By Steven Hutchings
Trick question for you. Which of the following packs a bigger hit to your blood sugar? Is it a
a) Snickers bar, or
b) Slice of 100% whole wheat bread
Did you guess Snickers? So would I – until the web guy here at Natural Health Source and myself had a debate last week in which he pointed out that a candy bar has a glycemic index of 51. And my beloved whole wheat bread? A surprising 71. You’d have to scroll further down that list to see that a whole wheat kernel, unrefined, clocks in at a friendlier 30.
Wheat might be healthy, but it can be a sneaky business too. The difference between healthy wheat and questionable products basically comes down to the following:
Whole Wheat – While it sounds healthy, whole wheat products are typically processed and removed of their fiber and nutrients. Yes, this includes ‘100% whole wheat’.
Whole Grain – Slightly better, whole grain keeps all three parts of the grain, but they may be separated and processed in ways that strip wheat’s nutritional value.
100% Whole Grain – The healthiest wheat, 100% whole grain leaves the grain intact. They may use “whole” in front of other grains too.
Whole Grain Vs. Whole Wheat
Whole grain can be good for you. Whole wheat not so much. There’s a little deception going on in the food industry because ‘100% whole wheat’ is often stripped of its goodness. For reference, wheat grain consists of three parts:
Outer bran – Which is mostly fiber
Endosperm – The starch
Germ – The nutrients in wheat, with protein, healthy fats, B vitamins, vitamin E, iron and magnesium, among others.
Because the fat content within the germ can make wheat flour rancid, many companies remove the germ so the flour lasts longer. Yet in some countries, whole wheat flour needs 95% of the kernel to apply that misleading sticker. The germ is just 2.5% of the grain, so it can be removed – and the kernel stripped of its nutrients – for the flour to keep its ‘whole wheat’ designation.
Even more deceptive, bread can be called ‘100% whole wheat’ if it is made competely with whole wheat flour as described above. Or to put it bluntly, ‘100% whole wheat’ is rarely ‘whole grain’.
Why Whole Wheat isn’t Healthy
We’ve all been warned that brown bread is healthier than white. But there’s no shortage of controversy surrounding whole wheat either. Much of that comes from William Davis, MD and American Cardiologist and author of Wheat Belly who claims that all wheat is bad, including – and he’d say especially – the stuff marketed to folks as ‘100% whole wheat’, and sometimes ‘whole grain’, for reasons including:
Wheat is Genetically Altered – Davis claims today’s wheat plant is a hybrid of two plants that bears little resemblance to the wheat your grandparents enjoyed. The agriculture industry has modified wheat so the plant yields more seed, and it has dangerous proteins not found in either parent plant. The result? A product Davis lugubriously refers to as “frankengrains”.
Whole Wheat is Misleading – The term ‘whole wheat’ floats around health circles as being good for you. But according to who? A product can be labelled “100% whole wheat” with most of its nutrients stripped away.
Whole Grain Can Be Processed – More deception here. Whole grains are often processed in methods that further degrade their health benefits. Just as bad, some companies manipulate whole wheat with preservatives to add flavor or to make them last longer.
This isn’t meant to dissuade you from wheat completely. Studies link wheat to a variety of health benefits, including lower risk of diabetes and heart disease. Critics take issue with much of Davis’s methodology too, citing poor evidence for his argument that today’s wheat leads to weight gain, diabetes and other chronic diseases.
Just the same, he does raise valid points about whole wheat and much of the marketing puffery behind the products that milk it senseless. Opt for whole grain, rather than whole wheat – and don’t buy claims of ‘multigrain’ either.
Study: Whole Grains Lowered Risk of Cardiovascular Disease By 21%
Fortunately, studies validate many of the benefits we’ve been fed about whole grains. A 2007 study conducted by researchers at Wake Forest University School of Medicine found that 2.5 daily servings of whole grains lowered risk of cardiovascular disease by 21%.
Cardiovascular disease, which includes heart disease and stroke, is the leading cause of death in the developed world.
In the study, researchers analyzed data from seven studies from 1966 to 2006 of more than 285,000 people. By combining the data, the researchers were able to observe effects that may not have shown up in the individual studies. Lead researcher Philip Mellen, MD, says the findings are consistent with earlier research linking whole grains to better health, but consumption of whole grains remain low.
Buy products with ‘100% Whole Grain’ on the front label, and ‘Whole’ in front of all the other grains.
A nutritional study conducted between 1999 and 2000 found that only 8% of American adults ate the recommended three daily servings of whole grains, and 42% ate no whole grains on any given day.
Many doctors and consumers ignore the health benefits of whole grains, says Mellen, who mentions the theory of processed foods being responsible for many chronic diseases. Yet unlike Davis, Mellen asserts that whole grain intake is linked to less obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Mellen’s findings are published in the journal Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases.
Scientific American: Whole Grains Not Always Helpful
And yet, wheat is a contentious issue. Like ‘whole wheat’, critics point out that ‘whole grain’ is a misleading term because it gives the impression of intact grain, with a fiber-rich coat of bran around a starch endosperm and a small, nutrient-rich kernel called the germ.
Scientific American points that in 1999, the American Association of Cereal Chemists International (AACC) – an organization of food industry professionals and scientists – invented the phrase to mean any mixture of bran, endosperm and germ in the same proportions you’d expect to see in an intact grain.
But these grains are usually ground and separated before added to food, so you’re not getting the whole grain despite that description. The FDA simply requires a product to have at least 51% whole grain by weight to qualify for that coveted sticker. The bran and germ are removed in the refining process, which leaves an energy-dense but nutrient-poor endosperm.
Moreover, Scientific American picks apart the American Society For Nutrition’s June 2013 report that whole grains lowered risk of diabetes and heart disease. The ASN used data from between 1965 and 2010, it says, with much of it coming in the earlier part of that period – when whole grain meant exactly that: a whole grain. With the bran, germ and the endosperm together.
What’s more, the current definition of whole grain does not include fiber. Indeed, many whole grain products at the supermarket have little of it. You’d have to eat 10 bowls of multigrain Cheerios, 16 slices of whole wheat bread or nine cups of brown rice to hit the recommended fiber intake for an American adult each day. And whole grain can be processed; it can be ground, flaked and puffed, among other methods, which can all reduce its nutritional content and the fiber it offers.
Processed whole grains pack a worse blood sugar hit on the metabolism than intact grains, with less of the fibrous outer bran to digest, which could lead to overeating and insulin resistance. They can both lead to diabetes and heart disease.
Additives and the Health Halo
The article claims that food companies typically lump whole grains with partially processed and intact, unprocessed grains under the same ‘whole grains’ banner, so it’s difficult for consumers to know what they’re getting. That can be trouble, because the body processes them differently.
Whole grains may have unhealthy additives too. In one comparison, 545 grain products with the ‘whole grain’ stamp, all with at least eight grams of whole grains per serving, had more sugar and calories than products without the label. And they were more expensive. Whole grain foods typically take on a ‘health halo’, which some companies use as an excuse to charge more and slip stuff in the product without people realizing what they’re getting.
Finally, there’s the issue of lifestyle. Scientific American argues that whole grains appear healthy because the people who eat them tend to lead healthier lifestyles. They’re more likely to exercise, and less likely to smoke than folks who eat the least whole grains. That in turn may skew the results – whole grains might not be the cat’s behind if the consumers who eat them are already healthy.
If there’s a silver lining to their argument, it’s that fiber seems to work. All the ASN’s evidence for the benefits of whole grains consisted of high-fiber diets or fiber-rich bran. In particular, whole grain foods with a ratio higher than one to ten fiber to total carbohydrates had less sugar, sodium and trans fats than other whole grain products.
In Whole Grain’s Defense
There’s no easy answer for wheat and if it’s healthy or not, but the evidence slants to healthy for unrefined whole grains and their digestion-friendly fiber. Case it point, the latter argument, that fiber lowered risk of cardiovascular disease in the ASN’s evidence, lends further support to consume whole grain. That’s intact, whole wheat – as in 100% whole wheat grain – with the germ, endosperm and the fiber-rich outer bran.
Left unrefined, whole grain does indeed boast nutritional magic. It’s the full goods, of the bran, endosperm and germ working together. The first offers fiber and the latter provides vitamins and minerals. All with a steady, stable increase in blood sugar and insulin. In that light, it’s no wonder that studies link higher whole grain consumption to lower risk of type 2 diabetes.
And to clarify, whole grain extends beyond bread. Other foods wear the ‘whole grains’ sticker, like oats, brown rice, quinoa, popcorn and pasta. Evidence leans in their favor, like news this week that quinoa appears to be safe for people with celiac disease. That’s good news for sure, because quinoa is exceptionally rich in protein and packed full of nutrients like phosphorus and iron.
Break it down and it comes to this: whole grains appear to help folks live better, with lower risk of heart disease and diabetes. But you’ve got to navigate the minefield of marketing hype and assumptions to benefit from this perennial member of the USDA’s food pyramid.
Should I Eat Wheat?
The USDA suggests the average healthy American adult consume at least three ounces of whole grains each day. While Davis would disagree, there is no reason not to eat whole grain products. Yes, you can eat wheat, assuming you do your homework and know what you’re buying. That means whole grain – the intact grain – as the main ingredient.
You’re in better shape to find such products with the following guidelines:
Buy 100% Whole Grain – The single best way to get the health benefits of wheat. Buy products with ‘100% Whole Grain’ on the front label, and ‘Whole’ in front of all the other grains. For example, ‘Whole Oats’ or ‘Whole Rye’. Note that some grains are always whole, including milet, quinoa and brown rice.
Avoid Multigrain – These use the same methodology as ‘whole wheat’ products. You’re not getting the whole grain unless the individual flours are from whole grains. Don’t be fooled by the flax seed sprinkles on multigrain bread.
Choose Products With at Least 12% Fiber – Critics take issue with the ‘whole wheat/whole grain’ moniker, yet they rarely dispute the health benefits of fiber. Three grams of the stuff – that’s about 12% fiber for a loaf of bread – is a good target for people who want the most out of wheat.