The World's Healthiest Foods
Wheat

Wheat is the most important cereal crop in the world and ubiquitous in our culture. Bread, pasta, bagels, crackers, cakes, muffins and other wheat containing products line our supermarket shelves and fill our grocery baskets. It is luck for us that this popular grain is available throughout the year.

Wheat, in its natural unrefined state, features a host of important nutrients.

Therefore, to receive benefit from the wholesomeness of wheat it is important to choose wheat products made from whole wheat flour rather than those that are refined and stripped of their natural goodness.

 


Health Benefits

Wheat - The Whole Truth

The health benefits of wheat depend entirely on the form in which you eat it. These benefits will be few if you select wheat that has been processed into 60% extraction, bleached white flour. 60% extraction - the standard for most wheat products in the United States, including breads, noodles and pastas, baked goods like rolls or biscuits, and cookies - means that 40% of the original wheat grain was removed, and only 60% is left. Unfortunately, the 40% that gets removed includes the bran and the germ of the wheat grain - its most nutrient-rich parts. In the process of making 60% extraction flour, over half of the vitamin B1, B2, B3, E, folic acid, calcium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, iron, and fiber are lost.

Since 1941, laws in the United States have required "enrichment" of processed wheat flour with vitamins B1, B2, B3 and iron in response to the problems created by 60% extraction. Although not nearly as much of these B vitamins and iron are replaced as are removed from 60% extraction flour, "enriched" seems an odd word to describe this process. If you select 100% whole wheat products, however, the bran and the germ of the wheat will remain in your meals, and the health benefits will be impressive! Our food ranking qualified whole wheat (in its original non-enriched form) as a very good source of dietary fiber and manganese, and as a good source of magnesium.

Women Who Eat Whole Grains Weigh Less

A study published in the November 2003 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition underscores the importance of choosing whole rather than refined wheat to maintain a healthy body weight. In this Harvard Medical School / Brigham and Women’s Hospital study, which collected data on 74,091 female nurses aged 38-63 years over a 12 year period, weight gain was inversely associated with the intake of high-fiber, whole-grain foods, such as whole wheat, but positively related to the intake of refined-grain foods, such as products made from refined wheat. Not only did women who consumed more whole grains consistently weigh less than those who ate less of these fiber-rich foods, but those consuming the most dietary fiber from whole grains were 49% less likely to gain weight compared to those eating foods made from refined grains.

Whole Grains Reduce Risk of Metabolic Syndrome

First we were told, “Don’t eat fat, and you’ll stay trim.” After following this advice only to see obesity expand to never before seen proportions, we’re told by the food gurus, “Eating fat is fine. Shun carbohydrates to stay slim.”

In our opinion, neither piece of dietary advice is complete, accurate or likely to help us stay slim or healthy. Just as different kinds of fats have different effects in our bodies (e.g., saturated and trans fats are linked to increased risk for cardiovascular disease while omega 3 fats decrease cardiovascular disease risk), some carbohydrates, such as whole grains, are healthful while others, such as refined grains and the foods made from them, are not.

The latest research is clearly supporting this vital distinction. Refined grains and the foods made from them (e.g., white breads, cookies, pastries, pasta and rice) are now being linked not only to weight gain but to increased risk of insulin resistance (the precursor of type 2 diabetes) and the metabolic syndrome (a strong predictor of both type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease), while eating more wholegrain foods is being shown to protect against all these ills. Common features of the metabolic syndrome include visceral obesity (the “apple shaped” body), low levels of protective HDL cholesterol, high triglycerides, and high blood pressure.

In one of the most recent studies, which appeared in the February 2004 issue of Diabetes Care, researchers who analyzed data on 2,834 participants in the Framingham Offspring Study, found that the prevalence of both insulin resistance and the metabolic syndrome was significantly lower among those eating the most cereal fiber from whole grains compared to those eating the least.

Prevalence of the metabolic syndrome was 38% lower among those with the highest intake of fiber from whole grains. Conversely, study subjects whose diets had the highest glycemic index and glycemic load, both of which are typically low in whole foods and high in processed refined foods, were 141% more likely to have the metabolic syndrome compared to those whose diets had the lowest glycemic index and glycemic load. In other words, compared to those whose diets were primarily composed of whole high fiber foods: whole grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits.

The researchers concluded, “Given that both a high cereal fiber content and lower glycemic index are attributes of wholegrain foods, recommendation to increase wholegrain intake may reduce the risk of developing the metabolic syndrome.” Our perspective at the World’s Healthiest Foods is that a way of eating that relies on the healthiest foods from all the food groups—the whole foods that contain the healthiest fats, carbohydrates and proteins—is the most effective, intelligent, and most enjoyable way to not only lower your risk of developing the metabolic syndrome, but to stay slim, vital and attractive throughout a long and healthy life.

Whole Grains Help Prevent Gallstones

Eating foods high in insoluble fiber, such as cereals and breads made from whole wheat, can help women avoid gallstones, shows a study published in the July 2004 issue of the American Journal of Gastroenterology.

Studying the overall fiber intake and types of fiber consumed over a 16 year period by 69,778 women in the Nurses Health Study, researchers found that those consuming the most fiber overall (both soluble and insoluble) had a 13% lower risk of developing gallstones compared to women consuming the fewest fiber-rich foods.

Those eating the most foods rich in insoluble fiber gained even more protection against gallstones: a 17% lower risk compared to women eating the least. And the protection was dose-related; a 5-gram increase in insoluble fiber intake dropped risk dropped 10%.

How do foods rich in insoluble fiber help prevent gallstones? Researchers think insoluble fiber not only speeds intestinal transit time (how quickly food moves through the intestines), but reduces the secretion of bile acids (excessive amounts contribute to gallstone formation), increases insulin sensitivity and lowers triglycerides (blood fats). Abundant in all whole grains, insoluble fiber is also found in nuts and the edible skin of fruits and vegetables including tomatoes, cucumbers, many squash, apples, berries, and pears. In addition, beans provide insoluble as well as soluble fiber.

Whole Wheat Gets You Going

Wheat bran is a popular bulk laxative. A third of a cup per day is all that is needed. Research studies support this popular practice. A fiber-rich diet, primarily composed of whole wheat breads, cereals high in bran and supplemental “millers bran” was shown to alleviate the symptoms of diverticular disease (pain, nausea, flatulence, distension, constipation, etc.) in 89 percent of patients enrolled in a study which examined the effects of fiber on bowel regularity. Diverticular disease, a condition often marked by inflammation and lower abdominal pains in which chronic constipation and excessive straining results in a sac or pouch in the wall of the colon, is typically treated with dietary roughage such as cereal fiber (i.e., wheat bran), fruit and vegetable fiber, and plenty of fluids.

Whole Wheat - A True Anti-Cancer Food

The benefits of wheat's bran portion don’t stop here; it has also been shown to function as an anti-cancer agent. Wheat bran is thought to accelerate the metabolism of estrogen that is a known promoter of breast cancer. In one study, pre-menopausal women, ages twenty to fifty, who ate three to four high fiber muffins per day made with wheat bran, decreased their blood estrogen levels by 17 percent after two months. The women eating corn bran or oat bran did not show the same benefits.

Interestingly, whole grains such as wheat also contain lignans, which are phytochemicals that act as weak hormone-like substances. Lignans occupy the hormone receptors in the body, thus actively protecting the breast against high circulating levels of hormones such as estrogen. By accelerating the metabolism of estrogen and occupying estrogen receptors in the body, the components of wheat appear to have a dual function in protecting women against one of the leading causes of cancer death.

The fact that only wheat bran, and not corn or oat bran, is beneficial in preventing cancer-promoting changes in the colon, provides additional clues that wheat bran contains something special that makes it a true cancer fighter. Only the bran from wheat has been shown to reduce the concentration of bile acids and bacterial enzymes in the stool that are believed to promote colon cancer. The protective dose for colon cancer may be more than 28 grams a day, since men who ate this amount had only one-third the rate of colon polyps (precancerous tumors) compared to those who ate only 17 grams/day. The amount of wheat bran needed for protection from other cancers is still unknown, but based on the health benefits of this food, it would be wise to include several servings of whole wheat grain foods such as bread, pasta, and bran cereals every day in your diet.

Phytochemicals with Anti-Cancer Activity Equal to or Even Higher than that of Vegetables and Fruits

Research reported at the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) International Conference on Food, Nutrition and Cancer, by Rui Hai Liu, M.D., Ph.D., and his colleagues at Cornell University shows that whole grains, such as whole wheat, contain many powerful phytonutrients whose activity has gone unrecognized because research methods have overlooked them.

Despite the fact that for years researchers have been measuring the antioxidant power of a wide array of phytochemicals, they have typically measured only the "free" forms of these substances, which dissolve quickly and are immediately absorbed into the bloodstream. They have not looked at the "bound" forms, which are attached to the walls of plant cells and must be released by intestinal bacteria during digestion before they can be absorbed.

Phenolics, powerful antioxidants that work in multiple ways to prevent disease, are one major class of phytochemicals that have been widely studied. Included in this broad category are such compounds as quercetin, curcumin, ellagic acid, catechins, and many others that appear frequently in the health news.

When Dr. Liu and his colleagues measured the relative amounts of phenolics, and whether they were present in bound or free form, in common fruits and vegetables like apples, red grapes, broccoli and spinach, they found that phenolics in the “free” form averaged 76% of the total number of phenolics in these foods. In whole grains, however, "free" phenolics accounted for less than 1% of the total, while the remaining 99% were in "bound" form.

In his presentation, Dr. Liu explained that because researchers have examined whole grains with the same process used to measure antioxidants in vegetables and fruits—looking for their content of "free" phenolics"—the amount and activity of antioxidants in whole grains has been vastly underestimated.

Despite the differences in fruits', vegetables' and whole grains' content of "free" and "bound" phenolics, the total antioxidant activity in all three types of whole foods is similar, according to Dr. Liu's research. His team measured the antioxidant activity of various foods, assigning each a rating based on a formula (micromoles of vitamin C equivalent per gram). Broccoli and spinach measured 80 and 81, respectively; apple and banana measured 98 and 65; and of the whole grains tested, corn measured 181, whole wheat 77, oats 75, and brown rice 56.

Dr. Liu's findings may help explain why studies have shown that populations eating diets high in fiber-rich whole grains consistently have lower risk for colon cancer, yet short-term clinical trials that have focused on fiber alone in lowering colon cancer risk, often to the point of giving subjects isolated fiber supplements, yield inconsistent results. The explanation is most likely that these studies have not taken into account the interactive effects of all the nutrients in whole grains—not just their fiber, but also their many phytonutrients. As far as whole grains are concerned, Dr. Liu believes that the key to their powerful cancer-fighting potential is precisely their wholeness. A grain of whole wheat consists of three parts—its endosperm (starch), bran and germ. When wheat—or any whole grain—is refined, its bran and germ are removed. Although these two parts make up only 15-17% of the grain's weight, they contain 83% of its phenolics. Dr. Liu says his recent findings on the antioxidant content of whole grains reinforce the message that a variety of foods should be eaten good health. “Different plant foods have different phytochemicals,” he said. “These substances go to different organs, tissues and cells, where they perform different functions. What your body needs to ward off disease is this synergistic effect – this teamwork – that is produced by eating a wide variety of plant foods, including whole grains.”

Lignans Protect against Cancers and Heart Disease

One type of phytochemical especially abundant in whole grains including whole wheat are plant lignans, which are converted by friendly flora in our intestines into mammalian lignans, including one called enterolactone that is thought to protect against breast and other hormone-dependent cancers as well as heart disease. In addition to whole grains, nuts, seeds and berries are rich sources of plant lignans, and vegetables, fruits, and beverages such as coffee, tea and wine also contain some. When blood levels of enterolactone were measured in 857 postmenopausal women in a Danish study published in the October 2004 issue of the Journal of Nutrition, women eating the most whole grains were found to have significantly higher blood levels of this protective lignan. Women who ate more cabbage and leafy vegetables also had higher enterolactone levels.

Significant Cardiovascular Benefits for Postmenopausal Women

Eating a serving of whole grains, such as whole wheat, at least 6 times each week is an especially good idea for postmenopausal women with high cholesterol, high blood pressure or other signs of cardiovascular disease (CAD).

A 3-year prospective study of 229 postmenopausal women with CAD, published in the July 2005 issue of the American Heart Journal, shows that those eating at least 6 servings of whole grains each week experienced both:

  • Slowed progression of atherosclerosis, the build-up of plaque that narrows the vessels through which blood flows, and
  • Less progression in stenosis, the narrowing of the diameter of arterial passageways.
The women's intake of fiber from fruits, vegetables and refined grains was not associated with a lessening in CAD progression.

A "Germ" that Promotes Health

Wheat bran is not the only star when it comes to the health benefits of wheat; wheat germ definitely deserves its “health food” reputation. The germ is the vitamin and mineral rich embryo of the wheat kernel that is removed during the refining of whole wheat grains to white flour. Packed with important B vitamins, such as folate, thiamin, and vitamin B6, and the minerals zinc, magnesium, and manganese, wheat germ is a top-notch food that can be easily incorporated into casseroles, muffins, and pancakes or sprinkled over cereal or yogurt.

The wheat germ also has a high oil content, and subsequently a high amount of vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that helps protect the oil in the wheat germ from quickly becoming rancid. Vitamin E functions in a similar manner as a fat-soluble antioxidant in the human body where it helps protect fat-containing substances including cell membranes, brain cells, and fatty molecules such as cholesterol from damge by free radicals. Fats and cholesterol are very susceptible to free radical damage, a process that occurs when they are exposed to oxygen. When damaged, fats and cholesterol form toxic derivatives that, if left unchecked, can damage the structures of which they are a part and, in the case of cholesterol, contribute to the formation of atherosclerosis, a form of coronary artery disease. Vitamin E, when present in sufficient quantities, readily blocks these toxic derivatives. Vitamin E not only protects fats, cholesterol and all cell membranes from damage, it is also important for immune system function, cancer prevention and blood glucose control in both healthy and diabetic individuals.

Meta-analysis Explains Whole Grains' Health Benefits

In many studies, eating whole grains, such as whole wheat, has been linked to protection against atherosclerosis, ischemic stroke, diabetes, insulin resistance, obesity, and premature death. A new study and accompanying editorial, published in the December 2004 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition explains the likely reasons behind these findings and recommends at least 3 servings of whole grains should be eaten daily.

Whole grains are excellent sources of fiber. In this meta-analysis of 7 studies including more than150 000 persons, those whose diets provided the highest dietary fiber intake had a 29% lower risk of cardiovascular disease compared to those with the lowest fiber intake.

But it's not just fiber's ability to serve as a bulking agent that is responsible for its beneficial effects as a component of whole grains. Wheat bran, for example, which constitutes 15% of most whole-grain wheat kernels but is virtually non-existent in refined wheat flour, is rich in minerals, antioxidants, lignans, and other phytochemicals—as well as in fiber.

In addition to the matrix of nutrients in their dietary fibers, the whole-grain arsenal includes a wide variety of additional nutrients and phytochemicals that reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Compounds in whole grains that have cholesterol-lowering effects include polyunsaturated fatty acids, oligosaccharides, plant sterols and stanols, and saponins.

Whole grains are also important dietary sources of water-soluble, fat-soluble, and insoluble antioxidants. The long list of cereal antioxidants includes vitamin E, tocotrieonols, selenium, phenolic acids, and phytic acid. These multifunctional antioxidants come in immediate-release to slow-release forms and thus are available throughout the gastrointestinal tract over a long period after being consumed.

The high antioxidant capacity of wheat bran is 20-fold that of refined wheat flour (endosperm). Although the role of antioxidant supplements in protecting against cardiovascular disease has been questioned, prospective population studies consistently suggest that when consumed in whole foods, antioxidants are associated with significant protection against cardiovascular disease. Because free radical damage to cholesterol appears to contribute significantly to the development of atherosclerosis, the broad range of antioxidant activities from the phytochemicals abundant in whole-grains is thought to play a strong role in their cardio-protective effects.

Like soybeans, whole grains are good sources of phytoestrogens, plant compounds that may affect blood cholesterol levels, blood vessel elasticity, bone metabolism, and many other cellular metabolic processes.

Whole grains are rich sources of lignans that are converted by the human gut to enterolactone and enterodiole. In studies of Finnish men, blood levels of enterolactone have been found to have an inverse relation not just to cardiovascular-related death, but to all causes of death, which suggests that the plant lignans in whole grains may play an important role in their protective effects.

Lower insulin levels may also contribute to the protective effects of whole grains. In many persons, the risks of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity are linked to insulin resistance. Higher intakes of whole grains are associated with increased sensitivity to insulin in population studies and clinical trials. Why? Because whole grains improve insulin sensitivity by lowering the glycemic index of the diet while increasing its content of fiber, magnesium, and vitamin E.

The whole kernel of truth: as part of your healthy way of eating, whole grains can significantly lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Enjoy at least 3 servings a day. No idea how to cook whole grains? Just look at the "How to Enjoy" section in our profiles of the whole grains, or for quick, easy, delicious recipes, click on this link to our Recipe Assistant and select whole wheat or whichever whole grain you would like to prepare.

Sourdough bread—a Better Source of Minerals and Better Tolerated by Persons with Celiac Disease Than Other Breads

Choose sourdough for the best nutrition among commercially baked breads, suggests a study published in the June 2003 issue of the journal Nutrition.

This animal study compared mineral absorption from different breads: reconstituted whole wheat flour (white flour plus bran, a typical formulation), yeast bread and sourdough bread. Of all three breads, not only was the content of phytate, which prevents absorption of calcium, lower in sourdough, but the absorption of iron, zinc, and copper was enhanced. Another study, published in the December 2004 issue of Applied Environmental Microbiology shows that sourdough bread made with selected lactobacilli, nontoxic flours, and a long fermentation time decreases gluten intolerance, making such sourdoughs breads that even patients with celiac sprue can tolerate. .

Description

Wheat is ubiquitious in our culture. Bread, pasta, bagels, crackers, cakes, and muffins just begin to describe the list of foods made with this grain.

Wheat is generally classified as being either spring or winter wheat. Within these two groups, the wheat can be further defined as being either hard or soft, depending upon the grain’s texture. The colors of the grains of wheat are white or red with reflections of amber.

Wheat, in its natural unrefined state, features a host of important nutrients. Therefore, to receive benefit from the wholesomeness of wheat you need to choose wheat products made from whole wheat flour rather than those that are refined and stripped of their natural goodness.

The genus name for wheat, from which all wheat species are derived, is Triticum.

History

Wheat is an ancient grain. Thought to have originated in southwestern Asia, it has been consumed as a food for more than 12,000 years. As it was looked upon as the Staff of Life, it played an important role of religious significance and was part of the sacred rituals of many cultures. Greek, Roman, Sumerian and Finnish mythology had gods and goddesses of wheat. This exceptionally nutritious grain is still considered to be sacred in some areas of China.

Wheat was not native to the Western Hemisphere and was only introduced here in the late 15th century when Columbus came to the New World. While wheat was grown in the United States during the early colonial years, it was not until the late 19th century that wheat cultivation flourished, owing to the importation of an especially hardy strain of wheat known as Turkey red wheat, which was brought over by Russian immigrants who settled in Kansas.

As rice has been the dietary staple of Asia, wheat has served this role for many of other regions of the world. It is estimated that approximately one-third of the world’s people depend upon wheat for their nourishment.

Today, the largest commercial producers of wheat include the Russian Federation, the United States, China, India, France and Canada.

How to Select and Store

How to Enjoy

For some of our favorite recipes, click Recipes.

A Few Quick Serving Ideas:

Use whole wheat bread when you make sandwiches.

Wheat flakes look similar to rolled oats and can be prepared as a hot breakfast cereal.

Use sprouted wheat berries in vegetable and grain salads.

Make individual pizzas using whole wheat pita breads as the crust.

Whole wheat pasta has become very popular and is available in many different types (e.g., spaghetti, spirals, penne, etc.) to suit your recipe needs.

Safety

Allergic Reactions to Wheat

Although allergic reactions can occur to virtually any food, research studies on food allergy consistently report more problems with some foods than with others. Common symptoms associated with an allergic reaction to food include: chronic gastrointestinal disturbances; frequent infections, e.g. ear infections, bladder infections, bed-wetting; asthma, sinusitis; eczema, skin rash, acne, hives; bursitis, joint pain; fatigue, headache, migraine; hyperactivity, depression, insomnia.

Individuals who suspect food allergy to be an underlying factor in their health problems may want to avoid commonly allergenic foods. Wheat is one of the foods most commonly associated with allergic reactions. Other foods commonly associated with allergic reactions include: cow's milk, soy, shrimp, oranges, eggs, chicken, strawberries, tomato, spinach, peanuts, pork, corn and beef. These foods do not need to be eaten in their pure, isolated form in order to trigger an adverse reaction. For example, yogurt made from cow’s milk is also a common allergenic food, even though the cow’s milk has been processed and fermented in order to make the yogurt. Ice cream made from cow’s milk would be an equally good example.

Wheat and Oxalates

Whole wheat (because it maintains the bran and germ component of the grain) is one of a small number of foods that contain any measurable amount of oxalates, naturally-occurring substances found in plants, animals, and human beings. When oxalates become too concentrated in body fluids, they can crystallize and cause health problems. For this reason, individuals with already existing and untreated kidney or gallbladder problems may want to avoid eating whole wheat. Oxalates may also interfere with absorption of calcium from the body. For this reason, individuals trying to increase their calcium stores may want to avoid whole wheat, or if taking calcium supplements, may want to eat whole wheat 2-3 hours before or after taking their supplements.

Nutritional Profile

Introduction to Food Rating System Chart

The following chart shows the nutrients for which this food is either an excellent, very good or good source. Next to the nutrient name you will find the following information: the amount of the nutrient that is included in the noted serving of this food; the %Daily Value (DV) that that amount represents (similar to other information presented in the website, this DV is calculated for 25-50 year old healthy woman); the nutrient density rating; and, the food's World's Healthiest Foods Rating. Underneath the chart is a table that summarizes how the ratings were devised. For more detailed information on our Food and Recipe Rating System, please click here.

 

Wheat, Bulgur, Cooked
1.00 cup
151.06 calories
Nutrient Amount DV
(%)
Nutrient
Density
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
manganese 1.11 mg 55.5 6.6 very good
dietary fiber 8.19 g 32.8 3.9 very good
tryptophan 0.09 g 28.1 3.4 very good
magnesium 58.24 mg 14.6 1.7 good
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
Rule
excellent DV>=75% OR Density>=7.6 AND DV>=10%
very good DV>=50% OR Density>=3.4 AND DV>=5%
good DV>=25% OR Density>=1.5 AND DV>=2.5%

References

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  • Lopez HW, Duclos V, Coudray C, Krespine V, Feillet-Coudray C, Messager A, Demigne C, Remesy C. Making bread with sourdough improves mineral bioavailability from reconstituted whole wheat flour in rats. Nutrition. 2003 Jun;19(6):524-30. .
  • McKeown NM, Meigs JB, Liu S, Saltzman E, Wilson PW, Jacques PF. Carbohydrate Nutrition, Insulin Resistance, and the Prevalence of the Metabolic Syndrome in the Framingham Offspring Cohort. Diabetes Care. 2004 Feb;27(2):538-546. .
  • Tsai CJ, Leitzmann MF, Willett WC, Giovannucci EL. Long-term intake of dietary fiber and decreased risk of cholecystectomy in women. Am J Gastroenterol. 2004 Jul;99(7):1364-70.
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This page was updated on: 2005-08-17 20:59:12
© 2002 The George Mateljan Foundation