Why Whole Wheat Is Way Better

This article help explain why whole wheat is way better than the alternatives.
By Marleeta F. Basey
December 2004/January 2005
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Photo courtesy Matthew L. Stallbaumer
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This article is the first of a two-part series about whole-grain breads. In this piece, we look into the nutritional benefits of grinding fresh, whole grains at home and review the different types of grain mills. In part two, we will discuss how to use a bread machine for quick and easy home baking, and report on how organic growers, millers and bakers are building networks in Maine. Plus, we’ll share some favorite bread recipes. 

Before we get to the “grist” of this article, we need to debunk a myth about whole-grain foods. Many people think they don’t like them. But that’s old-think from the batik-skirted ’60s when exuberant nutrient lovers overloaded naturally delicious breads, bars and cakes with blackstrap molasses, carob powder, soy this and soy that. Unfortunately, their nutritional intelligence exceeded their ability to persuade people that they could choke down anything, as long as it was densely packed with nutrition. It hasn’t helped that cellophane-wrapped commercial whole-wheat breads are tainted with off-flavors from overprocessed versions of these same healthful additions.

Let’s fast-forward to the 21st century. Today, home miller/bakers can make 100- percent whole-grain breads, pancakes, muffins, pasta, desserts and much more with infinitely better flavor than anything made from ordinary white flour. How?

First, by understanding that freshness is a major factor in optimum flavor. The quality and flavor of commercially produced flour varies from superb to horrid, depending on the source. If you have access to fresh whole meal milled at low temperatures on a solid stone gristmill, you are really in luck. If your natural food co-op or another local source mills its own fresh, cool whole meal, you are an equally lucky baker.

But if you are dipping out of infrequently used barrels, buying undated, unrefrigerated packages, or relying on a totally unknown mail-order source, you may be in trouble. If you are fond of oil-rich grains such as corn, rye or flaxseed, which become rancid with little provocation after they’re ground, locate a source that dates, then refrigerates or freezes the ground product, or consider milling your own flour at home.

In addition to using fresh flour, you need to choose the right kinds of wheat. Each of the many wheats grown in the United States has its own identifiable flavor and baking personality. For best flavor and performance, an optimum wheat should be used for each type of baked goods. Fluffy, light-flavored, American-style breads produced in a quick four-hour process need hard red or hard white spring wheat. Heartier European-type artisan loaves that take much longer to develop benefit from a full-flavored hard red winter wheat and probably some rye. Delicious whole-wheat pasta requires the wheat preferred by the pasta-loving Italians, hard amber durum. Finally, desserts such as cookies, bars and cakes need the lower protein level of soft white or soft red winter wheats.

Also, some “secret” ingredients can coax spectacular flavor and performance from whole-wheat bread — without a lick of white flour. These delicious additions, which help harness the renegade qualities of germ and bran, are familiar and readily available: eggs, dairy products, potatoes, beans or bean flours, ascorbic acid or one of several “dough conditioners.” As a side benefit, most added ingredients also boost the bread’s protein quality to that of beefsteak by “complementing” the amino acid composition of the whole grain.

Sound complicated? It isn’t. Most whole-grain outlets have or can order specific grains — as long as you know which ones to ask for, and you just learned it!

Quick and Easy

Nobody seems surprised to learn that white bread is so bereft of nutrients that laboratory rats died on a diet of white bread and water. (In 1970, Roger Williams, a biochemist at the University of Texas, fed “enriched” white bread to rats, and within 90 days two-thirds of them were dead, the others sick.)

Yet people are astonished to learn that the whole operation of grinding flour and baking nutrient-rich breads at home can be an easy daily task — about three minutes, on average, for milling and a few minutes more to dump ingredients in the bread machine, if you use one. And home-milled flour does far more than return mouth-watering flavor to everyday food. It also protects against heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer, eases constipation, and provides a secure (and nutritious) food source in case of natural or human-made disasters.

But isn’t this extreme? Why can’t you just buy whole wheat flour from the supermarket?

What’s wrong with commercial flour?

If you’re relying on grocery store packaged flour and commercial products — whether white or “whole wheat” — you definitely should switch to milling your own, and here’s why:

When compared to freshly ground whole-wheat flour, white flour is way less nutritious. Even white flour that has been “enriched” still shows significant losses in 15 of 22 nutrients. Under the U.S. government’s mandatory “enrichment” program started in May 1941, certain vitamins and minerals that are deemed potentially deficient in the American diet are added to flour and related products. In fact, white flour contains more of these synthetic nutrients than were present in the original grain. No attempt, however, is made to replace the most important component lost in milling — insoluble fiber. Few people realize that the “whole wheat” used in many commercially packaged products (with the exception of such companies as Bob’s Red Mill, King Arthur Flour and Arrowhead Mills) is processed exactly like white flour. The nutrient-rich, darker-colored bran, germ and endosperm are mechanically separated then recombined into “whole wheat” according to a formula that varies by brand but that rarely mimics Mother Nature’s balance.

How nutritious is this reconstituted “whole-wheat” flour? As with white flour, any whole-wheat nutrients not purposely discarded with the germ and bran often succumb to the long, hot, repetitive milling process, or to chemicals used to artificially “improve” or bleach flour. Significant losses may occur in heat-sensitive B vitamins, vitamin E, enzymes and other healthful components. In fact, commercially produced whole-wheat flour frequently contains only enough bran for a healthful-looking brown tinge, and virtually no germ. That’s why the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) 1999 labeling rules specify that claims about health benefits associated with whole grains can appear only on products that contain at least 51 percent whole grains by weight. These health benefits could be plastered all over home-milled flour because it contains the grain, the whole grain and nothing but the grain.

The Benefits of Fiber-Rich Foods 

A virtual river of scientific research shows that the more fiber-rich foods we eat, the healthier we get. Usually, though, scientists cannot pinpoint which grain components are doing the good work. Vitamins, minerals, enzymes, antioxidants and other phytochemicals play indisputably vital roles in promoting health and preventing disease. But in order to grasp the profound importance of grains in our diet — and why home milling is so vital nutritionally — we must learn more about fiber.

Fiber, which exists in soluble and insoluble forms, is the structural portion of plants that the human body can digest only partially or not at all. Only plant foods, such as cereal grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, contain fiber.

Insoluble fiber passes through the digestive system basically unchanged (undigested). This type of fiber has long been considered particularly important because it helps eliminate constipation and the many disorders related to it. Examples of foods high in insoluble fiber are the bran of whole grains; vegetables such as broccoli, green beans, Brussels sprouts, turnips, cauliflower, beets and cabbage; seeds and nuts.

Soluble fibers can be partially digested by our systems. These viscous fibers, which are plentiful in foods such as oats, beans, peas, brown rice, barley, citrus fruits and strawberries, are particularly valuable in fighting heart disease by lowering cholesterol levels, moderating blood sugar in diabetics, protecting against certain cancers and a long list of other conditions.

How much fiber do we need? There’s some quibbling among experts about that. The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine recommends total daily intake in grams at 38 and 25, respectively, for men and women 50 years and younger. For the over-50 group, men need 30 grams and women need 21, due to decreased calorie consumption in this age group. Many fiber advocates recommend a minimum of 40 grams a day. Strict vegetarians typically get up to 60 grams per day. Yet most Americans consume only 14 to 15 grams of fiber a day, and low-carb dieters may get even less. But remember, these figures are for total fiber. So, unless you’re eating truly whole-grain bread, pancakes, pasta and cookies, you are almost certainly eating too little of that vital insoluble fiber. Remember, too, that highly processed fragments of food — such as bran cereals or even fiber laxatives — are no substitute for the real thing. They lack the vitamins, minerals, enzymes, phytochemicals, antioxidants and other components that play silent but inevitable roles in the health benefits associated with a diet rich in whole grains, and may even deplete the body’s mineral stores.

Of course, if fiber were the only reason to eat whole grains, you might not need a home grain mill. You could simply buy ground-up trees, add flavoring and sprinkle the result on your sundaes and pizzas. So, let’s look briefly at other health benefits available to home millers:

Minerals. Discarding wheat bran (the outer seed coat) results in significant losses of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, zinc, copper, manganese, selenium, and all of the trace minerals located only in the bran. The government’s “enrichment” program adds back only one of these: iron.

Vitamins. Those supplied in significant quantities by cereal grains are thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pyridoxine (B6), folate, pantothenic acid and vitamin E. These vitamins are concentrated in either the germ or bran of grain, so commercial milling routinely reduces their presence. The progressive decline in our consumption of leafy green vegetables and legumes has exacerbated B-vitamin losses caused by white flour refining.

Enzymes. A kernel of grain contains hundreds or thousands of enzymes, making it difficult to know what they all do, let alone how they interact with other enzymes or micronutrients in the complex chemical laboratory of the human body. If certain enzymes prove to be more heavily concentrated in the germ and bran of grain (as vitamins and minerals are), the discarding of these important grain parts by commercial millers must certainly result in similar losses of enzymes.

Phytochemicals. Scientists have recently focused their microscopes on several categories of compounds that occur naturally in plant foods, and evidence is accumulating that many of them have positive effects on human health. In addition to fiber, phytochemicals include, for example, allyl sulfides in onions, garlic, leeks and chives, isoflavones in soybeans and phenolic acids in tomatoes, citrus fruits, carrots, whole grains and nuts. Again, to get these compounds, you must eat foods whole.

Good Carbs, Bad Carbs 

Unfortunately, the current low-carbohydrate diet rage has resulted in the mistaken idea that all carbohydrates are “bad.” Let’s clear up this mistaken-iden-tity problem.

Metabolically, all carbohydrates are chains of sugar that are broken down at different rates during digestion and delivered to the blood as glucose (also called blood sugar). Glucose stimulates the pancreas to release enough insulin to transport the glucose throughout the body for use or storage. When its delivery job is done, insulin recedes and a hunger signal goes out for more food.

The key difference between what are called complex and simple carbohydrates is the rate at which they are digested. Unrefined complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, beans, peas and legumes are considered good carbs because their fiber slows down digestion, thus delivering a slow, steady supply of glucose to the blood. The glycemic index, a system developed to measure this rate, as well as a more complex measurement called glycemic load, can be found at www.glycemicindex.com.

Simple carbohydrates (such as honey, maple syrup, many vegetables, fruits and sugar cane) as well as refined complex carbohydrates (such as white flour, white rice, white pasta and white sugar) digest quickly. They are considered bad carbs because they cause blood sugar levels to surge, which eventually leads to a gnawing sense of hunger and a grab for more bad carbs.

Repeated spiking and plunging of blood glucose, also called reactive hypoglycemia and the sugar roller coaster, is a significant factor in our obesity epidemic because it leads to overeating, an impaired pancreas (called insulin resistance, where insulin production slows) or a debilitated pancreas (type-2 diabetes, where insulin production stops completely).

Low-carbohydrate diets have appealed to millions of people because they provide a simplistic solution to the sugar-roller-coaster problem: Consume no carbohydrates at all, and the sugar roller coaster is derailed. Unfortunately, this approach will also send the nutrient express off the track. Although there is some sense to short-term curtailment of all carbohydrates to purge the system of bad carbs, beyond a few weeks, whole fruits, whole vegetables and whole grains must be a part of any healthful diet or weight-loss plan. Even the Atkins’ Diet Web site admits that now, and The South Beach Diet’s Dr. Agatston emphasizes it.

Making Every Mouthful Count 

In our struggle to balance calories and nutrients, we must consciously select foods that give us the best shot at long-term health. Grains are a beautiful creation, full of nourishing elements that are vital to health. They supply energy and satisfy appetite while providing none of the simple sugars, hydrogenated fats and salt that dominate processed foods. Fortunately, home-milled whole grains can restore a daily supply of insoluble fiber and nutrients in wonderfully delicious breads and other foods that can be prepared in advance and frozen for future use, with a very reasonable commitment of time. Good health ultimately depends on eating plenty of the high-nutrient foods that tend to be under-consumed in our modern, hectic world — whole fruits, whole vegetables and, especially, whole grains.


Marleeta F. Basey has been milling flour and making 100-percent whole-wheat bread for more than 25 years. This article is adapted from her book, Flour Power: A Guide to Modern Home Grain Milling (The new, revised edition was released earlier this year.) 


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