Wheat is one of the world's most commonly consumed cereal grains.
It comes from a type of grass (Triticum) that is grown in countless varieties worldwide.
Bread wheat, or common wheat, is the primary species. Several other closely related species include durum, spelt, emmer, einkorn, and Khorasan wheat.
White and whole-wheat flour are key ingredients in baked goods, such as 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, for people who tolerate it, whole-grain wheat can be a rich source of various antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
This article tells you everything you need to know about wheat.
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 have harmful effects on health, especially 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 the milling process and largely absent from refined flour.
Most wheat fiber is insoluble, passing through your digestive system almost intact and adding bulk to stool. Some fibers also feed your gut bacteria (6, , ).
What’s more, 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 have beneficial effects on 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 wheat dough, the properties that make it so useful in breadmaking.
Wheat gluten can have adverse health effects in people with gluten intolerance.
SUMMARY Carbs are the main nutritional component of wheat. Still, this grain harbors significant amounts of fiber, which may aid your digestion. Its protein mostly comes in the form of gluten.
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 (, 12).
- 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 the maintenance and growth of 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.
In fact, enrichment of wheat flour is mandatory in many countries (16).
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.
Most of the plant compounds in wheat are concentrated in the bran and germ, which are absent from refined white wheat (, ).
The highest levels of antioxidants are found in the aleurone layer, a component of the bran.
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 (20, ).
- Alkylresorcinols. Found in wheat bran, alkylresorcinols are a class of antioxidants that may have a number of 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 blamed for a number of adverse health effects. However, lectins are inactivated with heat — and thus neutralized in baked goods (24).
- Lutein. An antioxidant carotenoid, lutein is responsible for the color of yellow durum wheat. High-lutein foods may improve eye health ().
SUMMARY Wheat bran, which is present in whole wheat, may contain a number of healthy antioxidants, such as alkylresorcinols and lignans. Notably, white flour and other refined wheat products do not contain these compounds.
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, which is 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 (6, ).
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 the 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 ().
This is supported by randomized controlled trials, though not all studies have found a significant protective effect (, ).
All in all, whole wheat is rich in fiber and boasts a number of 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.
Celiac disease is characterized by a harmful immune reaction to gluten.
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 — which is found in all wheat — can harm individuals with celiac disease. This condition is characterized by damage to your small intestine and impaired absorption of nutrients.
Although whole-grain wheat may have some health benefits, many people need to eat less of it — or avoid it altogether.
The number of individuals who follow a gluten-free diet exceeds those who have celiac disease.
Sometimes, people simply believe that wheat and gluten are inherently harmful to health. In other cases, wheat or gluten may cause actual symptoms.
This condition — called gluten sensitivity or non-celiac wheat sensitivity — is defined as an adverse reaction to wheat without any autoimmune or allergic reactions (, , ).
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 those of celiac disease ().
In fact, approximately 30% of people with IBS experience a 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 — which are found in wheat — make symptoms worse, 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 typical 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 be a concern for 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 a number of potential downsides. These include allergy, worsened IBS symptoms, wheat intolerance, and antinutrient content.
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 (59).
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 (59, 60, 61).
In fact, studies indicate that modern wheat may be lower in minerals than many ancient types of wheat (62, ).
Other than 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 effect.
Wheat is not only one of the world's most common foods but also 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 breads, baked goods, and other wheat products in moderation, this ubiquitous grain is unlikely to harm your health.