The complex carbohydrates in bread and other grain-based foods provide essential fuel the body needs.
Wheat is one of the world’s most important food crops, providing an estimated 20 percent of calories consumed by the human race.
Enriched grain products are typically identified as “white” breads or pastas. They are made using flour milled from only the grain’s endosperm (versus the whole grain). These foods are enriched with niacin and iron in the same proportion as is found in the whole kernel. They are also fortified with folic acid, thiamin and riboflavin in twice the amount found in whole grains.
The essential B vitamins contained in enriched grains help maintain a healthy nervous system and increase energy production, which may help lower cholesterol. Enriched grains are also Americans’ primary source of folic acid, which is shown to reduce specific types of neural tube defects. Fortification has contributed significantly to the 36 percent drop in neural tube defects from 1996 to 2006, making it one of the top 10 greatest public health achievements in U.S. history, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Whole grain food products contain flour milled from the whole grain kernel – the bran, germ and endosperm. Whole grains are naturally low in fat and are a good source of fiber. They also contain important nutrients like selenium, potassium and magnesium, which collectively may help boost immunity, lower blood pressure and prevent heart disease and some forms of cancer.
Current dietary guidelines call for at least half of grain consumption to come from whole grains.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and sometimes, through cross-contamination, oats that provides elasticity in bread products. Gluten flour is often mixed into flours that have less protein content in order to make better quality bread.
Wheat gluten isn’t bad – in fact, it’s essential to making many of the great wheat products available today. However, an estimated 1 percent of the population has celiac disease, which is also known as gluten intolerance, and an additional 6 percent are thought to be gluten-sensitive.
Gluten intolerance is different from an allergy and can be diagnosed by a doctor. Those who are gluten intolerant cannot eat gluten-containing products because the protein damages the lining of their small intestines. Everyone else – 93 percent of us – can consume gluten without concern.
A briefer about gluten intolerance from the Wheat Foods Council is downloadable here.
The optimal number of grain servings for an individual depends on sex, age and activity level. USDA offers a handy chart to help you determine how many servings you need, accessible here. Everyone should aim to get at least half of their daily grain consumption from whole grains.
As a practical matter, USDA’s new MyPlate recommendations say individuals should aim to have a bit more than a quarter of their typical plate made up of grains. Learn more about MyPlate here.
Much More Information
Much more information about wheat foods is available from the two nutrition education organizations working on behalf of wheat growers, millers and bakers – the Wheat Foods Council and the Grain Foods Foundation.
NAWG does not work directly in nutrition education and, as such, encourages visitors to access resources from Wheat Foods Council, Grain Foods Foundation or a local wheat commission for more information.