Battle of the Breads: Industrial White or Artisanal Whole-Grain?

By Carl Engelking | June 6, 2017 11:00 am

(Credit: Seregam/Shutterstock)

What’s a more healthful option for a sandwich: industrially processed white bread, or artisanal whole-grain bread?

To those who seek clear-cut, black-and-white answers to burning questions like this one, we apologize preemptively. The answer is both; it simply depends on who’s eating it.

The Better Bread?

That conclusion is from researchers at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science who recently compared the short-term health effects of switching to a diet heavy in calories from white or whole-grain bread. In a randomized trial, scientists told twenty otherwise healthy people to increase their bread consumption for a week—from 10 percent of their daily caloric intake to 25 percent. Half of the participants supplemented their diet with processed white bread, and half munched on whole-grain sourdough prepared at a local bakery.

After the first week, every participant stopped consuming bread for two weeks during what’s called a wash-out period. Then, the experiment was repeated, but this time the white bread group ate whole-grain and vice-versa.

Before, during and after each stage of the experiment researchers monitored a host of health indicators: morning glucose levels, markers for inflammation and tissue damage, cholesterol levels, kidney and liver enzymes and levels of vitamins and minerals. Researchers also took stool samples to assess each person’s microbiome—the diverse bacterial community residing in their guts.

In short, each person experienced different outcomes. Some people’s metabolic responses were more positive after switching to white bread, while others did better eating whole-grain. When scientists averaged the group data together, it was a wash—there were no clinically significant differences between white and whole-grain. They published their findings Tuesday in the journal Cell Metabolism.

Here’s one important caveat: Everyone consumed the same amount of carbohydrates, and whole-grain bread contains fewer carbs. Therefore, participants ate more whole-grain than white bread.

“We didn’t take into consideration how much you would eat based on how full you felt. So the story must go on,” says Avraham Levy, a study coauthor.

Food Fights

The world is awash in conflicting studies touting the supposed health benefits, or detriments, of various foods. Are eggs a superfood, or are they just as bad as smoking a cigarette? You’ll find dubious evidence for both on a simple web search. Or, look at the various ways countries define a standard alcoholic drink. In Austria, 20 grams of ethanol per drink is the standard, but in the United Kingdom, 8 grams is the accepted definition.

Researchers say their study encourages us to tune out the noise and move away from universal dietary guidelines and focus more on individual variations. Indeed, in 2015 the same team from the Weizmann Institute had 800 people consume the same diet, and each person metabolized their diet differently. In other words, what’s healthy for one person may not be healthy for another.

“To date, the nutritional values assigned to food have been based on minimal science, and one-size-fits-all diets have failed miserably,” says Eran Elinav, a study coauthor.

Elinav and colleagues are a few voices in a chorus of experts casting doubt on the scientific veracity of dietary guidelines. When the federal government rolled out its 2015-20 Dietary Guidelines, nutritionists chided its drafters for sowing public confusion and disregarding scientific evidence. In The Atlantic, journalist James Hamblin highlighted concerns that the meat industry had an outsize role shaping those guidelines.

So, it seems, when reading dietary guidelines, it may be prudent to take them with a grain of salt—or not.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts
MORE ABOUT: nutrition
  • Uncle Al

    chorus of experts casting doubt on the scientific veracity of dietary guidelines.” Mr. Michelle’s inedible school lunches are bursting with social intent. No grits are to be served south of the Mason-Dixon line. That’ll learn ’em.

  • Erik Bosma

    And this study was sponsored by whom? MacDonald’s?

    • Marc

      Actually … The lead contact, and one of the other authors, are “paid scientific consultants of DayTwo Inc”, a company that sells personalized gut microbiome information. (source: conflict of interest disclosure in the research paper)

  • Gena B

    You have to take in a account how many people taking these studies actually follow it precisely as told, how many already have problems like pre-diabetes or full diabetes, high blood pressure, etc, all these play into how food is metabolized. Whole grain breads have more fiber, leave you feeling full longer and even though may contain the same carbs, they metabolize differently than white bread which also contains bleached refined flower, little fiber and often more chemicals and higher sugar. If they say they are equal, I would still go for the whole grain.

  • OWilson

    Learn to listen to your body.

    If you are truly in tune with it IT will tell you what it needs.

    No need to let the government decide for you! Telling you what to eat, what to drink, what to say, even what to think!

    When you get to that level, you might as well throw in the towel. :)

    • Edward Cole

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  • tony

    The way the issue was discussed did not focus on the science. It’s more like a layman’s view rather than from a scientist’s view. I recommend that more research be done.

  • Petr

    The whole so called study, is no real scientific study at all. The dfifference and influence of a diet on our health is a matter of months and years. Only then can one measure the changes of metabolism, weight,less problems with digestion etc.

  • John Pumphrey

    Poorly done and I waste of time to read. Funded by who!!! Not written for the great un-washed

  • Mark Shen

    It does not matter to me. I just eat whole grain, whole wheat, dark rye bread, multi-grain bread as long as they are Organic. It is a preference, really.

  • P.Mathivanan

    Scientists say many things which I don’t really know. For example, they say whole grains have more nutrition than refined grains. I just accept it on the face because they are scientists. However, I have never verified to find the truth. Most of us are blindly follow what they say and probably we will continue to do that. Perhaps they are treating us as observable objects in their scientific studies. Nevertheless, whole grains contain more fiber, which may be good for some people.

    • TxCentrist

      One problem others have pointed out is that we read articles that are based on a well-intended scientific study, but that the study hasn’t yet gone through the full rigor of the scientific process. So, we wind up reading about results that have not been fully vetted, and we of course take the results as a matter of fact. Surely that practice leads to conflicting messages and confusion, and even worse, credibility of the scientific process. It’s also not uncommon that the article, in the interest of sensationalism, misrepresents the findings of the study.

      • P.Mathivanan

        True. Journalism should have certain ethical standards. People’s life should not be taken for granted.

    • OWilson

      Some things are naturally intuitive, or as we older folks like to say, common sense. But today that sounds a little “contentious”.

      Nowadays, unless there’s government telling folks what to eat, an app on their Iphone, or their fave celeb flogging it on TV, some folks don’t have a clue.

      Natural foods that the human body was designed to consume, are obviously better than refined foods that never existed in nature when our bodies were evolving.

      I have lots of birds around my patio, beautifully plumed, healthy, happy and thriving, How they ever manage without being able to read government “guidelines”, I’ll never know! :)

      • P.Mathivanan

        True. Earlier, communities imparted to their members what to eat and what not to eat through experiences. In the modern world, introduction of technologies and modification of natural foods have led us to confusion. The effect of these changes can only be seen in the run. Certain kinds of people take advantages of these hazy situations.

        • OWilson

          Very well said!


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