All Whole Grains Are Not Alike

Wed, 12 June 2013 - 12:56 a.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

Women younger than 50 need about 25 grams of fiber per day, and men younger than 50 need 38 grams (the daily values are a few grams lower for adults older than 50). But on average, American women get about 13 grams and men 17 grams, according to a 2005 report by the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine.

When scouring the grocery aisles for high-fiber foods, we’re all aware that the key word to look for among the first ingredients is “whole” and not “grain” or “wheat”—manufacturers can slip past us with foods that contain plenty of wheat or grains and sound hardy but are actually empty simple carbohydrates low in fiber. However, not all whole grain foods are created equal. Many foods that can truthfully lay claim to the “whole grain” moniker are still processed so heavily that they remove most of the fiber and other nutrients that we think we’re purchasing when we buy them. So how to get the whole out of “whole grains”?

Why Market Them as Whole Grains? One reason is that manufacturers realize parents want to feel good about what they serve their children, and if it can be considered a healthy choice, it sells—while kids enjoy the extra finely milled food with nominal nutritional value. Children recommend the purchase to their parents, who feel off the hook because of the purported “whole grain” qualities. Actual health foods, by contrast, tend not to scream out “Kids love it!” on their packaging, but ultimately because kids are receiving vastly superior nutrition, they very likely will.

Is “Stone Ground” Just Marketing Lingo? The good news is, no. you can more or less rely on grains that say they are stone ground. As Harvard Health Beat writes, “Eating a food made of finely milled oats (e.g., Cheerios) or grains (e.g., typically finely milled whole-grain bread) produces much higher spikes in blood sugar than less-processed versions such as steel-cut oats or stone-ground bread.” 

How it’s Made. Whole wheat flour does not always deploy use of the whole wheat. Here, the milling process is everything. There are two milling processes in common use today: modern commercial steel-roller milling and stone-ground milling. Steel roller mills, are a relatively modern invention and are designed to produce white flour. Stone grinding is the traditional milling process and is used primarily in producing whole grain products. It retains the full nutrition of the whole grain, unlike modern commercial steel grinding which removes much of the grain’s fiber and goodness. (The steel-cut oats mentioned as a healthy choice above are cut, not rolled or ground, so the “steel” aspect of the machine should not deter you in that case.)

Steel ground flour is always without the most important part of the wheat kernel—the wheat germ. Commercial white flour is made almost entirely on steel roller mills. White flour is a 72% extraction of the wheat kernel. It is made by sifting out all the bran, shorts, middlings, and wheat germ. Unless specified as unbleached, it is also usually bleached. Stone ground whole wheat flour is made simply by grinding up the entire wheat kernel.

But here’s the catch: many commercial whole wheat breads are made with steel-ground white flour with part of the bran simply added back in. these do not contain wheat germ. Check the packaging to see if the bread you’re choosing contains the wheat germ from the wheat. Companies will often want to tell you this information as part of health advertising, but not always. The ingredients may say wheat germ, or by contrast, you might be able to closely scrutinize their ordering to see if it looks as though some bran was simply added back in. 

Fiber Chicanery. Stone ground whole wheat bread may have as much as 6 grams of fiber per serving. But what about a whole host of new products on the market that have fiber added to them? Some of these exceed an incredible 10 grams per serving. What’s going on here, and should you purchase these products instead?

Examples of these foods include Arnold's Double Fiber Bread, Yoplait's Fiber One Yogurt, and Splenda with Fiber. These products are adding “isolated” (or “functional”) fibers—maltodextrin, polydextrose, inulin, and other exotic sounding laboratory products. 

It’s unclear whether these fibers have similar nutritional value as natural fibers. "We just don't know if they all act the same. They have not necessarily been studied to see if they're beneficial," Jennifer Nelson, director of clinical dietetics and nutrition at the Mayo Clinic, told the LA Times in January 2010. They’re considered fiber because they are resistant to digestion. Isolated fibers harvested from plants and then added back into other foods may be better for your health than the long chains of glucose strung together in a lab.

These natural plant fibers can help prevent constipation and can make people feel more full after eating. But they're not the perfect equivalent of fiber that's naturally found in foods. In part that's because isolated or functional fibers lack the array of vitamins, nutrients, antioxidants, and plant chemicals found in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

The Sponginess Test. When choosing whole grain bread, start by lightly squeezing it. Overly milled junk breads will be really spongy—think of Wonder Bread Whole Wheat. A high-fiber product should feel more like a Duraflame brick of firestarter, dense and formidably full of the indigestible whole grain kernels.

Think Outside the Bun. Beyond bread, choose whole wheat pasta over semolina, ideally keeping your servings of highly refined carbohydrates down to about 7 ounces per week. Replacing starchy white rice, white bread, and of course sweets with whole oats, fruits, and vegetables can lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and possibly stroke. Whole grains are also linked to lower weight gain over time. Choose “old fashioned” over “quick 1-minute” oats, and cut oats to rolled oats.

Go with the Real Captain Crunch. Raw vegetables are a great source of fiber. Foods like celery, which you can identify as a good source by its natural crunch, are rich in silicon. Dietary fiber comes in two forms — one form dissolves in water, the other doesn't — and both are found in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and grains. And finally, don’t forget an unlikely place to get your fiber: Popcorn, which families can rally around as a fun treat, is a whole grain food.


Harvard Health Beat, Dec. 13, 2011


LA Times, Jan. 11, 2010, “All Fibers May Not Be Created Equal,” by Elena Conis,


Speerville Four Mill, Speerville, New Brunswick, Canada,

(RUNNING & FITNEWS® January / February 2012 • Volume 30, Number 1)

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