Whole wheat vs Whole Grain vs Multigrain: What’s the Difference?

Most Americans are confused by grain labeling practices. If you’ve been down the bread or cereal aisle lately then I’m sure you can understand why! You will see labels such as “wheat”, “made with whole grains”, “multigrain blend”, and “white wheat” (among others). When I led grocery store tours, nearly everyone told me that reading bread labels was the most helpful part of the tour!

Clearly, there is some confusion.

Why should you care?

Eating whole grains, as opposed to refined, is associated with a lower risk of several chronic diseases. Whole grains provide fiber, vitamins, and minerals that are stripped away when the grain is processed to its refined, or “white”, counterpart.

Now, this doesn’t mean you should never eat white products; they have their place. It just means that you should make efforts to choose whole grain where you can. The American Heart Association recommends making half of your grains whole, so that leaves a lot of flexibility.

But, why waste money and effort buying a product that you think is whole grain, only to be duped by sneaky marketing practices? Read below to learn the background of these terms and how you can spot the difference when shopping.

What is a whole grain?

Before jumping into whole grains, let’s back up and describe a “grain”. I know, I know: back to the old-school food pyramid (or MyPlate, depending on who is reading this). Grains include wheat, oats, rice, rye, barley, quinoa, farro, and others. Whole grains are those that contain all components of the seed. These components include the bran, endosperm, and the germ.

These components are super important for the health of the seed and for us:

  1. The bran provides fiber and B vitamins
  2. The endosperm is where all the starch and sugar is found (remember: starch and sugar is not “bad” in the way we think of sugar. This is just energy for the seed to grow.)
  3. The germ provides additional vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats.

These nutrients are so important that, once we started processing grains to remove the bran and germ, people started getting nutrient deficiencies!

What happens during processing?

During processing, or milling, whole grains have the germ and bran removed. As a result, all that is left is fluffy, white, delicious Italian bread. Don’t get me wrong; that is a wonderful addition to any meal. But, if that is all you ate, you would be at risk for several deficiencies, which leads to the next step: enrichment.

What are enriched grains?

Enrichment is the process of adding vitamins and minerals back into the grain. An enriched grain is one that has gone through this process. As you can imagine, this is certainly better than no enrichment! However, manufacturers do not add all of the original nutrition back in. The enriched grain is relatively void of fiber and protein, which are two important nutrients for fullness and satiety.

If you see the term “enriched wheat” in the ingredient list of a grain product, it is a key that the grain is not 100% whole grain.

side by side comparison of oatmeal bread and whole grain oatmeal bread
Oatmeal bread versus Whole Grain Oatmeal; Same manufacturer!

Here’s where it gets fuzzy.

To get the biggest “bang for your buck” in terms of nutrition, you want to choose whole grain products that are “100% whole grain”. Remember: “grain” is like an umbrella term. Just as you can have several types of grains, you can have several types of whole grains: whole wheat, whole oat, whole rye, brown rice (i.e. “whole grain rice”), etc.

To add more confusion: food manufacturers will add a blend of grains (“multigrain”), or a half-and-half blend of whole grain and enriched grain (“white wheat”).

In order to be sure that you are getting a whole grain, it is important to specifically check the ingredient list on the food label (as opposed to the front of the package that simply says “made with whole grains”).

If you see the word enriched in that list, it is a keyword letting you know that the product is not 100% whole grain.

How to Spot a Whole Grain

a description of types of grains and how to tell if they are whole grain

100% Whole Grain

If a product says this, it truly is 100% whole grain. Although, if the product doesn’t say 100% on it, it doesn’t mean it’s not whole grain (i.e. this is not a required label for whole grain products.)

100% Whole Wheat

This is similar to 100% whole grain. 100% whole wheat just specifies that the grain included is wheat, as opposed to another type of grain (e.g. rice, rye, barley.)

White Wheat

White wheat products are blends of whole wheat flour and enriched wheat flour. They have more fiber and nutrients than white/enriched products, but not as many as the 100% whole wheat products.

Wheat Bread

Wheat just tells you that it was made from wheat. It could be refined or enriched wheat (e.g. Italian bread or Wonder Bread). Some breads may indicate “wheat bread” on the front of the label and include “unbleached enriched wheat flour” in the ingredient list. So, it is white bread that was made to look like whole wheat. Many (not all) honey wheat breads fall into this category.

Multigrain

A food labeled as multigrain may be 100% whole grain, but the word “multigrain” does not tell you anything itself. It could simply be white bread with some oats sprinkled on top (technically, there are multiple grains!) In this case you still need to check the ingredient list to verify there is no enriched flour added.

Made With Whole Grains

There were whole grains added to the product, but it is not 100% whole grain. This claim is added often to kids cereals and snack bars/treats. Still better than no whole grains! But, not necessarily a “health food” because of that (e.g. oatmeal cookies are made with whole grains).

High Fiber

This means that the food has at least 3 grams of fiber per 100 calories. This says nothing about the type of grain used. It could be a bread made with enriched flour and have synthetic fiber added.

Organic, Natural, and Gluten-Free

Organic, natural, and gluten-free statements have nothing to do with the grain processing. They could be whole grain or refined.

Bottom Line

Whole grains provide great benefits for your health. That being said, it is is easy to fall into marketing traps. Make sure what you think is a whole grain actually is a whole grain. Your best bet it to always read the ingredient list. Learning this skill can take some time, but using the tips here can make it help speed up the process.

  1. Have you ever been tricked by the marketing of whole grains?
  2. Any other deceiving claims you have seen?

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