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How to Read a Bread Bag: Searching for Whole Grains

My poor mother-in-law has to deal with an awful lot with the Kitchen Stewardship® lady as a daughter-in-law, let me tell you. I try not to preach to her too often about nutrition, really, but I’ve done a few “mini-lessons” on whole grains. She’s supposed to cook with them because of diabetes in the household, so one Christmas we actually gave her a box of whole grain stuff (rice, couscous, pasta, etc.) to help “teach” what to buy and how to prepare it. Shortly after, she proudly told me she had bought “whole grain bread!”


I checked it out, and I had to tell her, “This bread gets about a “B-” in whole grain nutrition.”  She had been tricked by one of the many ways food manufacturers use “wheat” on their bread packaging, so I taught her what to look for to find “A+” whole grain bread. (photo from

There are an awful lot of terms sparkling in orange or yellow starbursts or in tempting titles on the bread bags in my grocery store.

  • Cracked Wheat
  • Multi-Grain
  • Health Bread
  • Fiber for Life
  • 100% Whole Wheat
  • Honey Wheat
  • Made With Whole Grain
  • Hearth bread
  • Homestyle
  • Stone Ground

Even I still get tricked initially by the “cracked wheat” label. It sounds so healthy! But I’ve checked ingredients on that one, and it’s not worth your time if you want whole grain bread.

The Only Way to Get Whole Grain Bread Without the White Flour…

is to buy a package that says 100% Whole Wheat and check the ingredients:  Whole wheat flour must be the first ingredient, and any other flours must have whole before their name. If they don’t, they’re probably white flour with all the healthy parts stripped away (see below for a quick lesson on “What is a Whole Grain”). You can also check the amount of fiber in the nutrition facts. Any bread with only 1g fiber is using white flour! Here are some common tricks:

  • What is “wheat flour”? White flour, usually bleached. Remember that most of the baking in our country is done with wheat. Standard white flour is wheat flour, just with the fat, fiber and vitamins absent and the blood-sugar-spiking starches leftover.
  • What is “enriched wheat flour”? White flour. When processing takes the good stuff out, they add synthetic B vitamins back in, but not nearly as many vitamins as the real thing (missing zinc, fiber, and more) and not as well assimilated by the body. It’s only “enriched” if you compare to white flour with no added ingredients, but it sounds so nutritious!
  • What is “unbleached wheat flour”? Same as above, but without one chemical (bleach).
  • What is “multi-grain”? This is one that gets a lot of people. We should be diversifying the varieties of grains we consume, but “multi-grain” is only truly good for you if it’s also “whole grain”. Most often, “multi-grain bread” has “wheat flour” (white flour!) as the first or second ingredient, then includes smaller amounts of other grains:  barley, oats, etc., sometimes “whole grain”, sometimes just the processed white flour version of that grain. Bottom line:  multi-grain does not always mean “healthy”.
  • Stone-Ground, Cracked Wheat, and others: These terms describe how the wheat is processed, but it doesn’t mean that the wheat mentioned is the main ingredient. Many of these breads start with white flour and are enhanced a bit by healthy whole wheat.

The bread I bought this week is not 100% whole grain, a rarity in our house. It has a wonderfully nutritious-sounding label:  “Meijer Naturals 7 Grain all natural enriched bread.”  Tagline:  “Made with whole grain, good source of fiber.”  Whole Grain Wheat Flour is the first ingredient (after water), but Unbleached Wheat Flour comes next. I bought it because my bread store was out of the organic breads, and this one has no GMOs, which is something I’m dabbling in. I grabbed a loaf of 100% whole wheat too – it’s all about balance! If you’ve never been introduced to a bread outlet store, by the way, they’re a great place to stay frugal on your budget yet get healthy bread. Merdith’s post at Like Merchant Ships is a must-read on the subject!

Why Do I Want Whole Grain Bread Anyway?

The whole grain has all the nutrients God put into grains: fiber, protein, healthy fats, and lots of vitamins and minerals. The straight starch in white flour, in the absence of the whole, is quickly turned into simple sugars in your body. This has two effects:

  • Spikes your blood sugar
  • Is easily turned into fat for storage

I read a challenging article to the contrary this week, but I’m not sure I buy it. If you’re interested in some fabulous nutritional controversy, check it out here.

UPDATE: Whole grain bread may not be all it’s cracked up to be. This post on The Nutritional Value of Whole Grains is a must-read, as is information at this site on soaking grains and sourdough bread.

What Is a Whole Grain?

A kernel of grain has three parts:  endosperm, germ, and bran.


Photo source

The endosperm contains:

  • Carbohydrates
  • Protein
  • A few vitamins

The germ contains:

  • B vitamins
  • Vitamin E
  • Antioxidants
  • Healthy (polyunsaturated) fats
  • Lots of folic acid (important for pregnancy)
  • Iron, zinc and other minerals

The bran contains:

  • Main source of the grain’s fiber
  • Most phytonutrients and minerals
  • Antioxidants

All these parts can be separated. You can buy wheat bran. You can buy wheat germ. (Health food folks like to do this.)  You can buy wheat endosperm. It’s called “white flour”. (Processed food companies like to do this.)

Because of its oils, the wheat germ is likely to go rancid quickly. In order to extend the shelf life, as with trans fats, food manufacturers strip off the germ and the bran so that the remaining endosperm, although lacking in nutrition, can sit around for a long time and wait for people to consume it. If only it was worth consuming!

Your mission this week is still to find a new oat recipe, not to switch to whole grain bread. We’ll discuss whole grains for an entire month after the Super Foods series is over, and at that point I will challenge you to commit to whole grain bread. For now, I just want you to know what to look for in case whole grains are already important to you, but mystifying.

What does your bread bag say? Leave a comment with sketchy ingredients, starbursts or taglines so we can all decipher the code together!

***UPDATE: There may be a healthier way. Get caught up with a handy list of all the soaking grains information.


Other helpful nutrition posts:

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22 thoughts on “How to Read a Bread Bag: Searching for Whole Grains”

  1. Eloizabeth Johnson

    I loved this article. Thank you so much- I was being tricked and did not even know it.
    I do have a question about pasta. I have started buying whole wheat pasta instead of the white flour, but am worried I am just being lied to again and do not even know it. Are there any key words or things to look for on the side of the box? Is Durham flour better or worse then any others? Thanks again!

    1. Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship

      I’m so sorry your comment got buried; it came in on the day I released an ebook and was such a crazy week. Durum wheat is usually still white flour, but if your box says “whole wheat pasta” it’s typically true. Many would say that gluten-free rice pasta is better, but it’s much more expensive. 🙂 Katie

  2. I’m not sure if this was mentioned already, but I thought I’d throw it in there. We have a WAPF store here in my town. I buy my bread there because it’s whole and soaked. I was talking to the owner the other day and he explained to me that, by law, a manufacturer can claim 100% whole wheat, as long as they have 51% or more whole wheat. That was a bit disconcerting to me. I have not researched it, yet, so right now, I’m taking his word for it. But, I also, don’t like all the corn and soy in the store bought breads…..

  3. I just want to point out that there is no such thing as a whole grain flour.

    The research that showed whole grains were healthier actually involved WHOLE grains, not GROUND grains. If you can’t plant it in the ground, it’s not whole.

    Very few folks eat whole grains beyond maybe a bit of brown rice. In fact, that’s the only whole grain sold at my local grocery store – they have no wheat berries, oat groats, whole barley, etc.

    Not saying bread is bad, especially not a nice sourdough made from freshly ground wheat berries, but… it’s not “whole” so the research showing whole grains are good does not apply.

    1. jpatti,
      Hmmm, very interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way. Have you seen my research/investigation into the soaking and preparation of whole grains? You’d be intrigued by the science, I’m sure!
      🙂 Katie

  4. Pingback: Weekly Roundup #2

  5. Lawanna,
    I’m right in the middle of a grains series, actually, and will be recommending making one’s own bread and grinding grains in the next few weeks, along with sourdough and soaking or sprouting grains.


    1. Cool! I’m putting you in my reader so I don’t miss any of your new posts. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Just saw your blog from a link from Tip Junkie, so I don’t know if you’ve covered this or not….but have you tried making your own bread? Once I got in the hang of it, it’s not a big deal. I use a bread machine and have been making whole wheat bread (from wheat I’ve ground) nearly daily.
    .-= Lawanna´s last blog ..Dinner: Crockpot Garlic Chicken =-.

  7. i just saw ur topic on tipjunkie ,i wanted to read ur views bcos
    thats the problem i face whenever i goto the grocery store to buy bread ,u enlightened me what to buy and what not to ,thanxs a lot .
    iam going to follow the labels whenever i buy bread

  8. I live in Ottawa, Canada, and, as a diabetic, have used a “stone ground 100% whole wheat” bread since I was diagnosed. It is recommended by the (Canadian) author in the GI DIET. When I couldn’t find it on any shelves, I contacted the company (Dempster’s) to find out it was discontinued because there was not the demand.

    1. Gail,
      How sad. That’s unbelievable that you you can’t even find good whole wheat anymore. Maybe make your own bread? I’m working on learning that art, and I’m pondering a grain mill for Christmas. I’m not sure if I’m quite ready to take THAT plunge, but I’m getting close! Try a health foods store – they have to have quality whole grain breads there.
      Good luck!

  9. I usually buy bread at a local bakery (Alpine Valley if you live in PHX, AZ), the day old loaves (with only 7 ingred, all of which are currently in my kitchen) are 50 cents!! I just can’t justify heating the oven for those prices.

    However, I’ve also been frequenting the Hostess Outlet. Why does Orowheat bread (no HFCS, mostly good ingred) have raisin extract? Is it just for color?

    1. 50 cents! That’s awesome for whole grain bread. Woo hoo!

      I don’t know about the raisin extract for sure, but it doesn’t sound like an ingredient I would worry about. Color is def. a good theory. I’ve seen it in many a bread ingredient list. At least raisins are close to the earth! 🙂

  10. Hi Katie,
    Thanks for the great post. I have been buying true whole wheat forever, but it kills me that my 12 year old is forever BEGGING me for white bread (what’s up with that-he’s been eating wheat since he’s been eating bread!?!?)! I have also recently been scouring the ingredients to avoid high fructose corn syrup. I found a very good whole wheat without HFCS at Aldi for less than $2, which is a SUPER deal in my area. While I was reading this, I was wondering (as I often do) why does it cost so much more to eat foods that are not processed… wouldn’t you think that all that processing would increase the price insterad of make it a good deal. It’s kind of a rhetorical question, becuase I’m sure it is a demand/they can get mroe out of it thing, but I often wonder!

    Kristen’s last blog post..Fresh Pickin’s

    1. Kristen, I have absolutely thought the same thing many times! It bugs me that more processing = less money. I have a hunch it has something to do with the shelf-life issue. If the manufacturers aren’t losing product to rancidity, they can make more profit. (The demand issue has to be part of it too.

      You should definitely see if there’s a bakery thrift store or bread outlet in your area. I get Aunt Millie’s organic whole wheat bread for $1.29 a loaf, and it’s usually over $3.50 to $4 in the store! You have to be willing to consume it very quickly or freeze it, but I think it’s worth it. I can get Sara Lee whole wheat for about $1 a loaf at a different outlet (depends on where I am in the city on a given week). Although Aldi is a good deal, too!

  11. Katie – why do you say that whole grains are better for diabetics? What are your sources?

    See you soon. A. Vic

    1. A family member who is diabetic has been told by her doctor to stick with whole grains, and in my reading (see to see what I’ve been reading lately) whole grains are said to have a lower glycemic index, which in my understanding means that the starches are converted to sugars more slowly, thus avoiding the rapid spike in insulin production that refined carbs (white flour, for example) would cause. Of course, fewer grains (sugars) in general are best for diabetics (and the rest of us), but if you just “must” have that dinner roll…stick with whole wheat. Many would say to make sure the grains are also soaked to reduce phytic acid…but that’s another post, another day.

      Does that address your question? I don’t want to post any incorrect information and contribute to false ideas about nutrition (there sure are a lot out there). If you have any info to add, please do! Thanks! Katie

  12. Olivia Wasik

    When I don’t make sour dough bread from Nourishing Traditions, we have my follow up choice of Ezekiel. This is also a deceiving bread since it has sprouted soybeans. Sprouting soy does not neutralize the bean. Oh well. We try. Today at lunch we had (try not to gasp) Wonderbread buns for our hotdogs. We were eating lunch with the business employees. I don’t like to bring my own stuff because no one understands!! Plus, Caz likes to eat what everyone else it eating.

    Two steps forward. One step back! 🙂

    1. I was wanting to start a sourdough starter this summer, but the more I read, the more I’m worried I’ll just waste it – I hate the idea of throwing out all that whole wheat flour, too! What’s up with that part? Any suggestions for a simple sourdough that doesn’t take so much babysitting or create so much waste?

      1. Hi Katie. I have a wonderful sourdough starter that I made using this method:

        It’s a great sourdough site with a ton of information.

        This method uses only 1/4 cup filtered water, and 3/8 cup whole wheat flour. You do throw away 1/2, and feed every 12 hours to start it though. I occasionally missed a feeding with no issues, but tried to be good in the beginning. After 30 days you can refrigerate it, and feed minimally unless you plan to use it.

        I have had no problems or issues with this method, and it smells wonderful (not stinky)!

        Good luck!

  13. Love your post. As often as possible I truly buy the good stuff. It took me awhile to learn to read the labels, and depending on where I’m shopping and how much I have to spend depends on what I buy. If I have to settle for something that’s not truly “whole”, I make sure that the nasty ingredients aren’t at the top of the list.

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