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Harvard Commentaries
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Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Food for Thought Food for Thought

It's White Bread, and Whole Grain Too

January 16, 2013

By Heather Hawkes, R.D., L.D.N.
Brigham and Women's Hospital

Whole wheat white bread may sound like a nutritional oxymoron, but it's a real, relatively new product that you may have seen on your grocery store shelves. And in this case "white" doesn't mean refined grains. This new bread trend is part of the increasingly creative effort that food companies are making to introduce whole grain products into the grocery carts of the white-bread-only consumer.

New government guidelines recommend that Americans make half of their grains whole, eating three or more 1-ounce servings a day. Yet it's estimated that the average consumer eats less than one-third of the recommended amount of whole grains — and 40% of us never eat whole grains at all!

Whole Grain Anatomy

Illustration showing parts of a kernel of grain -- bran, germ and endosperm

Grain, as it occurs naturally, includes three components: the bran, germ and endosperm. Each of these parts to the whole grain kernel contributes key nutrients:

  • Fiber in bran
  • Vitamins and minerals in germ
  • Phytonutrients in both bran and germ, and
  • Carbohydrate and protein in the endosperm

Refining grains removes the bran and germ, leaving behind the starchy endosperm.

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Whole Grain Goodness

The bran and germ are the most nutrient-rich part of the grain, which is why having all three components may be important in disease prevention. Studies have shown whole grains may be protective against some cancers and chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

A whole grain product, as defined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is one that contains a minimum of 51% whole grains by weight. This means whole grain should be first on the ingredient list. A product must meet this standard to carry the FDA-approved health claim that "a diet rich in whole grain foods … may reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers."

Data from the Nurses Health Study, conducted by Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health, supports the importance of whole grains in weight management for women. The study results showed that women who ate more whole grain foods and fewer refined grain foods gained less weight.

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Taste and Texture Trump

Knowing the benefits of whole grains often isn't enough. Taste and texture can play a bigger role in our decision making process. "While white bread remains by far the largest segment of the bread category; 8 out of 10 white bread consumers are interested in bread that has real whole grain nutrition, but prefer the taste of white bread," according to research conducted by Harman Atchison Research and reported on the Wonder Bread website.

Sara Lee and Wonder Bread both debuted new products in summer 2005 that are made with whole grains but boast the taste, texture and appearance of white bread.

Sara Lee's "Soft and Smooth Made With Whole Grain White Bread" is a blend of 30% whole grain, 70% refined flour. The whole grain source is Ultragrain White Whole Wheat, from ConAgra Foods Inc. Ultragrain flour is also being used in other bakery products. Wonder Bread's "White Bread Fans 100% Whole Wheat Bread" is 100% whole grain, which Wonder says is milled from hard white wheat.

Both breads are making use of white wheat. White wheat is relatively new to the U.S. market, but it is well known in other countries, such as Australia.

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What Is White Wheat?

There are three main classifications for wheat:

  • Growing season (winter vs. spring)
  • Kernel hardness (hard vs. soft)
  • Color of the bran (red vs. white)

Traditional wheat flour comes from red wheat. The bran layer contains tannins and phenolic acid, which are bitter and account for much of the taste difference between whole wheat and white bread. The red bran coloring is responsible in part for the darker color of whole wheat.

White wheat is a natural albino variety. It does not contain the tannins or acids that red wheat does, so the taste is sweeter and milder. The flour coloring is lighter, more golden. What's more, it is touted as being the nutritional equivalent of its red wheat counterpart.

To get the texture similar to refined flour, the whole grains going into many of the new white wheat products are processed. The technology to pulverize whole grains into tiny, uniform pieces is very new.

While the finished product is not refined flour, what nutritional value is lost in processing is still being investigated. Even if all nutrition does remain, the fact is that the white whole wheat flour produced is a processed product, entirely changed from its original wholesome kernel form. In addition, many of these new white breads contain preservatives, sweeteners and dough conditioners, a far cry from the four essential components of bread: flour, water, salt and yeast.

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Whole Grain Stamp of Approval

The properties of white wheat and new manufacturing technology are helping populate store shelves with whole grains. Still, it can be difficult to discern whole grains in the marketplace.

To simplify things for consumers, the Whole Grains Council (WGC) has developed the Whole Grain Stamp. There are three stamps: "Good Source" (at least 8 grams of whole grain per serving), "Excellent Source" (16 grams or more) and "100% Whole Grain/Excellent Source" (at least 16 grams and no refined grains). Sixteen grams represents one full serving of whole grains.

General Mills did petition the FDA for government approval of these claims; however, the petition recently was denied. The WGC is still promoting the stamp despite the FDA ruling.

This is a voluntary effort by food companies and can be found on more than 400 grain products of council members, including Sara Lee's Soft and Smooth bread, a "Good Source" with 8 grams of whole grain per serving, and Wonder Bread's Whole Wheat White bread, stamped "Excellent" with 16 grams of whole grain per serving. A note to the savvy consumer: Sara Lee has made its serving two slices of bread in order to make this claim.

The stamp may be a useful tool to help easily identify whole grains; however, keep in mind this is company sponsored and not an official standard.

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Bottom Line

Many of these new white wheat breads are transitional products. They can be a steppingstone for those not ready to make the leap from refined to 100% whole grains. With such focused attention on whole grains, it is important to keep the bigger picture in mind. As recommended, strive to make at least half of your grains whole, but don't forget whole grains are just one part of a healthy diet.

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Heather Hawkes, R.D., L.D.N., is an outpatient nutritionist at Brigham and Women's Hospital, where she completed her dietetic internship in 2004. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Vermont in 2003 with a Bachelor of Science degree in dietetics. In 2003 she spent nine weeks in Haiti as a public health nutritionist.

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