‘Whole’ Grains Might Be a Bit Harder to Spot Than You Think, Experts Say

whole grainsWheat bread is better than white bread, so we’ve been told. Eat fewer refined grains and focus on getting back to the more fibrous stuff at the source, the experts keep reminding us. But a recent story from NPR is making grocery shoppers everywhere think twice before they pick up their wheat loaf during their Sunday errand-running.

That’s because wheat bread, as it turns out, might actually be made from the same refined flour ingredients as white bread — and that’s not good news for our health. White flour is a high-glycemic food just like sugar, meaning it has its place in our daily nutritional intake, but it’s certainly not recommended to be consumed in excess. In fact, as Dr. David Ludwig of Boston Children’s Hospital says, it could actually be harmful in the long run.

“That white bread is going to digest much more quickly, leading to a surge and crash in blood sugar that may stimulate hunger later in the meal, but also raise risk for diabetes and heart disease,” Ludwig tells NPR.

So, what’s the other option if both white and wheat bread aren’t providing the necessary whole grains we need?

Simple: whole-grain bread. And not the loaves the supermarkets keep trying to pass off as whole grain, either. You want the stuff with the chunks of grains on top of the loaf, speckling the dome like a banquet of delicious golden earth. As the NPR piece notes, your body processes grains that are left intact during the preparation — in other words, “whole” grains — and the enriched grains that tend to be the end product of most grain processing.

For your body, the differences come at the cost of blood sugar and insulin spikes. Whole grains take a bit longer for the body to process, Ludwig says. That means they’re not immediately run through our systems, jacking up our glucose levels in the process. Instead, whole grains can be digested slowly, keeping us fuller for longer and keeping our sugar and insulin levels only rising “modestly.” That all makes for a healthier diet.

“Look for ‘100% whole grain’ on the label: anything else includes overly processed grains,” suggests Kellie Hill, Nutritional Therapy Practitioner at The Right Plan. “Or, better yet, choose whole grains that don’t require a label – brown rice, steel cut oatmeal, quinoa, and buckwheat. The lack of processing guarantees a nutrient-dense whole food your body can identify, breakdown, and use for energy.”

Despite the progress, it’s been a bit of a challenge to get that message to the masses. Food companies often boast of their products’ “whole grain” benefits despite using enriched grains instead of truly unprocessed base materials. That’s led to a sense of discord among food experts who argue what the true definition of “whole grain” is. The most commonly accepted definition is that whole grains consist of “whole kernels with an outer bran layer, a germ and an innermost endosperm,” according to Minnesota Daily.

The next set of dietary guidelines is set to be released by the United States Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2015. In the meantime, it’s best to check the ingredients whenever you can. You never know what kind of grain game you’re playing unless you scope out the labels.