How to Buy Bread – Whole Grains [miniseries part 2]

In the previous post we kicked off with some general guidelines for choosing bread:

  1. The first ingredient should be whole grain.
  2. The bread should be 100% whole wheat.
  3. The fiber count should be 2 or more grams per ounce. sometimes that’s one slice, but not always.
  4. It should have a short ingredient list.

Today, we’ll take a look at whole grains and whole wheat.

What you need to know:

Whole grain includes 3 parts – endosperm (about 80% of the grain kernel), germ, and bran. Regular flour contains only the endosperm. it is finer, creates a more chewable bread, and unfortunately lacks in nutrients because most of them are in the bran and and germ.

Whole grains are wide and varied, with wheat being just one of them. There’s also oat, barley, spelt, kamut, rye, brown rice, and a few more. For bread though, wheat flour is the most popular and widely used grain. That is why you’ve heard and will continue to hear from us to look for 100% whole wheat.

So why is whole grain important?

Because it is the bran and the germ that contain the fiber, nutrients, and antioxidants that service our bodies. Enriched flour adds back just some of these nutrients, but not the fiber, and not hundreds of other nutrients.

The following adjectives are NOT indicators of whole grains:

Enriched – the flour is getting back what was lost when it was stripped of its whole grain-ness.Here’s what is added (mandated by the government) – Vitamin B1 (thiamin), Vitamin B2 (riboflavin), Vitamin B3 (niacin), folic acid, and iron.

Unbleached / bleached – indicates if the flour has been subjected to a whitening process or not. Bleached flour goes through more processing and chemicals, so you should prefer non-bleached flour. Whole grains are not bleached.

Multi-grain – simply indicates several types of grains have been used. For example, wheat and rye.

Organic – indicates how the wheat was grown, not if it was stripped of its

Unbromated / unbrominated - In the past, many bakeries used potassium bromate as a dough conditioner to improve the rising of the dough and the texture of the bread. Unfortunately, it is a carcinogen. It is not often used these days, and if it is, should appear on the ingredient list, regardless of its use as an adjective describing the flour.

More: durum, semolina, fine, high protein, plain , refined, stone ground, untreated, un-enriched, pumpernickel

100% any of the above – as in “100% refined wheat flour” (tricks the eye to think 100% whole wheat…)

OK. Got it?

Here’s a quick quiz. For each of the terms below please indicate if it is whole grain or not:

organic unbleached unenriched wheat flour
ground wheat flour
100% stone ground wheat flour
organic heirloom wheat flour
unbromated hard red spring wheat flour

Answer: none of the above are whole grains flours.

A manufacturer trick to look out for. Even if the product package boasts 100% Whole Wheat, you may be getting shortchanged. You see, manufacturers can add bran and germ to an ingredient list that kicks off with enriched flour. As long as the proportion of endosperm, bran, and germ is equal to what one would find naturally in a whole grain, the package claim “100% Whole Wheat” is technically correct. This is allowed by the FDA because the facts are correct. Again, reading the ingredient list quickly reveals the truth.

Confused? There’s more. An industry sponsored group called the Whole Grain Council has created a stamp that you may see on bread packages, depending if the manufacturer paid to be part of the program or not. Our advice – since not all products with whole grains have this marking, make the extra effort to read the ingredient list, regardless of the presence or not of the stamp.

What to do at the supermarket:

Take a look at the ingredient list and compare it to the health claims or product name. Remember, it’s the ingredient list that counts, not some confusing healthy headline.

  • Becky

    This is extremely helpful and educational! Does flour that is 100%whole wheat also have the whole grain stamp you refer to in the article?

    • Editorial Staff

      @Becky, not always. The whole grain stamp is voluntary and not all companies choose to participate.

  • The Table of Promise

    I am glad that you mentioned how manufacturers are starting to call flour “wheat flour” now, and it has nothing to do with whole grains.

  • BMH

    Whole grain bread is not enriched with folate, it is fortified. Fortification is different than enrichment; fortification of the food supply has to do with adding a nutrient that wasn’t there in the first place to a food- in this case to prevent birth defects associated with low folate status.

  • zigzagza

    If a bread does not list whole wheat flour as an ingredient, but has a list of whole grains, such as oats, barley and rye, that follows, does that make the bread “whole-grain” enough? The bread is generously studded with grains and seeds and is filling.

  • Ruth

    What about tracking down a good local bakery and buying delicious sourdough bread. So much tastier and a lot more nutritious. It’s so much tastier I can’t eat any supermarket bread anymore. It tastes like crap, whole grain or not. Just ate a piece with lots of good butter. Yum!

  • Stephen

    I’m not clear why whole rye flour (also known as pumpernickel and rye graham flour) is a bad thing. I’m a home baker and I’d also disagree strongly with Marion Nestle’s statement that artisan breads go stale quickly. No bread I make lasts as long as a wild yeast bread. Commercial artisan loaves such as the Poilane miche are sold as 4lb loaves that will last a family a whole week. (

  • carol

    @The Table of Promise
    The word “wheat” is required in order to specify the grain from which a flour is made. The word “flour” has (unfortunately) come to mean refined wheat flour, but it is not an accurate/informative description/name for a flour because not all flours are made from wheat and not all wheat flours are even the same nutritionally (they vary by strain of wheat, amount of processing, etc.). So, “wheat flour” is preferable to the term “flour”, but “refined wheat flour” would be even better, if that is what it is.

  • carol

    Traditional pumpernickel and rye breads are/were made with whole grain rye flour, but most commercial “rye” and “pumpernickel” breads found in supermarkets are not — only a small amount of the flour (if any) is whole grain rye.

    Regarding the “5 ingredients” rule/limit, this is kind of senseless and arbitrary, because anyone who cooks or even looks at recipes will know that even simple recipes call for many ingredients — healthy soups, for example, can have 10+ ingredients, most of them vegetables and herbs. Many small manufacturers cook this way and should not be penalized for it. We should be concerned with quality of ingredients, not quantity.

  • WilliamB

    “…manufacturers can add bran and germ to an ingredient list that kicks off with enriched flour. As long as the proportion of endosperm, bran, and germ is equal to what one would find naturally in a whole grain, the package claim “100% Whole Wheat” is technically correct.”

    I follow what you say but don’t understand why this is inferior to 100% whole wheat. Please explain.

  • Editorial Staff


    Good point.

    In a perfect world it’s not supposed to be inferior. In fact, most of the nutrients should stay intact, unlike vitamin C that evaporates from an orange once you juice it. However, the world is not perfect, and the manufacturing world is not perfect either.

  • Paula

    What do you guys think about white wheat bread? Nature’s Own, for example, has a bread called white wheat which they say has 5 grams of fiber per serving.

  • aisee

    would it not be helpful to list which breads are 100% whole grain?

  • sm

    we all must buy organic wheat. Research how much of the wheat in the USA is GMO and you will find out all that is not organic. Same as corn and soy. This article says in the past bakers used potassium bromide to raise the dough. As far as I know they still do that, only when it is marked in the ingredients list as unbromenated flour. I’ve seen this on Pepperidge farm but they have corn syrup just underneath that which is of course not organic. I am having hard times finding an organic wheat bread here in florida. I heard that in California they have a law that makes em put the bromated label on package. That might be where this article was written. I am over this poison they try selling us at supermarkets we all nee to relies the danger and boycott this.