healthiest foods, health food, diet, nutrition, stock, whole wheat bread, grains, toast, breakfast
Photograph by Danny Kim for TIME; Gif by Mia Tramz for TIME

The Case Against ‘Whole Wheat’ and 'Whole Grain' Bread

Jan 23, 2017
TIME Health
For more, visit TIME Health.

So you’re ready to include more whole grains in your diet, and you reasonably want to start with your daily bread (and crackers, and granola bars, and other grain-based snacks). When you consider that most U.S. adults only get half the recommended amount of daily fiber, opting for the bread that says "whole grain" or "high fiber" or "whole wheat" seems like a sage choice. And it is, if you know what to look for. The trouble is, it's easy to get duped.

Not all whole grain foods are what they claim to be. Some contain only a small amount of actual whole grains and instead include refined flour—a pulverized version of what may, at some point, have been a whole grain. That's a problem, because how much a grain has been milled or manipulated can also make a difference in how nutritious it is. Complicating matters is the fact that there’s no standard for telling people how much of a product — 50%, 100% — comes from whole grains.

“If you see the words whole grain on the label, that’s no guarantee that you are getting 100% whole grains,” says Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition at Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition advocacy group. CSPI petitioned the FDA in 2012 to address misleading whole grain claims and labeling and continues to publish research about potentially misleading claims on its website.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates nutrient and health claims about foods, a whole grain food must contain all components of a grain kernel. That includes the bran, the germ and the endosperm (the inner most part of the kernel). Whole wheat, oatmeal, brown rice, whole rye and quinoa are all examples of whole grains. Manufacturers take these whole grains and turn them into all sorts of products, from breads and crackers to pizza crusts, and that’s where the confusion sets in, since some of these products retain all three parts of the grain, while others do not.

To clear up confusion, here are the five things you need to know about whole grains.

1. "Made with whole grains" does not mean much.

“'Made with whole grains’ is the biggest scam out there,” says Liebman. “To many consumers that sounds like the bread or cereal or whatever is made only with whole grains when in fact, it usually is made with very little whole grains.”

The claim can hide the fact that while some whole grains are there, it's mostly made of refined flours, which don’t contain the same nutrients and fiber that whole grains do, and can therefore contribute to weight gain and rising blood sugar levels.

What’s important is to find out what percentage of a product is actually made from whole grains, which isn’t always easy. If it says it's made from "100% whole grains," that's a promising sign. If that’s not there, look at the ingredient list: products with whole grains listed first will contain more whole grains than a product where it's not at the top of the list, but if the next two or three ingredients are refined flours, it's probably not a very healthy choice.

2. The term "whole grain" doesn't always refer to food of equal nutritional value.

This isn’t so much about the different types of grains — from wheatberries to bulgar to oats and more — but about what form they take in your food. There’s emerging evidence that the more manipulated a grain is, the more chances there are for nutrients and vitamins and fiber to drop out, leaving only a fraction of the original healthy nutritional content.

“Instead of being protected inside the grain kernel, which is a hardy, tough structure, it’s now disrupted so the grain’s vitamins and phytochemicals are oxidized and exposed to air,” says Dr. David Ludwig, director of the Optimal Weight for Life program at Boston Children’s Hospital and professor of nutrition at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.

There are also studies that suggest that the body responds very differently to milled grains than to whole grains with the kernel intact. The idea is that the digestive system can absorb finely milled grains more quickly, and since grains are carbohydrates, that may send blood sugar levels spiking. That in turn puts a burden on the pancreas to churn out more insulin in a hurry, which over time can contribute to diabetes and weight gain. Whole grains that are less manipulated, however, may take longer to digest and therefore lead to more gradual rises in blood sugar. Ludwig did one of the first studies to reveal this effect: In a study of a dozen obese children, those who ate steel cut oats, a more unrefined form of oatmeal, were less hungry and showed more stable blood sugar levels compared with those who consumed instant oatmeal.

3. Fiber claims can be misleading.

You may think whole grains and fiber are equivalent, since the main reason why health experts recommend whole grains is to boost fiber intake, but that’s not always the case. For the most part, whole grains do contain more fiber, which can help to keep weight in check by making you feel full. But many products with whole grains that claim to be high in fiber contain added fiber, in the form of cellulose. Researchers still don’t know whether the health benefits of added fiber can mimic those of fiber gleaned from whole grains. “It’s somewhat questionable whether that fiber has the same functionality as that in whole grains,” says Alice Lichtenstein, professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University. “

4. "Multigrain" is another very tricky word.

It’s tempting to think multigrain products are better than whole grain ones, because more is better, right? Not exactly. Multigrain says nothing about whether the grains are whole vs. excessively milled, and it also doesn't specify whether those grains are nutritious—some grains are, some grains aren't. All it says is that the product contains more than one grain. Any secondary grains could be present in negligible amounts.

Ludwig suggests the simple visual test. “When you have it on your plate, does it look like a grain or no? If you’re eating wheatberries, bulgar wheat, quinoa, whole barley or brown rice, you can look down and see the grains and they look relatively whole,” he says. With the "wheat toast" you order at the diner with your egg white omelette, that's probably not the case.

5. Not all whole grain foods are healthy.

It should now be clear that just because a food says it contains whole grains doesn’t meant it’s fiber-rich or even healthy. Foods like cereals and crackers that contain whole grains can also be loaded with sugar, salt and other artificial ingredients, and very little fiber. “Better for you doesn’t mean good for you,” says Ludwig about these foods.

TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice.