The Whole Wheat Hoax

By Jim Healthy on 07/22/2011
Is whole wheat bread more healthy than white bread?
The vast majority of shoppers — including those with a high “health IQ” — think so. And that’s just what food marketers want you to believe. But the truth may knock you for a loop.
You see, many “whole wheat” products are just as bad as white bread — and some are even worse.
Keep reading and I’ll blow away the smoke that may be clouding your eyes so you can “hokum-proof” your whole grain purchases and bring home the real McCoy.
Why whole grains are better for you
True whole grain foods and products are bursting with nutty, chewy flavour and loaded with health-protective fibre. They’re so much better for you than the familiar white bread and white flour baked goods most of us grew up with.
Did you realize that munching white bread and foods baked from it have the same effect on your blood sugar as eating table sugar straight from the sugar bowl? Both break down into glucose as soon as they are digested, which requires extra insulin to get them out of your bloodstream.
Whole-grain bread, on the other hand, digests far more slowly because its natural fibre slows the conversion of carbohydrates into glucose, so your blood sugar remains stable and receives a steady energy release instead of a sudden spike-and-drop.
In a study published in Diabetes Care, Italian researchers noted that diets high in refined carbs throw blood sugar and metabolism into chaos. But the problem is resolved when refined carb foods are swapped out for whole grain.
Improve your blood sugar by 600%
Researchers at the Creighton Diabetes Centre in Nebraska found that when people ate a breakfast cereal made from fibre-rich barley, their blood sugar remained 600% lower than when they ate oatmeal — which is thought to be one of the best “slow carbs” you can eat. Reason? Barley is high in a particular type of fibre called beta-glucan that’s super-effective at slowing the conversion of carbs to glucose.
Consuming too many refined carbohydrates is the number one cause of weight gain and Type 2 diabetes. And with a whopping 30% of the US population predicted to develop diabetes very soon, everyone should take steps to protect themselves.
Choosing whole grain foods and products can really help. In fact, you can reduce your diabetes risk by 40% just by replacing some of the fast carbs in your diet with whole grains, a recent Harvard study showed. And if you’re already experiencing blood sugar problems, whole grain foods are some of the best medicine in Nature’s pantry.
But how can you make sure the “whole grain” products you’re buying are the genuine article? It isn’t always easy. Let me illustrate…
Can you ace this quiz?
Three shoppers walk into a grocery store looking for the most healthy bread.
One sees a loaf labelled “Whole Wheat Bread” and drops it in her cart.
The second shopper spots a loaf of “Multigrain Bread” and heads to the checkout register.
The third shopper picks a loaf of bread that’s “Made with whole grains” and decides she’s made a smart choice.
So which shopper left the store with the truly healthy loaf?
The answer: None of the above.
This isn’t a trick question. Rather, it illustrates the trickiness of food marketers who intentionally create confusion about what’s healthy in your supermarket.
Take it with “a grain of truth”
You see, food manufacturers are well aware you want to make healthier choices when shopping. They also know that white bread is falling out of favour with consumers.
But the economics of the supermarket haven’t changed. It’s still very expensive to put a true whole-grain loaf of bread on the shelf. Why? It spoils much faster than baked goods made with white flour. Here’s why…
Whole-grain products use the whole grain, including the germ, bran, and the oil. These elements are where the vitamins, minerals, and life-sustaining nutrition reside — and also what attract insects during transport and storage. By spoiling so quickly on the shelf, whole-grain baked goods require frequent replacement.
This was a big problem for millers and bakers in the old days until they came up a solution: Refine away these “problem” aspects and: “Voila!” The flour and bread resisted spoiling. Insects and weevils didn’t bother with them. Even mice weren’t interested because they couldn’t live on them.
This bizarre effect was demonstrated by Dr. Roger J. Williams, the noted biochemist who discovered pantothenic acid (vitamin B5). In late 1960s, Dr. Williams fed white flour to one group of rats and whole-grain flour to another. The white flour rats became malnourished, sickly, and two-thirds of them died, while the whole-grain rats flourished.
Good for profits; bad for health
Refining whole grains into white flour removes 80% of their 20 known nutrients. And while baked goods made from white flour won’t sustain health or life, they do stick around on grocery shelves longer. This makes them great for profits, but a poor source of nutrition.
After Dr. Williams’ rat experiment made headlines, consumers began to shun white bread in favour of loaves made from whole grains. Food manufacturers sniffed the trend and responded by adding brown colouring and a little bran to white flour and labelling the resulting bread “whole wheat.”
To this day, many consumers remain confused. But commercial bakers couldn’t fool Dr. Williams’ rats. In a follow-up experiment, he fed 33 different brands of refined-flour bread — including rye, pumpernickel, and ersatz “whole wheat” — to another group of rats. They didn’t fare any better than the white bread group.
Don’t fall for the “health food hype”
Some food marketers seek to profit from health trends by making a quick buck from confused consumers. So here’s how to crack the “code words” they use on the labels of bread and baked goods. When they say their bread is…
“Whole wheat bread.” Translation: This bread’s flour may or may not be made from whole grain wheat. Don’t rely on the product name. Look at the ingredients list. If the first ingredient is whole wheat flour, that means the flour is legally required to be ground from whole grains of wheat. It’s not refined or enriched. It’s the good stuff.
If the ingredient is listed simply as wheat flour or flour, then it’s refined flour, according to the standard of identity for flour — and refined flour has been denuded of its nutritional benefits. Refined white flour may have brown food colouring and a bit of bran added to make it appear healthful.
If the ingredient is listed as enriched flour, the bran and germ have been removed and other nutrients have been added, but it’s not anywhere near as healthful as true whole wheat flour.
“Multigrain.” Translation: This means there’s more than one type of grain in the product, but this is no guarantee that any of those grains are in fact “whole.”
“Made with whole grain.” Translation: There’s an insignificant amount of whole grains in the product, but they want you to believe it’s enough to be an actual health benefit. It usually isn’t.
Whole-grain shopping savvy
Here are some helpful tips when shopping for whole grain products…
Choose bread and other products labelled “whole grain.” Even better: Look for products labelled “100% whole grain.” We love Ezekiel bread products made by Food for Life. You’ll often find them in the freezer section because they are indeed a “whole” food.
Search the packaging for the “100% Whole Grain” stamp from the Whole Grains Council.
But be careful: Products emblazoned with the Whole Grain Council’s “basic” stamp only provide half a serving of whole grains, so pass them by.
Why not go “whole” hog?
While you’re tracking down the superior health benefits of whole grains in the bread aisle, why not go “whole grain” throughout the entire store?
You can easily incorporate whole grains at any (or every) meal to improve your blood sugar … control your weight … and improve your cardiovascular health.
Enjoy old favourites such as oats, barley, and brown rice often — and don’t hesitate to experiment with adventurous “new” whole-grain foods. For starters:
• Quinoa is a complete protein.
• Teff is gluten-free, and high in fibre.
• Amaranth is high in iron.
• Farro has twice the fibre and protein of whole wheat.
• Millet is high in manganese, magnesium and phosphorus.
They all cook up in water just like oatmeal, and each one offers unique nutritional benefits. The variety of whole grains is so great that you may need a lifetime to get to know them all. But my guess is that you’ll love them at first bite.
For convenience, cook up a large batch of whole grains and freeze portions individually for later use.
The “whole” truth — and nothing but
One thing you can count on: As soon as American consumers change their illin’ ways and decide to eat more healthily, some huckster will always figure out a way to make a buck off shoppers’ best intentions.
By remembering the key concepts explained above, you can outsmart these marketeers and bring home whole grain goodness time and again.
Happy shopping — and eating!