The whole kernel of truth on the great grain debate

Cathleen Kronemer, NSCA-CPT, Certified Health Coach, is a longtime fitness instructor at the Jewish Community Center. 

By Cathleen Kronemer

At this time of year, as we welcome the first official day of spring, many of us are turning our thoughts towards the approaching Pesach holiday.  Soon kitchens everywhere will be filled with those familiar and fragrant aromas: simmering chicken soup, fluffy matzah balls, and spicy/sweet charoses.  Yet before we totally abandon our bread products for eight days, this seems like the perfect time to delve into that heavily debated issue of whole-grain versus whole-wheat.

Although many meal plans discussed in the media today advocate an overall reduction in carbohydrate intake, bread continues to reign supreme as the “staff of life,” especially for young children who pack sandwiches in their daily lunchboxes. Well-intentioned consumers are often misled by labels which utilize the words “grain” or “wheat” in describing their products; however, these terms carry vastly different nutritional implications.  Herein lays the true difference:

Whole wheat means that the bread is made using the entire wheat kernel.

Whole grain means that the bread can consist of any whole-grain kernel. That grain may be wheat, spelt or barley. The bread might even be made using a mixture of different whole grains.

To further complicate the issue, there is also a significant difference between multi-grain and whole-grain products.  Foods made from whole grain pack a denser nutrient punch, since all parts of the grain kernel — the bran (fiber and vitamins), germ (fat and B-vitamins) and endosperm (protein and carbs) — have been used in their preparation. In contrast, multigrain foods contain more than one type of grain, such as “seven-grain bread”, although none of these may necessarily be whole grains. Common sources of multigrain foods include breads, cold and hot cereals, tortillas, rolls, waffles, chips and crackers.  This is where learning to read labels is of such importance: Search for products whose first ingredient is listed as “whole wheat,” “whole oats” or a similar whole grain. While “whole grains” may signify one of many types of healthy grains, “whole wheat” labels the specific grain used.

A quick and effective way to ascertain whether a particular food contains refined grains is to look for the words ‘enriched wheat flour’ near the top of the ingredient list. This denotes that the multigrain food is not composed entirely of whole grains, and therefore offers little in the way of health benefits when compared to whole grain options. Once a food has been refined or milled (as is the case with most varieties of white bread), the bran and most of the germ have been removed during processing.

According to The Mayo Clinic, healthy adults should consume at least three 1-ounce (28-gram) equivalents of whole grains per day as part of a balanced diet. The United States Department of Agriculture further recommends that women should aim for up to 6 oz. of whole grains per day.  Both expert organizations agree that if bread is the source of these grains, the product should provide 3 grams or more of fiber per serving.

Since we will soon be ridding our pantries of all forms of chometz, we will have an opportunity for a fresh start at the conclusion of Pesach.  Shopping prudently, with an eye on labels and whole-grain products, will help ensure a healthier intake once the final matzah crumbs have been brushed away for another year!