White vs. Whole wheat bread

Preface

Little to no preface needed for this article, we’re simply giving Whole Wheat bread and White Bread some weapons and armor and they’re battling it to the death for your approval. Get out your vuvuzelas and clappers and cheer for your favorite Grain-iator.

You fail to impress me, cereal grain.

What makes a grain Whole vs. White?

Whole grains are grains that include the bran, germ and endosperm. White (refined) grains only contain the endosperm. If we are to picture a wheat grain the bran would be the hard outer shell, the endosperm the inside with all the glucose, and the germ the testicles (little reproductive centers of the cereal grain). Testicles are nutritious.

The most widely touted reasons: And why they suck

Insulin response and the Glycemic Load

Firstly, a primary source from 2008 listing the glycemic values, from multiple sources, of various popular foods.

Free full text… Jackpot.

The one’s of concern are as follows:

  • White Wheat Bread: 75 +/- 2
  • Whole Wheat Bread: 74 +/- 2
  • Unleavened Wheat Bread: 70 +/- 5
  • Boiled Rice, White: 73 +/- 4
  • Boiled Rice, Brown: 68 +/- 4
  • Rolled Oats: 55 +/- 2
  • Instant Oats: 79 +/- 3

For clarification, wheat does not mean ‘whole wheat’ and the first is just bleached. It literally means made from wheat, which is what damn near all bread is made from. The white bread in grocery stores is indeed wheat bread.

The values here shocked me a bit, I was initially going to do some math showing that the true difference between white and brown bread is negligible, but I believe the above values show what I mean.

As for why there seems to be people touting the ‘Low-GI’ of whole wheat bread, I think it may have to do with past values. Looking at some other sources, this one places whole wheat a bit higher on the GI. Most other sources place it at or around 69.

Surprisingly, 69 is the highest value for a ‘moderate-GI’ food to have (There are 3 classifications of GI values. Low is below 55, moderate is 56-69, and high is above that). Meaning that a possible 2-5 point difference in white bread and whole wheat bread leads to a different arbitrary classification. Methinks those who tout the low-GI of whole grain bread just have not checked their sources, or are thinking of specialty breads (which are usually around 53 +/- 5, possibly a low GI bread)

Finally, what does the Glycemic Index even mean? The ‘Measure of which 50g carbohydrates affect blood glucose levels over a 2 hour postprandial period’? Okay, but does this have any bearing on you as a person?

Minimal, it measures glucose (which is correlated with insulin, specifically in grains) but the actual measure of a GI response is too variable in the real world as any other nutrients co-consumed with it can affect it, the idea that lower-GI is better also makes some horrible assumptions:

  1. They assume that an insulin spike is bad and not wanted
  2. They assume that people will eat carbs all the time, and thus one should eat lower GI sources to minimize insulin secretion

If one does not follow those assumptions (which you shouldn’t if you’re athletic and wary of body composition), then the Glycemic Index/Load is a fairly useless measure to you. Think of it as a nutritive BMI, good for population health control, useless for micromanagement.

You can make an insulin spike beneficial, and if you want to be more insulin sensitive your could just, you know, not eat any carbs for a while, rather than choosing the lesser of two evils.

Winner: There is none

Fiber content

Ah, fiber content. I just wrote a glowing review of dietary fiber too. So more is better correct?

Nah, not really in this scenario.

Judging by the average loaf of bread in a grocery store, the fiber contents of the two are usually around 2-4 grams for two slices of white bread and 4-8 grams for two slices of whole wheat bread.

Some things to note here:

  1. If you are eating enough bread to actually, eventually, make the differences significant; you have more problems on your hand than a ‘lack of dietary fiber’ from switching
  2. A good deal of grain fiber, as mentioned in the linked article above, is in the insoluble form. The soluble form is the one that carries most benefits, so the label fiber is deceptively high if you want health benefits.
  3. The studies on the Glycemic Index of the grains did not control for fiber. Fiber is the reason that whole wheat and white bread differ in the GI scale. This means that you can turn the insulin response from white bread into that of whole wheat bread by putting something fibrous or meaty on your sandwich and slowing down absorption.
  4. If you wanted fiber, eat some beans or veggies. 200kcal for 8g of fiber in bread is nothing compared to a serving of lentils, which boasts 20g or more per 200kcal. Eating grains for fiber is a misguided maneuver.

Winner: Again, there is none

Nutrient Density

Another reason whole wheat is superior to white bread is because of it’s better nutrient profile. Per serving, you get more micronutrients in whole wheat bread than in white bread.

Let’s actually look at the nutrient densities though. (The following is sources from averages of 3 different ‘White Bread’ and ‘Whole wheat bread’ resources via the front page of Google; their respective sources are unknown but all 3 were very similar)

In comparison to Whole Wheat Bread, White bread has:

  • 1g less Fiber
  • 13mg more Calcium
  • 0.37mg more Iron
  • 16mg less Magnesium
  • 29mg less Phosphorus
  • 42mg less Potassium
  • 59mg more Sodium
  • 0.3mg less Zinc
  • 0.035mg less Copper
  • 0.469mg less Manganese
  • 6.5mcg less Selenium
  • 0.029mg more Thiamin (B1)
  • 0.033mg more Riboflavin (B2)
  • 0.093mf less Niacin (B3)
  • 0.137mg less Panthenoic Acid (B5)
  • 0.035mg less Pyridoxine (B6)
  • 34mcg DFE more Folate (Dietary Folate Equivalent, as there are many forms with difference absorption rates)
  • 0.08mg more Vitamin E

Those numbers are probably meaningless to you, but how about percentages of the RDA/DRI? (What is seen on the food labels?)

  • 4% more dietary fiber
  • 1.3% more calcium
  • 4.6% more Iron
  • 4% less Magnesium
  • 4.1% less Phosphorus
  • 0.8% less Potassium
  • 4% more Sodium
  • 2.7% less Zinc
  • 4% less Copper
  • 20% less Manganese
  • 12% less Selenium
  • 2.4% more Thiamin
  • 2.5% more Riboflavin (B2)
  • 0.5% less Niacin (B3)
  • 2.7% less Panthenoic Acid (B5)
  • 1.5% less Pyridoxine (B6)
  • 8.5% more Folate
  • 0.5% more Vitamin E

Aside from Manganese and possibly Selenium, every other nutrient difference is so abysmal that one would need to eat an entire loaf of bread to see noticeable effects over time. In regards to a single serving of grains there is no significant difference in nutrient density of whole wheat vs. white bread.

That’s a little thing society calls fortification, where nutrients taken out of foods during processing are added back in. It’s a little thing that is always applied to white grain products that whole wheat supporters like to omit.

Winner: See a trend? No clear winnerThe difference between breads is like the twins above. If you look closely,you will see the left one is older.

Taste and digestibility

This is included since I wanted this to actually be a concern, eating better should not mean ‘stuffing your face full of stuff that should be good’.

That being said, this is highly individual. Taste was mentioned as some people like whole wheat better than white and vice versa. Some people swear that whole wheat bread gives them an upset stomach and white bread treats them well. This is important to note. (Although I do not know the reason, gluten and grain lectins are found mostly in the endosperm of the plant and thus exist in both white and whole wheat pretty much equally)

Winner: Your choice

Adding it all up: Who is the better of the breads?

The totals have been added, and here are the results:

  • Insulin and Glycemic Load – Insignificant Difference
  • Fiber content – Insignificant Difference (Unless you need that insoluble fiber to poop)
  • Nutrient Density – Insignificant Difference
  • Taste and digestibility – Your choice

So, in sum, there is absolutely no evidence that whole wheat is better or worse than white bread by any significant amount. The difference that does exist seems beneficial until you take into account how beneficial, in which you find that it really isn’t.

Eat what you like, eat what tastes good; just whatever you choose, don’t eat too much.

Unless your bread is actually meat, then eat as much as you want.

Edit (02/14/2011)

A word on ‘specialty breads’

After this article launched, many people were wondering where their favorite breads fell on this issue. Breads such as Rye, Pumpernickel, Sourdough, and the like were all being inquired about whether they were better, worse, or the same. (Which makes no sense to me, my conclusion was eat the bread you want; why worry about if your bread is not as amazing as you thought it was? You like it, eat it)

The breads in this article that fall under ‘white wheat’ or ‘whole wheat’ are the generic loaves of oh-so-much marketability that you see in your grocery store. Breads you find at your bakery cooked fresh and breads made with seeds or fermented by bacteria *may* not apply to the above. The GI of these breads are usually around 55 +/- or so (as stated in the source above), but I have no clue as to their micronutrient of fiber content.

On the left, Yay; on the right, Nay

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Comments

  1. mattw says:

    I took a look at that study. The problem is that “wheat bread” and even “whole wheat bread” are ambiguous. If you look at “whole wheat bread” (as in, the ingredients on the bread), a lot of times there are a lot of carb sources and “whole wheat bread” seems from my shopping experience to be “bread that contains a non-zero amount of whole wheat flour”.

    By contrast, if something is labeled, “100% whole-grain whole-wheat bread” it tends to be entirely whole wheat flour.

    Those breads tend to be harder to find – there is a smaller selection or no selection of them, depending on the grocery.

    I have no idea whether this makes any difference with respect to the glycemic index and don’t mention it to detract from your point. (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” remains good advice regardless) The study is irritatingly ambiguous, however.

    • Silverhydra says:

      I cannot speak with 100% confidence on this (as this article is part nutrition and part marketing; the latter of which I do not know much about), but most of the Glycemic differences between white wheat and whole wheat seem to be from the fiber content. Possibly if that changes between 51% whole wheat products (the minimal amount needed for a whole wheat label) and 100% whole wheat, then the Glycemic Index may change.

      Not sure how significant the change would be though.

  2. herman_gill says:

    There is a larger difference in glycemic index between whole grains and whole wheat. Also typical whole grain bread actually has a sizable amount more soluble fiber than plain white, or regular white.

    Unfortunately the industry is crappily regulated both in America and north of the border as to what constitutes whole wheat or whole grain. Better just to read the label for what’s better, or like you said just eat what tastes better.

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