Whole wheat and the whole truth

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

January 2009

Millions of shoppers find themselves getting cross-eyed and confused as they try to sort out the information — or misinformation — on bread wrappers on supermarket shelves. The truly health conscious want to do the right thing but neither bakers nor bureaucrats make life easy for them. Nutritionists add to the problem. Some promote whole-grain foods with a passion while others consider any type of grain to be anything but wholesome, even whole grain.

Our early Stone Age ancestors rarely ate grain of any kind. In the tropical and subtropical climates in which they lived there were better alternatives to the labor-intensive grain-gathering process. Without heating and grinding, grains are no more digestible than grass. Even after processing, grains contain factors that interfere with the absorption of some nutrients such as iron.

Gluten, a component of wheat, rye, barley and other grains, makes life miserable for millions of people who develop abdominal pain, diarrhea and bloating after eating even small amounts. In persons with a specific genetic makeup, gluten causes celiac disease, whose symptoms may puzzle physicians for years before they arrive at the correct diagnosis.

If we ignore for the time being the claim by some scientists that grains of any type cause poorly recognized, adverse health effects, humans appear to adapt themselves fairly well to common grains as long as they do not make up the bulk of calories.

Late in the 19th century flour manufacturing underwent a transformation. The old milling process mashed and pulverized the entire grain, mixing the endosperm, the germ and the husk into flour that didn't keep very well. The new process separated out the germ and the husk, producing white flour that lasted for months. The reason, of course, is that it was so devoid of nutrients that vermin wouldn't bother with it and few microorganisms could grow in it. The simple solution of putting back some of the nutrients that had just been removed enabled food manufacturers to call it enriched, a ploy that has deceived consumers ever since.

The foolishness got worse when marketers convinced the public that brown bread was healthier than white and that anything containing whole wheat was even better. Brown sugar or molasses turn white flour brown but they add a minuscule amount of nutrients. Breads that are "made with" enriched wheat flour or even whole grains are not much healthier unless whole-grain or whole wheat flour is listed first on the nutrition label. Even hallowed pumpernickel and rye breads may consist mainly of refined flour, with much less fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals than a true whole-grain product.

If refined flour or wheat flour is listed as the first ingredient on a loaf of bread, even if it has a healthy-sounding name like "multi-grain" or the color is golden brown, it's not a true whole-grain product.

Read the label. There are so many choices in today's supermarkets that you don't need to settle for this "staff of life" with minimal nutritional value.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.