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What's the Difference Between Whole Wheat and Whole Grain?

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Photo: Katrina Wittkamp/Getty Images

You probably know to bypass the Wonder bread when grabbing a loaf at the grocery store, but what about when it comes to choosing between "whole wheat" and "whole grain"? What about "multigrain"? These labels on bread bags, cereal boxes, and even crackers can make grocery shopping confusing.

So, we're breaking down everything you need to know about what makes something whole grain, for example, plus the nutritional differences of each to help you make the healthiest decision.

First, Refined Grains

To understand why unrefined, whole grains are the better choice, it may help to know what's missing from refined grains or white grains. White bread, pasta, rice, or flour are all made from refined grains that have had the germ and bran removed, so you're missing out on all the health benefits from the fiber and antioxidants. Instead, you're left with mostly starch—aka carbs. While carbs are not the enemy—here's more on why you shouldn't feel guilty about eating bread—refined grains tend to be high on the glycemic index, making your blood sugar levels spike and then fall quickly. That leads to hunger and cravings, so regularly choosing high-GI foods can cause weight gain.

Now that that's clear, here's what you need to know about all the brown bread options still left on the shelves.

The Definition of Whole Grain

A grain that has just been harvested from the field has three parts: the bran, which is packed with fiber, B vitamins, and antioxidants; the germ, which has protein, minerals, and healthy fats; and the endosperm, which provides the starch. "Whole grain" means that all three have all been left intact.

Don't be fooled if the product says it's "made with whole grains." This just means there are some whole grains in the food, but there's no telling how much. 

Whole grains, such as amaranth, millet, brown rice, and quinoa, are rich in polyphenols. These antioxidants prevent free radical damage and may have anti-aging benefits. They are healthier than a refined grain, which has had some of the nutritious parts of the grain removed during processing. The high fiber content of whole-grain bread, rolls, and wraps will keep you full longer and promote a healthy digestive system, both of which can help you manage your weight.

The Definition of Whole Wheat

The U.S. food industry considers wheat a type of whole grain. So when you see the term "whole wheat" on packaging, it means that all parts of the wheat were left intact. What's more, for a product to be called whole wheat, that also means it hasn't been mixed with other grains. From a nutritional perspective, you can generally consider whole-wheat products to be as healthy as other whole-grain foods. Fiber count and ingredients should also be considered, though. (Side note: Not all countries define these terms in the same way. In Canada, for example, the term "whole wheat" can include items that are not whole grain, but instead processed by adding some of the stripped bran back in.)

What About Basic Wheat Bread?
Sorry to report, but if you cut out the word "whole," wheat bread is essentially the same thing as white bread because both are made with refined flour. (BTW, check out these high-carb foods that are worse than white bread.) It doesn't offer a nutritional advantage. Sometimes you may be getting a bit of extra fiber in wheat bread because a small amount of bran has been added back in, but not enough to put this on the level of whole-wheat or whole-grain bread.

The Definition of Multigrain

Multigrain may sound like the healthiest option, but all "multigrain" really means is that the product has multiple grains in it. This does not mean these grains are whole grains. In fact, it's usually a mix of refined and unrefined, making this choice less nutritious than 100 percent whole grain. The same goes for bread labeled "six-grain" or similar. This simply means that six different kinds of grain were used in making this bread. This is a perfect example of quantity (more grains) not necessarily being better than quality (using one or two whole grains).

How to Choose the Healthiest Breads, Bagels, Wraps, and More

Okay, now that you know the difference between all of these terms, here's how to weed through the options and find the healthiest one for you.

1. Read the labels.
While not all marketing labels are regulated or can be accepted at face value (trans fat, we're looking at you), you can easily tell if something meets the whole-grain standards by looking for the whole grain stamp somewhere on the package. The stamp, which was created by the Oldways Whole Grain Council (OWGC) in an effort to help consumers make better food choices, marks that all of the grains in the item are whole, and—bonus—one serving will provide at least 16 grams of whole grains. While it's not required by U.S. law that manufacturers include this on their label, there are nearly 9,000 labeled products currently on the market in America.

Additionally, OWGC also has labels that say "50 percent whole grain," which means the product has at least half of its grains from whole grains or at least 8 grams of whole grains per serving, and the "basic stamp," which means less than half of the grains are whole.

2. Look at the ingredients.
Check the ingredients list for keywords such as "enriched" or "bleached." These are clues that some or all of the food contains refined grains. Also look for any artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives on the list. When in doubt, choose items with natural ingredients you recognize.

3. Focus on fiber.
Make sure any whole-grain food has at least 4 grams of fiber per serving to help you meet your daily needs of 25 grams a day. (You can also work toward your quota with these healthy recipes featuring high-fiber foods.)

4. Limit sugar and salt.
If you've spent this much time looking into grains and ingredient lists, while you're at it, choose a whole-grain food with less than 2 grams of sugar (to avoid those hangry feelings and headaches) and less than 200 milligrams of sodium per serving. You'll be surprised to learn that bread and cereal can be unexpectedly high in sodium.

Bottom line: Your best bet for maximum nutrition is to look for foods that are 100 percent whole grain. When that's not possible, whole wheat is a great secondary option, and multigrain items require a closer look. Any of these choices will be better than refined grains and white bread.

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