Eating more whole foods is something most people interested in improving their health strive to do. But when food labels use terms like whole wheat and whole grains, it can become confusing to know which product is the best choice.
You will see whole wheat and whole grain printed on labels for everything from cereal to bread and tortillas. Both whole grain and whole wheat can be nutritious choices. But there are differences between the two to be aware of that can help you make the correct decision during your next grocery shop.
What Is Whole Grain?
Whole grains mean that most of the original grain is intact instead of removing the outer casing as with refined grains. If a product is labeled as whole-grain, it means the entire grain kernel has been used to make the product, no matter which grain. There are three different parts of a grain. These consist of the bran, endosperm, and germ.
Bran is the outer layer of the grain kernel, which is packed with fiber, B vitamins, and minerals. Meanwhile, the endosperm is the starchy part of the kernel that sits below the bran. As the most significant part of the grain, the endosperm is what refined flours are mostly made from. It contains starch, some protein, and a lower amount of vitamins and minerals.
The germ is responsible for reproduction. Located within the germ you will find heart-healthy fatty acids, B vitamins, vitamin E, minerals, lignans, phytochemicals, and antioxidants.
If a grain-based product is labeled whole grain, it could mean that a mixture of different whole grains has been used in the product. It also could mean that a single whole grain—such as barley, spelt, rye, or oat—has been used.
If a product is labeled as “wheat” or “rye,” for example, without the term “whole” in front of it, then it is likely refined. If the grain is refined, the most nutrient-dense and healthful parts of the grain—the bran and the germ—have been removed, with only the starchy endosperm remaining.
What Is Whole Wheat?
Whole wheat is similar to whole grain except that it is specific to the wheat plant. Whole wheat on a label means the product has been made using the entire wheat kernel.
The wheat has not been altered, stripped, or mixed with any other grains. Overall, whole wheat is a good source of fiber and other important nutrients like iron, folate, selenium, potassium, magnesium, and B vitamins.
Whole Grain vs. Whole Wheat
Whole grain refers to any type of grain, while whole wheat explicitly refers to the wheat grain. Every grain contains the bran, endosperm, and germ in its complete form. Technically, whole wheat products are whole grain products, but any grain used in its complete form is called whole grain.
When it comes to nutritional properties, any whole grain, including whole wheat, is an excellent choice for improving heart health, getting in enough fiber, maintaining a healthy weight, and controlling cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
Common Whole Grains
Commonly found whole grains and whole-grain products include:
Health Benefits of Whole Grains
Whole grains are a highly nutritious group of foods with many health benefits. Here are some of the benefits of whole grains.
May Reduce All-Cause Mortality Risk
Research shows that the fewer servings of whole grains in the diet, the higher chances of dying from any cause. The main reason for this is thought to be due to whole grain’s benefits for reducing incidences of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and obesity. These four health conditions are responsible for millions of deaths each year, and whole-grain consumption is correlated to reduced risk.
May Help Control Blood Sugar
Whole grains have been studied for their ability to help lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Research indicates that daily whole-grain consumption of 2 to 3 servings (30-45 grams per day) can significantly reduce the risk.
Results also show that eating 1.5 servings of whole grains each day helps reduce blood sugar and insulin concentrations. Researchers believe these benefits may be due to magnesium and chromium present in whole grains, which help to regulate blood sugar and insulin metabolism.
May Reduce the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
Research shows that eating 28 to 30 grams each day of whole grains lowers total serum cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol. The risk of developing cardiovascular disease or having a stroke is significantly reduced by regular intake of whole grains. Additionally, death from cardiovascular incidences or disease is lower in those who consume whole grains.
May Reduce Risk of Some Cancers
Studies that compare those who eat the most whole grains with those who eat the least show that the higher intake population has less risk of developing colorectal cancer. The same results have been established for pancreatic and gastric cancers.
Moreover, two meta-analyses revealed that a greater whole-grain intake is associated with fewer overall deaths from any type of cancer.
May Assist With Weight Management
Consuming whole grains may help you control your weight and make maintaining a healthy weight easier. Research shows that those who consume more whole grains tend to have lower body mass, more ideal body fat percentages, and less abdominal obesity.
Health Benefits of Whole Wheat
Whole wheat products have the same health benefits as whole grains since they are made from whole grain wheat. However, each grain present in a whole grain product will change the composition and amount of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat).
According to the USDA, one slice (43 grams) of whole wheat bread contains 80 calories, 0 grams of fat, 20 grams of carbohydrates, 3 grams of fiber, 4 grams of sugar, and 5 grams of protein. The brand of bread you commonly use could be slightly different.
Most whole-wheat bread contains iron, potassium, and the B vitamins thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate, depending on whether it is enriched.
Replacing commonly found refined products such as pasta, crackers, and bread products with their whole-wheat versions can provide you with all of the benefits of eating whole grains. Plus, it is an easy way of increasing your whole grain intake.
Which Is Better?
When it comes to choosing between whole grain and whole wheat, either choice is beneficial to your health when compared to refined grains. Whether you choose whole wheat or another variety of whole grains is up to you.
However, adding more variety of whole-grain products to your meal plan could ensure you are getting enough servings. For instance, choosing whole-wheat pasta, crackers, cereals, and bread is a good start.
But also adding brown rice instead of white, and adding other interesting grains like bulgur, farro, millet, buckwheat, spelt, and barley can introduce more grains to your diet as well as a wider variety of nutrients.
If you are allergic to wheat, have celiac disease, or are gluten-sensitive, take these things into account when choosing a whole-grain product.
There are several gluten-free grains and whole-grain products to choose from for those who need to avoid wheat and gluten. Plus, many of these products are just as nutritious as whole wheat and can offer the same nutritional benefits.
The key to making a good choice regarding bread, cereals, pasta, and crackers is to check the labels. Look for “whole” before the grain or grains in the first ingredients on the list.
Labels containing whole will indicate that a larger portion of the product is made with whole grains. If a label says it is “made with whole grains,” but the ingredients only have whole grains listed lower on the list, it may not contain much whole grain.