Bread: White, Whole-Wheat, or Whole-Grain?
By Allan R. Handysides and Peter N. Landless
What is the difference between ordinary “white” bread, “whole-wheat” bread, and “whole-grain/whole-wheat” bread? My friend says most whole-wheat bread is no better than white bread, but surely this cannot be true.
The short answer is that whole-wheat bread is better than white bread, and whole-grain/whole-wheat bread may be the best—but it could be a challenge to provide conclusive evidence for this. Most of the studies showing real benefits of whole-wheat bread did not separate out the two kinds of whole wheats. Nevertheless, those eating whole-wheat bread had a demonstrable health advantage over those eating ordinary white breads.
Whole grains include all types of cereals; whole wheat is one particular grain. The wheat seed is a grass seed. When harvested, the outer husk is winnowed away as chaff, leaving the wheat kernel, or seed. Such a kernel has an outer coat, or envelope, called the bran, which is a nondigestible cellulose. Digestion requires the breaking open of this envelope, and is facilitated by cracking, cutting, or cooking the grain—or perhaps by all three. Within the bran envelope are the germ and the endosperm. The germ grows into a new plant and contains proteins, fats, vitamins, and essential minerals. The endosperm provides energy for the new plant, and principally contains starch and protein.
White flour is made primarily from the endosperm portion of the wheat. By removing the germ, processors remove fat, which has a tendency to be oxidized and go rancid quickly. Additionally, the white color and the smooth texture enable considerable manipulation of the flour and the production of a great variety of products such as cakes, cookies, etc.
Now to the tricky part. In the United States and numerous other countries there’s a process of enrichment. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the U.S. permits food processors to add back to the white flour some of the elements of the original wheat, and to call such flour “enriched.” Further, should the quantities added back closely approximate the qualities found in the original wheat, the FDA permits the use of the term “whole wheat.” Different countries have slightly different rules, and some have no rules at all.
It’s this breaking-down-and-reconstituting process that permits a food manufacturer to produce novel products. The question is whether the breaking of the natural relationships of the original wheat kernel results in a weakening of its health-promoting attributes.
Bran is the principal fiber of the grain. It plays an important role in our overall health and in the goodness of whole grains. Fiber provides many advantages. It bulkens the stool, protecting against constipation. It quickens the transit of bowel contents, regulates the bacterial flora of the intestine, and regulates acid balance in the gut. Fiber has shown a correlation with a lowering of the risk of colon cancer, and helps reduce cholesterol levels in the blood.
Many food processors add back some bran or fiber, but it’s the amount that’s important. Those favoring whole grain believe there are advantages to the bran retaining its relationship with the endosperm as much as possible. Some evidence supports this belief.
Steel-cut grain is better handled by our digestive tract. Processes such as cutting, steam cooking, and rolling do not separate the constituent fractions of the grain.
Some Adventists refer to Ellen White’s recommendation to cook grains for a long time. Steel-cut oats, for example, do require 20 to 30 minutes of cooking, versus the one to two minutes for “rolled oats.”
Most of the data supporting whole-wheat breads versus white breads have not differentiated between these intricate differences in the whole wheat and grains; yet they have consistently supported the whole-wheat breads. Possibly, those dense, chewy, delicious whole-grain/whole-wheat breads are even superior to the reconstituted whole-wheat breads.
We strongly recommend foods that are as “intact” as possible.
Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist,
is director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.
Allan R. Handysides, a board-certified gynecologist, recently retired,
was director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.