Wheat is one of the world’s most commonly consumed cereal grains.
It comes from a type of grass (Triticum) grown in countless varieties worldwide.
Bread wheat, or common wheat, is the primary species. Other closely related species include durum, spelt, emmer, einkorn, and Khorasan wheat.
White and whole-wheat flour are key ingredients in baked goods like bread. Other wheat-based foods include pasta, noodles, semolina, bulgur, and couscous.
Wheat is highly controversial because it contains a protein called gluten, which can trigger a harmful immune response in predisposed individuals.
However, whole-grain wheat can be a rich source of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber for people who tolerate it.
This article tells you everything you need to know about wheat.
Wheat nutrition facts
Wheat is mainly composed of carbs but also has moderate amounts of protein.
Here are the nutrition facts for 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of whole-grain wheat flour:
- Calories: 340
- Water: 11%
- Protein: 13.2 grams
- Carbs: 72 grams
- Sugar: 0.4 grams
- Fiber: 10.7 grams
- Fat: 2.5 grams
Like all cereal grains, wheat is mainly composed of carbs.
Starch is the predominant carb in the plant kingdom, accounting for over 90% of the total carb content in wheat.
The health effects of starch mainly depend on its digestibility, which determines its effect on blood sugar levels.
High digestibility may cause an unhealthy spike in blood sugar after a meal and harm health, especially for people with diabetes.
Like white rice and potatoes, white and whole wheat rank high on the glycemic index (GI), making them unsuitable for people with diabetes.
On the other hand, some processed wheat products — such as pasta — are digested less efficiently and thus don’t raise blood sugar levels to the same extent.
Whole wheat is high in fiber — but refined wheat contains almost none.
The fiber content of whole-grain wheat is 12–15% of the dry weight.
As they’re concentrated in the bran, fibers are removed during milling and are largely absent from refined flour.
The main fiber in wheat bran is arabinoxylan (70%), a type of hemicellulose. The rest is mostly made up of cellulose.
Most wheat fiber is insoluble, passing through your digestive system almost intact and adding bulk to stool. Some fibers also feed your gut bacteria.
Moreover, wheat contains small amounts of soluble fibers or fructans that may cause digestive symptoms in people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
By and large, though, wheat bran may benefit gut health.
Proteins make up 7–22% of wheat’s dry weight.
Gluten, a large family of proteins, accounts for up to 80% of the total protein content. It’s responsible for the unique elasticity and stickiness of the wheat dough, the properties that make it so useful in breadmaking.
Wheat gluten can have adverse health effects on people with gluten intolerance.
Summary: Carbs are the main nutritional component of wheat. Still, this grain harbors significant amounts of fiber, which may aid digestion. Its protein mostly comes in the form of gluten.
Vitamins and minerals
Whole wheat is a good source of several vitamins and minerals.
As with most cereal grains, the amount of minerals depends on the soil in which it’s grown.
- Selenium. This trace element has various essential functions in your body. The selenium content of wheat depends on the soil — and is very low in some regions, including China.
- Manganese. Found in high amounts in whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables, manganese may be poorly absorbed from whole wheat due to its phytic acid content.
- Phosphorus. This dietary mineral plays an essential role in maintaining and growing body tissues.
- Copper. An essential trace element, copper is often low in the Western diet. Deficiency may have adverse effects on heart health.
- Folate. One of the B vitamins, folate, is also known as folic acid or vitamin B9. It’s particularly important during pregnancy.
Some of the most nutritious parts of the grain — the bran and germ — are absent from white wheat because they’re removed during the milling and refining process.
Therefore, white wheat is relatively poor in many vitamins and minerals compared to whole-grain wheat.
Because wheat accounts for a large portion of people’s food intake, flour is regularly enriched with vitamins and minerals.
Enrichment of wheat flour is mandatory in many countries.
Enriched wheat flour may be a good source of iron, thiamine, niacin, calcium, and vitamin B6, in addition to the above nutrients.
Summary: Whole wheat may be a decent source of several vitamins and minerals, including selenium, manganese, phosphorus, copper, and folate.
Other plant compounds of wheat
Most of the plant compounds in wheat are concentrated in the bran and germ, which are absent from refined white wheat.
The highest antioxidants are found in the aleurone layer, a bran component.
Wheat aleurone is also sold as a dietary supplement.
Common plant compounds in wheat include:
- Ferulic acid. This polyphenol is the predominant antioxidant in wheat and other cereal grains.
- Phytic acid. Concentrated in the bran, phytic acid may impair your absorption of minerals, such as iron and zinc. Soaking, sprouting, and fermenting grains can reduce its levels.
- Alkylresorcinols. Found in wheat bran, alkylresorcinols are a class of antioxidants that may have several health benefits.
- Lignans. These are another family of antioxidants present in wheat bran. Test-tube studies indicate that lignans may help prevent colon cancer.
- Wheat germ agglutinin. This protein is concentrated in wheat germ and is blamed for many adverse health effects. However, lectins are inactivated with heat — and thus neutralized in baked goods.
- Lutein. An antioxidant carotenoid, lutein is responsible for the color of yellow durum wheat. High-lutein foods may improve eye health.
Summary: Wheat bran, present in whole wheat, may contain several healthy antioxidants, such as alkylresorcinols and lignans. White flour and other refined wheat products do not contain these compounds.
Health benefits of whole-grain wheat
While white wheat may not be particularly beneficial to health, whole-grain wheat may offer several positive effects — especially when it replaces white flour.
Whole-grain wheat is rich in insoluble fiber concentrated in the bran.
Studies indicate that components of wheat bran may function as prebiotics, feeding some of the beneficial bacteria in your gut.
However, most of the bran passes almost unchanged through your digestive system, adding bulk to stool.
Wheat bran may also shorten the time it takes undigested material to travel through your digestive tract.
One study found that bran can reduce constipation risk in children.
Yet, depending on the underlying cause of constipation, eating bran may not always be effective.
Prevention of colon cancer
Colon cancer is the most prevalent type of digestive system cancer.
Observational studies link the consumption of whole grains — including whole wheat — to a reduced risk of colon cancer.
One observational study estimated that people on low-fiber diets could cut their risk of colon cancer by 40% by eating more fiber.
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This is supported by randomized controlled trials, though not all studies have found a significant protective effect.
Whole wheat is fiber-rich and boasts several antioxidants and phytonutrients that potentially reduce your risk of colon cancer.
Summary: Whole wheat and other whole-grain cereals may promote gut health and reduce your risk of colon cancer.
A harmful immune reaction to gluten characterizes the celiac disease.
An estimated 0.5–1% of people in the United States and Europe have this condition.
Celiac disease damages your small intestine, resulting in impaired absorption of nutrients.
Associated symptoms include weight loss, bloating, flatulence, diarrhea, constipation, stomach pain, and fatigue.
It has also been suggested that gluten may contribute to brain disorders in people with celiac disease, such as schizophrenia and epilepsy.
Einkorn, an ancient wheat variety, causes weaker reactions than other varieties — but is still unsuitable for people with gluten intolerance.
Adhering to a gluten-free diet is the only known treatment for celiac disease. Although wheat is the main dietary source of gluten, this protein can also be found in rye, barley, and many processed foods.
Summary: Gluten in all wheat can harm individuals with celiac disease. This condition is characterized by damage to your small intestine and impaired absorption of nutrients.
Other downsides and side effects
Although whole-grain wheat may have some health benefits, many people need to eat less or avoid it altogether.
The number of individuals who follow a gluten-free diet exceeds those who have celiac disease.
Sometimes, people believe that wheat and gluten are inherently harmful to health. In other cases, wheat or gluten may cause actual symptoms.
This condition — gluten sensitivity or non-celiac wheat sensitivity — is an adverse reaction to wheat without any autoimmune or allergic reactions.
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Frequently reported symptoms of wheat sensitivity include abdominal pain, headache, fatigue, diarrhea, joint pain, bloating, and eczema.
One study indicates that, in some people, the symptoms of wheat sensitivity may be triggered by substances other than gluten.
Evidence suggests that wheat sensitivity is caused by fructans, which belong to a class of fibers known as FODMAPs.
High dietary intake of FODMAPs exacerbates IBS, which has symptoms similar to celiac disease.
Approximately 30% of people with IBS experience wheat sensitivity.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
IBS is a common condition characterized by abdominal pain, bloating, irregular bowel habits, diarrhea, and constipation.
It is more common in people who experience anxiety and is often triggered by a stressful life event.
Sensitivity to wheat is common among people with IBS.
Although FODMAPs — found in wheat — worsen symptoms, they are not considered the underlying cause of IBS.
Studies indicate that IBS may be associated with low-grade inflammation in the digestive tract.
If you have this condition, it may be best to limit wheat consumption.
Food allergy is a common condition triggered by a harmful immune response to certain proteins.
Gluten in wheat is a primary allergen, affecting approximately 1% of children.
In adults, allergy is most often reported among those regularly exposed to airborne wheat dust.
Baker’s asthma and nasal inflammation are typically allergic reactions to wheat dust.
Whole-grain wheat contains phytic acid (phytate), which impairs the absorption of minerals — such as iron and zinc — from the same meal.
For this reason, it has been referred to as an antinutrient.
While rarely problematic for people following a well-balanced diet, antinutrients may concern those who base their diets on cereal grains and legumes.
The phytic acid content of wheat can be reduced considerably — by up to 90% — by soaking and fermenting the grains.
Summary: Wheat has several potential downsides. These include allergy, worsened IBS symptoms, wheat intolerance, and antinutrient content.
Common wheat vs. spelt
Spelt is an ancient variety of wheat closely related to common wheat.
Grown for thousands of years, spelt has recently become popular as a health food.
Common whole wheat and spelt have similar nutritional profiles — particularly regarding their fiber and protein content. Still, this depends on which varieties of spelt and common wheat are being compared.
That said, spelt may be richer in some minerals, such as zinc.
Studies indicate that modern wheat may be lower in minerals than many ancient types of wheat.
Besides its higher mineral content, spelt is not clearly more beneficial than whole-grain common wheat.
Summary: Spelt may have a higher mineral content than common wheat. However, this difference is unlikely to have any major health effects.
Wheat is one of the world’s most common foods and one of the most controversial.
People who are intolerant to gluten need to eliminate wheat from their diet entirely.
However, moderate consumption of fiber-rich whole wheat may be healthy for those who tolerate it, as it may improve digestion and help prevent colon cancer.
Ultimately, if you enjoy bread, baked goods, and other wheat products in moderation, this ubiquitous grain is unlikely to harm your health.