Whole-Grain Bread vs. Whole-Wheat Bread: What's the Difference?

Confused about the difference between whole-grain versus whole-wheat bread? We explain the difference.

Picture this: You step into the bread aisle of the grocery store looking for a lovely loaf to make your morning avocado toast or breakfast sandwich, or perhaps you're picking up a package for your kids' PB&Js or to make a satisfying sandwich to bring to work for lunch. You've been told that whole grains are superior in nutritional quality when compared to their refined-grain counterparts. But what happens when you compare whole-grain bread to whole-wheat bread? Who's the winner? The answer might surprise you.

What Are Whole Grains?

First off, what does the term "whole grains" mean, anyway? A grain is made up of three parts: the bran, germ and endosperm. The outer layer of a kernel of grain is called the bran. It's rich in fiber, B vitamins and antioxidants, says Julie Lopez, RD. Next is the largest component of the grain kernel, the endosperm, which is made up of mostly carbohydrates with very small amounts of protein and vitamins. The innermost part of the kernel is the germ, which contains B vitamins, phytochemicals, vitamin E and other healthy fats.

Diagram showing bran layer, germ and endosperm
Getty Images

When grains are processed into flour, they can either be refined or left whole. The refining process removes both the protein-rich germ and the fiber-packed bran parts of the kernel to yield a softer, whiter flour as compared to whole-grain flour. Whole-grain flour, on the other hand, is made using all parts from the kernel, which is why this type of flour wins out nutritionally.

Whole-Grain Bread Nutrition

Here is the nutrition breakdown for one (1-ounce) slice of whole-grain bread, per the USDA:

  • 75 calories
  • 4 g protein
  • 1 g fat
  • 12 g carbohydrate
  • 2 g fiber
  • 108 mg sodium
  • 29 mg calcium
  • 65 mg potassium
  • <1 mg iron

Whole-Wheat Bread Nutrition

Here is the nutrition breakdown for one (1-ounce) slice of 100% whole-wheat bread, per the USDA:

  • 71 calories
  • 4 g protein
  • 1 g fat
  • 12 g carbohydrate
  • 2 g fiber
  • 129 mg sodium
  • 46 mg calcium
  • 72 mg potassium
  • <1 mg iron
a side by side of whole wheat bread loaf and a whole grain bread loaf
Getty Images

What's the Difference Between Whole-Wheat Bread and Whole-Grain Bread?

First, keep in mind that the word "whole" when placed in front of words such as "grain" or "wheat" on food packaging or on an ingredient list implies that the entire kernel has been used to make the food.

Wheat is a specific type of whole grain, with a nutritional makeup that is rich in fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals. "Whole grain" is not specific and implies that one or many types of grains may have been used to create the food. Since all grains vary in their nutritional composition, the numbers will look different based on the specific types of grain used.

For example, says Katie Morford, M.S., RD, "'Whole-grain' bread means it could be made with any type of whole grain, such as brown rice, barley, buckwheat, oats and wheat. 'Whole-wheat,' on the other hand, means the bread was made just with whole-wheat flour.'"

Is Whole-Wheat Bread Healthier Than Whole-Grain Bread?

Fortunately both types of bread can be healthy. Reproductive dietitian Rachelle Mallik, M.A., RDN, agrees, adding that "including whole-grain or whole-wheat bread to your diet can be an easy way to increase your whole grain intake."

But remember to read package information. Some breads can look like they're made with whole grains, but actually aren't, says Sally Kuzemchak, M.S., RDN, founder of Real Mom Nutrition. "It's easy to be tricked by a wholesome-looking brown loaf with oats sprinkled on top, but that can all just be window dressing for regular white bread. White bread is fine, too, but if what you're looking for is true whole-wheat or whole-grain bread, that's not what you want. And "multigrain" sounds amazing, but just means it's made with multiple grains—none of them necessarily need to be whole."

Bottom Line

The word "whole" implies all three parts of the kernel—the bran, germ and endosperm—were included when the grain was processed into flour. That maximizes its nutritional composition, especially when compared to refined bread options. Whole-grain bread can be made with one or several types of grain, whereas whole-wheat bread implies that only wheat is used. Whole-grain and whole-wheat breads are a nutritious choice, but read labels and choose what makes sense for you and your family.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles