What, Exactly, Is the Difference Between White and Wheat Bread?

Switching to whole grain bread is one of the easiest ways to up your fiber intake. We explain how to make the healthiest choice at the supermarket.

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I know whole wheat bread and white bread are different, but how exactly?

There are two big differences: how they’re processed and how healthful they are. The flour for both is made from wheat berries, which have three nutrient-rich parts: the bran (the outer layers), the germ (the innermost area) and the endosperm (the starchy part in between). Whole wheat is processed to include all three nutritious parts, but white flour uses only the endosperm. When put head-to-head with whole wheat bread, white is a nutritional lightweight. Whole wheat is much higher in fiber, vitamins B6 and E, magnesium, zinc, folic acid and chromium.

But of all these nutritional goodies, fiber is the star:

  • In a 10-year Harvard study completed in 1994, men and women who ate high-fiber breads had fewer heart attacks and strokes than those whose tastes ran to bagels and baguettes.
  • Simply switching from white to whole wheat bread can lower heart disease risk by 20 percent, according to research from the University of Washington reported in the April 2, 2003 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.
  • Fiber has long been known to aid digestive health too.
  • Fiber can help you lose or maintain weight because eating fiber-dense wheat bread helps you feel full.

But a lot of white bread is enriched. Doesn’t that take care of the nutrients lost during refining?

Nope. When flour is refined, it loses the most nutritious parts of the grain—the fiber, essential fatty acids, and most of the vitamins and minerals. In fact, about 30 nutrients are removed, but by law only five must be added back (though others often are): iron, niacin, thiamin, riboflavin and folic acid. There’s so little fiber left after processing that you’d have to eat eight pieces of white bread to get the fiber in just one piece of whole wheat bread.

Other foods besides whole grains have fiber and nutrients. Can’t I just get what I need from them and still enjoy my dinner rolls?

Whole grains provide health benefits that other foods don’’t. In a Harvard study of 75,000 nurses, those who ate at least three servings a day of whole grains cut their heart attack risk by 35 percent and were less likely to get into weight or bowel trouble. By contrast, those who ate more processed foods—such as white bread, white rice and sodas—were more than twice as likely to develop diabetes. “Science continues to support the key role of whole grains in reducing chronic illnesses,” says Len Marquart, professor of nutrition at the University of Minnesota and author of the first health claim for whole grains approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.

How can I tell if bread is really whole wheat?

Color used to be a clue, but no more. Although white bread is white because its been bleached, some dark bread has just had caramel coloring added to it. Look for “whole grain” or “whole wheat” as the first ingredient on the label. If any other ingredient is first, put the loaf back and keep looking.

Is bread a vegan food?

Many of the breads sold in grocery stores contain non-vegan ingredients, including milk, eggs, honey, shortening or whey, —not to mention sodium stearyl lactylate, glycerides, emulsifiers, natural flavorings, artificial flavorings and lactase, all of which may be derived from animals. Vegans often have better luck at bakeries but still need to ask if the bread pans are greased with animal fat. If you like to bake, you can make your own bread. But if that doesn’t interest you, try Rudi’s Organic, Nature’s Path or Brownberry; —they all produce vegan breads available nationwide.

Try making your own healthy bread at home. Here are a few recipes:

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