Whole grain or whole wheat bread – the fine difference

whole wheat grain bread
“If you can’t convince them, confuse them.” – Harry S. Truman

Be prepared. You are about to get a scientific bread degree. You will be introduced to the fine but important difference between whole wheat bread and whole grain bread. It’s going to be a bit complicated. It’s the strategy of the bread makers (I won’t call them bakers). Their goal is to confuse you. You are probably frustrated because labels don’t make any sense to you. You are very likely to pick a loaf of bread that promises you “Wonder” on the packaging, despite the fact that it doesn’t have wonderful nutritional value – if any.

To make sense of the ingredient list we have to take a short grain lesson. Let’s begin with the journey through the world of confusing whole wheat bread types and flours.

The 3 important parts of a whole wheat grain

A grain includes three parts. In the case of a wheat kernel that means (approximately):

  1. 14% bran                  the fiber rich and hard outer layers with
    – essential fatty acid
    – starch
    – protein
    – vitamins
    – minerals like iron
  1. 83% endosperm       the starchy middle part with pretty much only
    – starch
  1.   3% germ                  the fat rich center with essential nutrients like
    – vitamin E
    – folate
    – phosphorus
    – thiamin
    – zinc
    – magnesium
    – essential fatty acids

As you can see, the starchy middle #2 makes up most of the weight of a kernel but the essential nutrients – the good stuff – are located within #1 the bran and #3 the germ. What does that mean in terms of the different types of bread that are available.

Whole grain bread

  • All three parts of the grain (see above #1 + #2 + #3) are used to make the bread. Basically you get everything of the grain, which is great! Jackpot!

Whole wheat bread

  • When grains are milled, the grain is broken down into its parts. Under the Food and Drug Regulations it qualifies to be called “whole” even though up to 5% of the kernel is removed.
  • So the flour industry removes part of the bran (#1) and the whole germ (#3), which extends the shelf life of the flour. You only get all of #2 and parts of #1. The good stuff of #3 has been removed, which means “whole wheat” is less nutritious than “whole grain wheat”.

White flour bread or refined grains

  • With white flour bread the bran (#1) and the germ (#3) have been completely removed. This means all essential nutrients are lost. You only get the starch of #2. Not good! Not healthy!

100% whole wheat bread or 100% whole grain bread

  • That is a tricky part. Manufactures basically can take white flour and add bran and germ back to it. As long as the proportion of bran, endosperm and germ is equal to what one would find naturally in a whole grain, the package claim “100% whole wheat bread” is technically correct.

Enriched wheat flour

  • The white flour of the endosperm (#2) has been fortified with certain vitamins and minerals. The question is what quality do these vitamins and minerals have? And why taking something out of a product and then add different things back in? It’s not natural.

100% refined wheat flour

  • This is a trick. Because your eye sees 100% and 100% of something is always good. Not so here. It means that 100% of the flour used is refined white wheat flour.

Unbleached or bleached flour

  • Bleaching is a whitening process of flour. Bleached flour goes through more processing and chemicals. Whole grains are not bleached.

Multi grain or 12 grain bread

  • Multi grain means that the bread was made with the white flour (#2) of multiple grains (such as wheat, barley, rye, corn, rice, wild rice and oats). It doesn’t mean that whole grains were used.

Organic bread

  • This indicates that the used grain was grown according to organic standards. The grain still was stripped of its nutrients and contains only the white starch of #2.

Gluten free bread

  • This bread was baked with grains that contain no gluten such as buckwheat, amaranth, rice or quinoa. It doesn’t say if the whole grain was used or if the grain was organically grown. Often gluten free products are loaded with sugar. So gluten free doesn’t necessarily equal healthy.

Sprouted bread

  • A grain only can sprout when it’s a whole grain. The germ is basically the embryo of the grain. The endosperm provides the energy for the embryo to grow. And the bran is the protective layer. When a grain sprouts it comes alive and you eat the living energy. Sprouting also enhances the nutrient absorption of the grain. So sprouting is a great thing.

Even more confused now? Not ready for taking the test at the grocery store? Here is a short list on how to choose the healthiest bread.

Wheat is controversial discussed. Find here an article about wheat from The World’s Healthiest Foods.org

Whole grain or whole wheat bread - the fine difference by
Tanja Knapp
About the Author
Tanja Knapp

Tanja Knapp is an Explorer, Adventurer and Happiness Hunter currently camping in beautiful Vancouver, Canada. Her roots are in Germany where she grew up on a remote farm. A colony of abnormal cells in her cervix taught her the lesson that would change her life forever. Life doesn't get better by chance, it get better by change. She truly believes in creating happiness & health through constant adapting, growing and evolving. Her super power is curiosity. With her blog she likes to inspire others to explore uncharted territory.

If she is not busy writing, running, swimming or cycling, she is expanding her knowledge, exploring the World, and taking on new challenges.

She is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and graduated with an Honors diploma in Holistic Nutrition from the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition in 2013. She obtained a Hospitality certification in 1998 and a Marketing Communications diploma in 2004. She has worked both in Europe and North America.


  1. neil says

    Looks like a typo in your definition, the punchline of the whole article.

    You were contrasting “whole grain” from “whole wheat,” when you wrote:

    > Under the Food and Drug Regulations it qualifies to be called “whole” even though up to 5% of the kernel is removed.

    Didn’t you mean “whole wheat?”

    • Tanja Knapp says

      Hi Neil,

      That is a very good question and indeed the topic is a little confusing. Thank you for pointing out my mistake. Canada has different regulations than the US. So you are right. In Canada wheat flour can be called “whole wheat” even though up to 5% to the kernel is removed.

      Whole Wheat Flour in Canada — contains at least 95% of the original kernel
      Whole Grain Whole Wheat Flour in Canada — contains 100% of the original kernel

      Whole Wheat Flour is always whole grain in the US.

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