Tips to help make sense of the whole grain vs whole wheat debate

By Rosie Schwartz, RD on August 12, 2014

As another school year is upon us, we're once again faced with assorted menu choices to ensure our youngsters are getting nutrition-packed eats to fuel them through the day. Open a lunchbox and chances are there'll be some kind of sandwich. But with the huge variety of breads on supermarket shelves, many of us are left wondering which to choose – whole wheat, multi-grain, sprouted grains, even those containing vegetables. Here are some tips to help it all make sense.

What is whole grain?

There’s no doubt that whole grain breads offer top-notch nutrition. Whole grains, as opposed to refined, are linked to a decreased risk of a number of ailments including constipation and excess weight gain. A whole grain contains the entire kernel of the grain – the bran, the germ and the endosperm. Most refined grains, on the other hand, are missing the nutrient-rich bran and germ which are removed during the refining process.

But finding whole grain products can be a difficult task indeed. Judging a bread by its colour or name, for example, can easily lead you astray. A dark bread, for instance, may just be dark due to the addition of a colouring agent such as molasses or caramel and may not contain any whole grains at all.

Names can fool you: while the bread may contain one particular grain such as oats or an assortment of grains (so-called multigrain), those grains may be refined, not whole grain. So be sure to read ingredient lists and look for the term whole grain. Remember, ingredients are listed in descending order by amount. So if the first ingredient is enriched wheat flour, then you know it’s not a whole grain product.

What does whole wheat mean?

Another labelling shortcoming to watch out for is whole wheat. Even if the bread label states 100% whole wheat, the term whole wheat may not signify whole grain. As ridiculous as it is, you have to look for the term whole grain whole wheat to ensure the product is whole grain.

Go for a variety of whole grains – not just whole wheat – as each offers unique nutrients and protection against disease.

Many kids prefer white sandwich bread. But with regular exposure to whole grains, they will come to like the nutty flavours. A strategy may be to alternate between white and whole grain. For every two whole grain loaves, you buy one white.

Whole grain varieties may spoil more easily. Rather than putting the loaves in the fridge, store the extra in the freezer for a fresher tasting slice.

Other Bread Trends

  • Sprouted Grains: What used to be a consequence of grains being left in the fields after harvesting, are now appearing on store shelves- often in the form of breads. After all, grains are really just seeds and when left in the right conditions for growth, they sprout into plants. Science is now showing that when grains sprout under the right conditions for only a certain length of time, they may offer both better absorption or a higher content of a variety of nutrients such as certain B vitamins, zinc, fibre and protein.
  • Vegetables: Bread containing vegetables may be healthy, but don't rely on it as a replacement for vegetables. It simply doesn't measure up in terms of the amount contained.
  • Portion Distortion: Unfortunately bread slices have gone the way of many other foods nowadays: oversized. One slice used to weigh one ounce. Now many have increased to one and a half ounces, which leads to a sandwich containing the what used to be three slices of bread. Some slices even have a larger surface area so you need to put more filling on them as well. So read the Nutrition Facts Box and look for those brands where two slices equal two ounces.

 

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian in private practice and author of The Enlightened Eater’s Whole Foods Guide (Viking Canada). Visit rosieschwartz.com for more.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, August/September 2014.


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