All About Wheat, Gluten, and Whole Grains

So something that’s confused me over the years of trying to eat healthy is what exactly different labels on wheat products and other grains mean. Here’s a summary of important terms (definitions and other notes) to consider when you are trying to eat whole, real foods:

Wheat Flour – This is also known as white flour and doesn’t contain all parts of the wheat grain – generally most of the bran and germ have been removed. Also note that “unbleached enriched wheat flour” on product labels is also the same as white flour.

So what’s wrong with removing the bran and germ, you ask? Well, these parts of the grain contain most of the nutrients in wheat (and most grains), while the part of the grain that is left in white flour (the endosperm) is missing a lot of key nutrients. White flour will cause a much greater spike in your blood sugar than wheat flour. White flour also has less fiber as well as many vitamins. Overall, if you are trying to eat foods that will make you feel good and improve your health, white flour shouldn’t be a regular part of your diet.

Whole Wheat – Contains all parts of the wheat grain – the bran, germ, and endosperm (more about whole grains here). This is much healthier than white flour, as more nutrients are found in the bran and germ than in the endosperm. For the healthiest bread, look for 100% whole wheat.

White Whole Wheat – This is a type of whole wheat from a variety of wheat that is lighter in color and milder in flavor than traditional wheat. This flour is nutritionally similar to traditional whole wheat flour.

Whole Grain – This is similar to whole wheat, except that this term applies to all grains (wheat, barley, rye, etc). Basically whole grain products have to contain all parts of the grain (bran, germ, endosperm). Whole grains can include:

  • Amaranth
  • Barley
  • Brown or Wild Rice
  • Buckwheat
  • Corn
  • Millet
  • Quinoa
  • Rye
  • Oats
  • Wheat including: Bulgur, Kamut, & Spelt

For a product to be labelled whole grain the first ingredient on the label must be a whole grain (i.e. there must be more whole grains than any other ingredient). Therefore, flour can be labelled whole grain if 51% of the flour is whole grain and the other 49% of the flour is refined (for more information on whole grain labeling see this website). Additionally, many mills separate the components of the grain (bran, germ, endosperm) for part of processing and then recombine them later. I’ve read arguments that this separation during processing may compromise the nutritional value of eating the whole grain (for example, Michael Pollan’s book Cooked), and some smaller mills have started to use whole milling methods, where the components of the grain are not separated during any portion of processing.

Multi-grain – This label indicates the presence of more than one type of grain in the bread and doesn’t necessarily indicate any amount of whole grains. Bread can be made from more than one type of grain and still contain large amounts of white, refined flour.

Gluten – This is a mixture of proteins present in many cereal grains (wheat, barley, rye). This is what makes bread dough elastic in texture.

Gluten-free – Foods with no gluten, or with very small amounts of gluten (less than 20ppm). Foods labelled gluten-free can still have small amounts of gluten present, but at levels so low that even those with severe Celiac disease should be able to tolerate them.

So what do you do with all of this information if you are trying to eat whole, real foods (on the Daniel Plan or otherwise)? Here are some takeaways that I try to keep in mind when I’m purchasing wheat and other cereal grain products:

  • Look for 100% whole wheat or 100% whole grains on the label
  • When buying flour, research the milling methods of the company producing the flour. Also, look for “unbleached” and “unbromated” flour.
  • Inspect labels containing phrases like “multi-grain” or “seven-grain” cautiously – these terms may make a product sound more healthy than it is
  • The Daniel Plan book recommends eating the sprouted grain products made by Food for Life (also known as Ezekiel bread). This bread is very healthy and contains many different kinds of whole grains (and no flour). There are also other bread options around that are made from whole grains and contain no flour. However, these breads are generally expensive and a lot heartier than most American breads (my husband is not a fan).

Anyway, I hope this is helpful information for you! I spent a lot of time researching this topic over the past year, trying to understand what food labels mean. I eventually came to the conclusion that I am generally not going to eat anything containing flour unless I know where the flour came from and how it was processed. It’s just too easy to make nutrition-less flour seem healthy using misleading labels. I buy my flour from a mill in Trumansburg called Farmer Ground Flour. It’s stone mill ground 100% whole wheat flour and it’s non-GMO and local. It’s sold at Naturtyme here in Syracuse (and I’ve seen it at Wegmans on occasion as well). When I do want to make bread or rolls, that’s what I use!

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