
cancer, there are still many health benefits. Soluble fiber has
been shown to lower cholesterol and control blood sugar. Insoluble
fiber helps move waste through the intestines, keeping us regular
(bran and the fluid it absorbs add bulk to help this process).
Trouble is, a great deal of fiber and nutrients are lost in the
refining process. That's why refined grain products are "enriched"
to replace the vitamins and minerals.
How do you know if a bread is really whole grain?" Check
the label: ingredients are listed by order of volume, so the
first one should be whole wheat (or another whole grain). Beware
of words like bromated, bleached, unbleached, and wheat-- only
"whole wheat" or "100% whole wheat" as the
first ingredient are meaningful. Barley and oats are usually
whole because they're very hard to separate in the refining process.
Pearled barley, however, is generally refined, and rye is rarely
whole in the U.S., notes Dr. Jacobs, so you'll need to check
carefully. Most bread made with whole wheat or oats contains
2 to 3 grams of fiber per slice. Breads that contain kernels
of grain will give you extra fiber, not to mention extra flavor
Any Way You Slice It
It's not difficult to add more whole grains to your diet.
"Making a sandwich with two slices of whole wheat bread
instead of white bread gets you the benefit of two servings of
whole grain, which will help protect your heart and brain,"
explains Dr. Liu.
You needn't banish your favorite cookies, croissant or crusty
rye bread. Replacing a serving of refined grains with whole grains
at one meal a day can have significant benefits, for example,
in reducing the risk of stroke, says Dr. Liu. Based on data he's
seen, "it looks like the more fiber, the better-- four or
five servings might do more-- but we don't have enough information
yet," Dr. Liu adds. Experts currently advise that you include
three servings of whole grain foods in the 6 to 11 recommended
daily servings of grain products. Look for foods that provide
at least 2 grams of fiber per serving; you need 25 to 30 grams
of fiber a day.
And don't stop with whole grain bread. Try brown rice, whole
grain cereals, cookies or crackers, and even whole wheat pasta
(4-6 grams of fiber per cup!). By the way, popcorn is a whole
grain and a very healthy snack ... as long as you don't pour
on the butter!
Many of these articles
appear on the publication's website, which are often password-protected
or members-only. For your convenience, I've gathered them on my own