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 Dr. Liu.

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 and texture.

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!

Carol Milano

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 website.