White, whole wheat, and whole grain breads all get their start with grains. The difference is determined by white grains are used, and how those grains are processed.
Before we understand the difference between whole wheat and whole grain bread, let’s take a look at what a grain is.
The anatomy of a grain
Freshly-harvested grains have a protective husk like an ear of corn. This outermost layer is inedible, and is removed before grains are packaged or processed into flour.
Underneath the husk, each grain has a thin layer known as the bran. The bran is fiber and nutrient-rich. If the grain were an apple, the bran would be the apple skin; a thin, edible, outer later.
The next layer is the endosperm. This would be the flesh of the apple. The endosperm is the largest part of the grain. This is the starchy fuel source that would provide nutrition for the germ if the grain were to sprout.
This brings us to the germ. The germ is the innermost part of the grain. The entire grain is really just a package supporting and protecting the germ. This nutrient-rich center is the portion of the grain that would spout and grow if planted.
Whole wheat vs. whole grain bread
Conventional supermarket white bread is made from processed white flour. To make white flour, the bran and germ are removed before wheat grains are milled. Removing these components creates a light-colored, neutral-tasting product. The resulting flour is shelf stable, but the fiber and nutrients from the bran and germ have been stripped away.
Whole wheat bread is made from 100% milled wheat grains. To make whole wheat flour, the germ and bran remain intact. This creates a nutrient-rich flour, but the oils from the germ and bran reduce the products shelf-life. This is why organic whole wheat flour is kept in the refrigerator at some grocery stores.
The main difference between whole wheat and whole grain bread is that whole grain bread can include grains other than wheat. Some popular grains include sorghum, millet, and even brown rice. No matter what grains are included, they’ve been milled with the germ and bran intact, ensuring maximum nutrient power.
In addition to whole wheat and whole grain, the grocery store may have breads labeled multi-grain, wheat, or white whole wheat. It can be difficult to parse all of the labels. If you’re looking for the most nutrient-dense product, the word “whole” is your best clue here. That’s the indicator that the grain has not been separated before milling.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with choosing white bread or white flour. We love a crusty baguette dipped into soup, or just slathered with butter. Learning the difference between whole wheat and whole grain is just one way to make informed decisions at the grocery store.