The whole truth about whole grains

Ivan Buhr looked happy and seemed excited as he walked into Sleepy Owl Bread.

As a 1970s power ballad, All By Myself, played on the speakers at the Winnipeg bakery, Buhr looked carefully over the bread and pastries on display one afternoon in January.

Buhr made his selections in about a minute and then moved to the register to pay. While reaching for cash, Buhr was asked a question about bread.

Is there a difference between whole grain and whole wheat bread?

Buhr, a 30-something man, paused a few seconds before answering.

“My guess is that whole grain flour, they (millers) don’t have to pulverize it as much. The grains are actually whole,” he said.

“I would imagine it (whole grain) would have more roughage. It would be probably higher in fibre.”

It was a good guess, but not quite correct.

Health Canada’s website says whole wheat bread can be called whole wheat even though most of the germ and part of the bran are removed to make whole wheat flour.

Whole grain flour, on the other hand, is made from the entire kernel of wheat.

The Canadian regulations around whole wheat bread are not typical. In the United States, whole wheat and whole grain are the same thing.

“To the best of my knowledge… Canada is the only country in the world that allows whole wheat flour to be missing key parts of its original kernel,” said Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies with the Oldways Whole Grains Council in the U.S.

“The rest of the world has settled… on the idea that whole wheat flour must have all of its original components.”

The Canadian distinction between whole wheat and whole grain is something that deeply aggravates Rosie Schwartz, a dietitian in Toronto.

The former nutrition columnist with the National Post said Canadians who eat whole wheat bread aren’t getting important nutrients found in germ and bran.

Harriman agreed.

“Canada’s regulations allow up to five percent of the original kernel to be missing. Since wheat germ generally makes up about 2.5 percent of a wheat kernel, this means that often all of the healthy germ, and perhaps a bit of bran, too, could be missing.”

Health Canada, on its website, makes it clear that whole grain is different from whole wheat.

“One hundred percent whole wheat bread may not be whole grain. However, it remains a nutritious choice that provides dietary fibre not found in white bread.”

Schwartz first learned about the Canadian rule in the late 2000s. Prior to that, she assumed that whole wheat was whole grain.

At the time, she conducted an informal poll of Canadian dietitians to see if they knew the difference.

“Everybody thought the same as I did,” she said, noting most thought there was no difference.

The regulation on whole wheat dates back to the 1960s, when dietitians thought bran was the healthy component in wheat. It made sense to remove the germ because it caused bread to go rancid more rapidly.

Now, most experts recognize that the entire wheat kernel, especially the germ, is rich in vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants.

“All of the scientific research is based upon the whole grain,” Schwartz said. “The research saying the whole grain … is healthy cannot be extrapolated to the Canadian version of whole wheat.”

Canadian bakeries continue to make whole wheat bread that isn’t whole grain, but at the same time they promote the benefits of whole grains through organizations like the Healthy Grains Institute.

Schwartz said the situation is ridiculous.

“When they (Canadians) see whole wheat, they are misled into thinking they are buying a whole grain,” she said. “If anybody is putting an effort towards healthier eating, they shouldn’t be misled.”

Paul Hetherington, Baking Association of Canada president, takes issue with the word “misled.”

A percentage of Canadians may not understand the difference between whole wheat and whole grain but the baking industry isn’t trying to deceive the public.

“We do recognize it’s challenging (the distinction between whole grain and whole wheat),” he said.

“Consumers are at times (also) confused whether or not multi-grains are whole grains.”

The baking industry has spent money on educating the public about whole grains and the difference between types of flours.

But why not eliminate the confusion by making whole wheat the same as whole grain?

Hetherington said such a decision comes with risks. There’s no guarantee that Canadians who like whole wheat will automatically switch to whole grain bread.

“There are people who will not eat a whole grain product,” he said, noting it is grittier and can be bitter.

“There are real consumer taste and textural issues associated with consumption of whole grain products.”

He said whole wheat bread fits in the middle between white and whole grain.

“The white product is good, the (whole) wheat is better and whole grain, from a total nutrition perspective, is best.”

Schwartz said she’s not counting on the baking industry to make whole wheat and whole grain the same thing. She first raised this issue about a decade ago and she’s convinced that people in Ottawa need to change the regulation so that Canada catches up to the rest of the world.

“I think it’s up to government,” she said. “If you’re saying ‘whole,’ that’s saying the entire wheat grain, isn’t it?”

Is whole grain bread healthier?

  • A Nurses’ Health Study, based at Harvard, found that over a 10 year period, women who ate two to three servings of whole grains each day were 30 percent less likely to have a heart attack or die from heart disease than women who ate less than one serving per week.
  • A study of more than 160,000 found that women who averaged two to three servings of whole grains each day were 30 percent less likely to have developed Type 2 diabetes than those who rarely ate whole grains.

Source: Harvard University

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