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Choosing whole grain bread in place of refined white bread is often one of the first steps on the journey to healthier eating. But if you think this simple swap might not yield tangible results, you’re in for a surprise.

“There IS a measurable difference between whole wheat and white flour products, in every category one wishes to consider,” explains WGC Scientific Advisor Dr. Gary Fulcher. Refining whole wheat flour to make white flour greatly decreases a wide range of nutrients, including fiber, protein, vitamin E, vitamin B6, potassium and magnesium. Below is a closer look at how whole wheat flour differs from refined or enriched wheat flour.

graph comparing nutrients in whole wheat flour vs white flour

Data from USDA Food Composition Database, SR 28 (2017)

Rabble-rousing headlines claiming that studies find “no differences” between whole grain breads and white breads have been widely critiqued in the academic community, and are at sharp odds with the consensus of scientific research.  Breads do tend to have a higher Glycemic Index (GI) than intact whole grains, but, whole grain breads (GI of 69), on average, typically have a more gentle impact on your blood sugar than white breads (GI of 75). Plus, of course, the whole grain breads include all those extra nutrients.

Studies continuously support the health benefits of choosing whole grain foods over refined grain foods. For example, scientists in California found that people burned 50 percent more calories digesting a sandwich on whole grain bread with real cheese compared to a sandwich on white bread with a processed cheese product, even though both sandwiches had the same amount of calories and the same ratio of bread to cheese. Similarly, in a randomized clinical trial of 81 adults, the group eating whole grains had significantly higher concentrations of “good” gut microbes and significantly improved their metabolisms over the six-week study, compared with the group eating refined grains (keeping all other foods the same between the two groups).

Observational studies point to similar findings, linking higher whole grain consumption with a lower risk of being overweight or obese. And where are people getting those whole grains? US national survey data find that whole grain breads are the biggest source of whole grains for children and adults alike.

For more insight on the health differences between whole grain and white bread, see our May 2017 blog on US News & World Report. For more topics in this series, see our “MYTHS BUSTED” page. (Kelly)

Comments

angie1006
Thank you so much for reassuring me that I am making a difference in the health of my family. For the past year, I started making all of my own bread products at home, everything from sandwich bread, dinner rolls, and garlic loaves to tortillas and pasta. I gradually worked from white flour to whole wheat flour so that my kids could adjust to the change. We now use 100% whole wheat flour for all of our bread products. I cannot tell you how many people have told me that it didn't make a difference what kind of flour I used. I researched it for myself, and surprisingly, a lot of different sources seemed to support those claims. But it still just didn't sound right to me. Surely, whole grain products must be better for you, it just seems to make sense. Thankfully, I came across this article, and I can see the numbers for myself. Now I no longer question whether or not the changes I have made are healthier for me and my family. Thank you :)
Caroline-WGC
Hi Angie – What a wonderful story about your family’s journey from white flour to 100% whole wheat. We frequently recommend making the switch in much the way your family did, gradually substituting in more and more whole grains. I’m glad we could provide some of the scientific data you needed to back up what you already suspected was true about the whole grain flour you were using. Happy baking!
I dont wanna pu...
what does WGC stand for? i know its not world golf championships but thats the only acronym that i know for tose letters
Caroline-WGC
WGC is short for the Whole Grains Council, which is one of the programs run by Oldways, our nonprofit nutrition education organization. For more information about our programs you can visit wholegrainscouncil.org and oldwayspt.org
Bazza
This is a misleading article. The lack of discernible difference is white and wholemeal not whole grain.
Caroline-WGC
Hi Bazza – I think I understand your confusion. The term “wholemeal” actually means “whole grain.” In the United States, we tend to call flour made from whole grains “whole grain flour," but in many other countries (including Australia and the UK) whole grain flour is more commonly referred to as “wholemeal.” I hope that helps!
Rob
After reading many articles over the years, I find there's been a lot of inconsistencies in what is healthy and what isn't when it comes to white bread, whole wheat bread, and whole grain bread. I think there's a lot of confusion by people when it comes to the health benefits between the 3 and the difference between whole wheat and whole grain. Can you clarify, based on your research, the health differences between white, whole wheat, and whole grain breads?
Caroline-WGC
Hi Rob – First let me clarify the distinction between whole wheat and whole grain, as that may be the source of some of your confusion. Whole wheat is one type of whole grain, just as carrots are one type of vegetable. Sometimes you will see studies focused on whole wheat specifically, but more often, researchers study the health benefits of whole grains as a broad category. Whole wheat differs slightly in nutrient content from other whole grains (just as carrots offer different nutrients than spinach), but whole grains as a category have been shown to offer a wide range of health benefits. I encourage you to visit our Health Studies Database for more details: https://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/health-studies. This blogpost that you are commenting on provides an excellent overview of the differences between whole grain breads (including whole wheat bread) and white breads, and the reasons whole grain breads are so much more nutritious.
Marina
Hi there, First let me thank you for your article, I really appreciate the nutrient breakdown. I was wondering if you could clarify the difference between whole wheat and enriched wheat for me. I'm finding that some packaged "whole wheat breads" use whole wheat flour as the first ingredient, yet that the "white bread" versions list the first ingredient as enriched wheat flour. Does this enriched wheat flour make it more healthy than its whole wheat counterpart?
Caroline-WGC
Hi Marina – The chart in the article above shows a comparison of the nutritional content of whole wheat flour (shown in the green bars) and enriched wheat flour (shown in the yellow bars). As you can see, refining a grain (shown in the red bars) removes a wide array of nutrients and the process of enriching only adds a few of them back in. While enriched wheat flour offers more nutrients than refined unenriched wheat flour, whole wheat flour offers ALL the nutrients found in the original kernel.
Baker
I just wanted to say that we are born from this world that grows everything we need and when left alone it's obviously going to be healthier for us than man can alter .. Just saying..... If it is better to refine it don't you think it would grow already refined ..... We are just used to consuming more than are bodies need and the result is bad health.....keep everything as natural as you can ....
Joe Church
two years ago i switched from all white grains to eating aprox 80% whole grains - wheat bread, brown rice etc - and I have lost over 30 lbs and kept it off.

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