by Marion Nestle
Oct 3 2010

San Francisco Chronicle column: whole wheat is not the whole story

My first-Sunday-of-the-month San Francisco Chronicle Q and A column, Food Matters, is out.  This month it’s about figuring out what “whole wheat” labels mean on food packages.

Q: I pay $4 for multigrain or whole wheat breads because I’ve heard white bread isn’t as healthy. But when I compare nutrition labels, $2 white breads look much the same. Are they?

A: My Talmudic answer: yes and no. You are asking about commercial sliced breads. Bread may be the staff of life, but you would never know it from reading the ingredient lists of most commercial products.

Commercial breads are indeed much the same, with only a few differences that matter.

To decide whether these have anything in them worth eating beyond their calories, you must inspect labels to make sure the first ingredient is whole grain, the total number of ingredients is small and devoid of unpronounceable chemicals, the fiber content is at least 2 grams per 1-ounce serving and the label says 100 percent whole wheat. Anything less is reconstituted white bread with occasional pieces of the original grain added back.

And then there is taste. Artisanal breads begin with just four ingredients – flour, water, salt and yeast – and turn them into loaves so crusty, chewy and fragrant that you cannot stop eating them. If they have some whole grain in them, even better.

But handmade breads take forever to make and quickly go stale. Commercial bakeries deal with these problems by rushing the bread-making process and compensate for the loss of flavor by adding stabilizers, dough softeners and preservatives, and covering up the chemical tastes with sweeteners. Breads with 30 or more ingredients are not unusual and violate my rule: Never buy processed foods with more than five ingredients.

To compare breads, you must read labels. Bread companies do not make this easy. Some list the serving size as one slice, some two, and their weights can vary by twofold. When you convert everything to ounces, the nutrient content of supermarket breads looks much alike.

An ounce provides 70 to 80 calories, a trivial difference. The grain is what counts.

Wheat grains have three components – the nutrient-rich bran and germ (“chaff”), and the endosperm, which is mostly starch and protein. One hundred percent whole wheat flour contains all three in the same proportion as in the original grains.

White flour contains about 80 percent of the original components. It is mostly endosperm.

Nutrients in the chaff are lost, so bakers are required to replace the five nutrients least likely to be available from other foods: niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, folic acid and iron. The others are not replaced.

Neither is fiber. White flour contains only trace amounts of fiber.

Because high-fiber diets promote healthy bowel function and appear to reduce risks of heart disease and bowel cancers, dietary advice is to eat at least three daily servings of whole grains – 3 ounces of 100 percent whole wheat bread, for example.

Food labeling rules do not make it easy to figure out fiber content. Some white breads list 1 gram of fiber, but watch out for serving size. It takes two slices to reach half a gram, which can be rounded up to 1.

Whole wheat bread with 2 grams of fiber per 1-ounce slice may have four times as much fiber as white breads. But watch out for breads listing 3 grams fiber; their slices may weigh nearly 2 ounces.

In response to dietary advice, commercial bakeries have introduced whole grain breads acceptable to white bread eaters. These grind the wheat bran super fine, add extra dough conditioners to keep the bread soft, and toss in some bran or cracked wheat to make the bread look like whole wheat. Check for fiber grams and the position of chaff ingredients on the list. The further down the list, the smaller their contribution.

And where is the Food and Drug Administration to help with whole grains? Alas, the FDA has not set rules for grain content. It permits manufacturers to make statements such as “100 percent whole grain” as long as the statement is true and does not imply that the food is an “excellent source.”

The FDA’s nonbinding guidance says anything labeled “100 percent whole grain” must contain all three components of the original wheat seed, in proportion.

This regulatory gap permitted creation of the industry-sponsored Whole Grain Council. The council issues a certifying stamp in two forms: 100 percent and Basic. One hundred percent means all grains are whole. But the more prevalent Basic stamp allows refined grains and disproportionate additions of bran or germ.

This article appeared on page K – 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Note: E-mail your questions to, with “Marion Nestle” in the subject line.  Read previous columns at

  • Joe D

    Someday, I’d like to see some actual evidence that whole grains are any better than refined grains. This seems to be nothing except conventional wisdom based on the weakest of evidence (search for “are whole grains good for the heart”).

    There may be more minerals in wholegrains, but bioavailability is another matter (search for “Dietary Fiber and Mineral Availability”).

    Likewise, the evidence for fiber is mixed. And especially the tear-the-gut-up fiber in wheat is dubious at best.

    Some estimate that 40% of the population is gluten sensitive, and for them (and few know it), grains mean gut issues, depression, psoriasis, etc. (and then misdiagnosed).

    Perhaps, if you go to France and get properly fermented grains, you can get a healthy food. But, in the U.S., there is hardly a healthy bread sold. That is suggested by caveats above, but “health whole grains” is the health establishment mantra w/o the footnote, “but only in France”.

  • Anthro

    I don’t know where Joe lives, but where I come from, there are a number of good artisan bakeries (Italian, French and Americans who have studied there). They make wonderful smelling and tasty breads in many varieties including whole wheat and multi grain (with mixed grains being the second ingredient).

    I also make my own sourdough starter (or get some from one of these bakeries if mine goes bad), and make my own bread much of the time. It’s very simple to make simple bread. And very cheap, even with the increases in grain prices in the last couple of years.

    Like anything, don’t eat too much of it.

    I have a great deal of skepticism about all this “gluten sensitivity” that seems to be the latest rage and would like to see some evidence that shows that there is anything going on with this besides a placebo effect.

    Finally, I wish I had a dime for every person I’ve taken the time to explain the difference between “whole grain” and “100% whole wheat” to. I wish the FDA would do something about the labeling of bread that is white flour with caramel color added (or a very small amount of grain mix) being labeled “wheat” with the implication that it is WHOLE wheat. Most people do NOT understand the difference.

  • Joe D

    I’m sure one can find healthy bread in the U.S. (I’m guilty of exaggeration), but likely 99% of that which is actually consumed is toxic to many people. While Marion Nestle makes that point (perhaps too gently), health officials hardly discourage mass produced breads. There has probably never been anything except unhealthy bread served in school lunches for 50 years, for example.

    Search for “Celiac disease cases doubling every 15 years” (recent articles). Celiac disease is certainly due to toxins in grains (whole or not). Celiac disease is merely gluten sensitivity advanced to a specific manifestation. And the only cure is avoiding grains.

    This is also true with autism, which is most often a disease of the gut, where going gluten-free sometimes produces almost miraculous changes. The explosion of autism and the explosion of celiac disease are certainly related (as well as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc.).

  • In the study you’re referring to, researchers found that the percentage of subjects showing blood markers for CD doubled from 0.002% to 0.004%.

    Whether or not that is a statistically significant change, or a result of chance selection of subjects, would be something to discuss. Previous results have put the estimated number of Americans with CD at 0.0075% of the population.

    According to the U.S. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases:

    “Celiac disease can be confused with irritable bowel syndrome, iron-deficiency anemia caused by menstrual blood loss, inflammatory bowel disease, diverticulitis, intestinal infections, and chronic fatigue syndrome.”

    If you think you might have CD, it is a good idea to talk to your doctor. CD is diagnosed through blood testing and is remedied by an altered diet.

  • Joe D

    Per the numbers, you are off by a factor of 100.
    In 1974, 0.20% (1/501).
    In 1988, 0.46% (1/219).
    In 2003, 0.75% (1/133).
    At this rate same rate of increase, above 1% would be expected now. And 1.5% by 2018.

  • MA

    I do wish that more people knew about soaking/fermenting. Whole grains can be good for most people (depending on gluten sensitivies). I’d like to see soaked whole grains encouraged more than just whole grains. It’s amazing how much knowledge has been lost in our ‘modern’ society.

  • @Joe D: You’re right.

  • You can read more on the possible benefits of longer fermentation (including references to some of the, sadly limited, research that’s been done so far) and and other bready issues at

    Oh, and here in the UK, they banned the term ‘wheatmeal’ (which kinda meant brown) back in the 1980s to avoid confusion with ‘wholemeal’

  • ET Addison

    Yeah, I’m a little skeptical of the claims for ‘healthy whole grains’.

    Marion is quick to criticize the evil food manufacturers for making unwarranted health claims for their food products (health claims that, usually, start with the nutrition community by the way.)

    Yet right there in the post is Marion’s claim “high-fiber diets promote healthy bowel function and appear to reduce risks of heart disease and bowel cancers”

    No citation provided, of course. No citation of conflicting evidence.

    Just a vague, bald claim which, if it were made by a food company or a bread-maker, she would climb all over it.

  • I guess the ‘whole wheat’ and ‘whole grains’ added to white bread (acceptable to white bread eaters) are like that non-alcoholic drink from years ago Claytons. The drink you have when you are not having a drink. It appears we are not getting the ‘whole’ benefit of the ‘whole’ grain. Thanks for the information

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  • Stefan Senders

    Nice article. Just wanted to add a bit to the story.
    It’s true that some artisan bread stales quickly, but most of the
    “naturally leavened,” “sourdough,” or “levain” loaves have remarkable keeping qualities–their flavor often improves over a period of days, and they are generally mold-resistant. The longevity of naturally leavened bread is due to the presence of lactic and acetic acids produced during bacterial
    fermentation (there are yeasts involved as well, but not standard bakers yeast). These acids also contribute to the complex flavor of well-fermented bread. Industrial bread producers have long known that bacterial fermentation can be extremely useful, but they’ve found the bacteria difficult to manage. Fermentation of this sort is slow, and it can be unpredictable; it requires care and patience. There are industrial “sourdough systems,” but they both expensive and complex, and it’s generally easier for bakers to add acids or other “enhancers” directly to the mix. As you might expect, the negative outcomes of the “enhanced” approach are many,
    but that’s another, and longer, story.

  • This is a very thought provoking article. I now eat only sourdough, soaked or sprouted wheat breads after learning of the phytate issue from the

    Not being a nutritionist, I find advice like this really baffling:

    “dietary advice is to eat at least three daily servings of whole grains – 3 ounces of 100 percent whole wheat bread, for example.”

    How much bread is 3 ounces, a half a slice (I have no idea but it sounds like not very much)? One would think that three daily servings means at least 3 slices of bread or 1 slice bread and 1 whole grain cereal, or 1 whole grain rice, or whatever.

    I also don’t think in grams like nutritionists do, they seem to always tell people, eat so and so grams daily. They might as well be talking greek.

    If I am confused, maybe others are as well.

    Frankly, I liked it a lot better when experts weren’t trying to ‘gerrymander’ my diet.

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  • Roxanne Rieske

    The healthiest and easiest to digest whole grain breads are those where the grains are first either soaked (fermentation) or fully sprouted. Fully sprouted grain breads are pretty easy to find in major grocery stores. They do not last well on dry shelves, so they are sold frozen. The most well known brand is Food for Life’s Ezekiel bread. The down side w/ the Ezekiel breads is that they are not all that palatable. Ezekiel breads make better toast than sandwiches.

    Soaked/fermented grain breads taste a whole lot better and have a much better texture. They also stay fresher longer. This is an artesian bread technique, and these breads are typically only found in bakeries because the process to make them is too long for huge commercial bakeries to even want to touch, even though the process itself is fairly simple. First, a combination of whole grains, ground whole grain flours, and seeds are soaked from anywhere from 12-24 hours (depending on the grain composition). Then natural yeast starter is added, and the loose “dough” is mixed to distribute the starter. Then it is allowed to rest for another 12-18 hours. This develops the gluten and naturally conditions and strengthens the dough w/out having to add any chemicals to it. Last salt is added, and the dough is kneaded again (if salt is added too early it restricts yeast and bacterial activity–which is what conditions the dough). Then the dough is divided into molds (it’s a “wet” dough and needs molds to rise and bake properly), left to rise a final time, and then baked–usually w/ steam to develop a hearty crust.

    The best widely available of this type of whole grain artesian bread is Panera Bread’s whole grain miche, loaves, and baquettes. It’s soft and moist and slightly sweet (from the fermentation of the grains) on the inside and has a nice hearty crust on the outside.

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