Whole Grain vs. Whole Wheat: What’s the Difference?


When trying to make healthy choices for you and your family, it may be difficult to know which products to buy.

Grain and wheat products are known for their health-promoting properties, such as improved heart health, blood sugar control, and weight management (1).

However, with so many products on the market and misleading advertising claims, you may wonder whether you should buy whole grain or whole wheat products, as well as if there’s even much of a difference.

This article discusses the difference between whole grain and whole wheat products, including their benefits and some shopping tips.

The main difference between whole grain and whole wheat is the type of grain being used.

Both whole grain and whole wheat products contain all three components of a grain kernel, also known as a caryopsis. These include (2):

  • Bran. This is the fibrous outer layer of the kernel that’s rich in B vitamins and other minerals.
  • Germ. This reproductive part of the kernel is rich in a variety of nutrients, such as healthy fats, vitamin E, B vitamins, and antioxidants.
  • Endosperm. The largest component of the grain kernel consists of starchy carbs. In most cases, white flours are mostly composed of the endosperm.

When the entire kernel is used, a manufacturer can legally use the term whole grain or whole wheat depending on the type of grain used (3).

The term whole wheat is exclusively used for products that only use the entire wheat kernel in their product. For example, whole wheat bread would only contain whole wheat flour, which uses the entire wheat kernel (1).

Contrarily, whole grain is used when other grains are added to the product, such as amaranth, barley, corn, millet, quinoa, rice, rye, sorghum, teff, triticale, and even wheat. In all cases, the entire kernels of these grains are used (1, 3).

Since wheat is a type of grain, it also falls under the definition of whole grain. Essentially, all whole wheat products are whole grain, but not all whole grain products are whole wheat.

Summary

Both whole grain and whole wheat contain all three parts of the grain kernel — the bran, endosperm, and germ. However, whole wheat exclusively refers to wheat kernels, while whole grain includes other grains, such as barley, corn, and rye.

Considering that both whole grain and whole wheat products contain the entire kernel, they’re equally nutritious.

When it comes to grain products, it’s important to eat mostly whole grain or whole wheat products, as they contain the most nutrients. Unlike whole grains, refined flours have had their germ and bran removed, which takes away many nutrients and fiber.

Most research pointing to the health benefits of grains comes from the fiber, healthy fats, and nutrients found within the germ and bran of the grain kernel.

For example, a 2019 review study including 137,807 people found a significant inverse relationship between whole grain consumption and weight. This suggests that whole grains can aid weight management, likely due to the filling effects of fiber (1).

What’s more, many studies have linked a diet rich in whole grains to a lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer, and premature death (4, 5, 6, 7, 8).

In contrast, refined grains, which have had their bran and germ removed, are not linked to the same health benefits due to their low nutrient and fiber contents (9, 10, 11).

Therefore, try to mostly eat whole grain or whole wheat products whenever possible.

Summary

Since both whole grain and whole wheat contain the entire kernel, they’re equally nutritious. In fact, diets high in both whole wheat and whole grains are linked to a lower risk of chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

Not all products that contain whole wheat or whole grains are inherently healthy. For example, some white flour and bread products have small amounts of whole wheat added to them to increase their nutrient content.

Despite having some whole wheat flour added, it wouldn’t be considered 100% whole wheat, as it contains other flours that don’t contain the entire kernel.

It’s important to note that wheat bread isn’t the same as whole wheat bread. Wheat bread simply implies that the flour comes from wheat, and it’s usually highly processed. Unless the product label states the term whole, it’s not whole wheat or whole grain.

To ease the confusion, the following table provides a simple overview of the most common wheat and grain types:

When shopping, be sure to read the label carefully. For whole grain or whole wheat products, either whole grain or whole wheat should be clearly stated on the label.

Note that some products may be partially made with whole grain or whole wheat flours. For example, the label may say it “contains 50% whole wheat flour,” which means the product is partially made from whole wheat flour but also contains refined flours.

By looking for “100% whole grain” or 100% whole wheat” on the label and in the ingredient list, you can be assured that you’re purchasing the healthiest product for you and your family.

Summary

To ensure you’re getting the entire grain kernel, and therefore, the healthiest nutritional profile, be sure to look for “100% whole grain” or “100% whole wheat” when purchasing grain products.

Both whole wheat and whole grains contain all three components of the grain kernel and are equally nutritious.

The main difference between the two is that whole wheat is reserved for products using the entire wheat kernel, while whole grain is an umbrella term for all types of grains in their whole form.

Refined grain products usually have the nutritious bran and germ removed during processing, making them less nutritious options.

For the most health benefits, choose products that are labeled “100% whole grain” or “100% whole wheat” and contain no refined grains in the ingredient list.



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