By Denis Faye
Wheat might be one of the most contentious foods in modern nutrition. On one side, you have a growing population of people with Celiac disease and gluten intolerances, as well as grain-free “Paleo” eaters who use “wheat” as a dirty word. On the other side, you have a general public swayed by stilted USDA guidelines and food industry manipulation into thinking “wheat” is synonymous with “wholesome goodness.”
The answer, as usual, lies somewhere in the middle. Unless you have an issue with gluten (about 10% of our population, by some estimates), whole wheat can be a nutrient-rich part of your diet — in moderation. That doesn’t mean 6-11 servings a day (or whatever the government is suggesting this week). It means 1-3 servings, making up the difference with fresh fruits and veggies.
Unfortunately, the food industry continues to manipulate us into gorging on grains — refined, depleting grains. Case in point, Wheat Thins. As a kid, my mom served me bowlfuls of these salty/sweet crackers. Like any self-respecting seventies matron, she assumed was doing her son a favor by feeding him little golden squares of healthy goodness. A quick tour of the ingredients proves her wrong (Sorry, Mom).
Whole Grain Wheat Flour.
Okay, so we’re off to a good start. The fact that this is the number one ingredient suggests this is the primary ingredient. However, if I wanted to be picky, I could point out that whole wheat is problematic for people with gluten issues. Wheat also contains oxalates and phytic acid, both which can inhibit mineral absorption, specifically calcium, magnesium, copper, iron, and zinc.
That said, I tend to mirror the opinion of World’s Healthiest Foods author George Mateljan, who believes that it’s perfectly fine to include a moderate amount of whole wheat in your diet, provided you don’t have gluten sensitivities. He points out that whole wheat is a good source of insoluble fiber. He also suggests that the negative impact of oxalates and phytic acid-containing foods is negligible, provided they are only a small part of a nutrient-rich diet.
Whole wheat also contains amino acids, such as lysine and methionine, that are important to vegans and (some) vegetarians given they don’t get them from animal products as meat eaters do.
All this said, I’m not advocating Wheat Thins. As we’re about to discover, the rest of the ingredients can be somewhat problematic.
Unbleached Enriched Flour.
As I mentioned before, this is wheat flour denuded of its beneficial parts and enriched with a few micronutrients (in this case, niacin, iron, thiamine, riboflavin, and folic acid). The exclusion of fiber alone means that refined flour, much like its cousin refined sugar, becomes a source of unchecked carbohydrates, which can contribute to a number of health issues, including type 2 diabetes.
Aside from the fact that it’s probably genetically modified, soybean oil just isn’t a good oil for cooking. It’s an unstable polyunsaturated fat, so heat will quickly oxidize it, which ruins any potential health benefits, given oxidized fats don’t provide the body energy or structure. Some experts, such as Know Your Fats author Dr. Mary Enig, suggest these oxidized fats are even cancerous.
Most modern health problems seem to point back to too much added sugar in the diet. It’s nutritionally void, contributing to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and potentially even cancer.
An anti-thickening agent made from grounded up corn. This additive is primarily carbohydrates with little fiber and no other nutritional value, making it similar to refined flour and sugar. Some experts also believe it can cause complications with allergies and sensitivities.
Malt Syrup (from barley and corn).
If you see “syrup,” you know you’re in trouble. Malt syrup is sugar extracted from grain. It’s called malt because it’s primarily maltose, a disaccharide formed from glucose. It’s as problematic as any other sugar.
We’re taking a little break from sugar here to take in a little sodium, which is an important electrolyte, working with potassium to regulate fluid in cells. However, American diets tend to be sodium-rich and potassium-poor. The recommended intake for these two minerals is one part sodium to two parts potassium. A look at the Wheat Thins nutrition facts shows the reverse to be the case. Furthermore, it’s safe to assume that this particular salt is highly processed, kiln-dried salt, which is void of the trace minerals you’ll find in sea and other unrefined salts.
This is sucrose that’s been split into its two components, glucose and fructose, to prevent crystallization. For our purposes, it’s just more added sugar.
Leavening (Calcium Phosphate and/or Baking Soda).
Much like cornstarch, some experts believe calcium phosphate can cause complications with allergies and sensitivities. Baking soda is high in sodium. Which one is in your Wheat Thin? Go ahead and roll the dice.
Vegetable Color (Annatto Extract, Turmeric Oleoresin).
At first blush, this one is kind of cool. It’s good to see these natural colorings – both yellow – instead of synthetic colorings. That said, how yellow do crackers need to be, exactly? Furthermore, studies indicate annatto can cause anaphylaxis in some people, so why take the chance on these additives?
Technically, butylated hydroxytoluene isn’t in Wheat Thins. It’s an antioxidant in the packaging that helps maintain freshness. As for whether this chemical is bad or not, I don’t know for sure. Studies seem to be all over the map. However, it alarms me that the FDA seems to be similarly befuddled. From their website: “While no evidence in the available information on BHT demonstrates a hazard to the public when it is used at levels that are now current and in the manner now practiced, uncertainties exist requiring that additional studies should be conducted” (1973). (Note that while the document was originally published in 1973, it was updated in 2011.) I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of this kind of uncertainty.
Overall, there aren’t technically a lot of artificial substances in Wheat Thins. In fact, they contain several natural substances, but most of them have been refined, heated, or otherwise distorted to the point of being unhealthy and unnatural. Nutritionally, Wheat Thins have very little to offer: tiny amounts of a few micronutrients and a lot of carbs with little fiber. Frankly, I see no point in eating them. The benefits of the whole wheat are negated by all the refined foods. If you’re looking for a mass-produced snack cracker, I’d suggest Triscuits, which have an ingredient list as follows: whole grain soft winter wheat, soybean oil, salt. Yes, we’ve established that soybean oil and salt can be bad news, but they’re certainly a step in the right direction.
Nutrition Facts for a serving of Wheat Thins:
Calories: 140; Sodium: 230 mg
Total Fat: 5 g; Potassium: 90 mg
Saturated: 1 g; Total Carbs: 22 g
Polyunsaturated: 3 g; Dietary Fiber:2 g
Monounsaturated: 1 g; Sugars: 4 g
Trans: 0 g; Protein: 2 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg
Vitamin A:0% ; Calcium: 2%
Vitamin C: 0%; Iron: 4%
About My Guest Blogger:
Denis Faye been a professional journalist for 20 years, writing for Surfer, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Magazine, Outside, Wired, Men’s Health, Men’s Journal, GQ, Surfer, and Pacific Longboarder. He credits a 5-year jaunt through Australia for a 50 pound weight loss and his transformation into the fitness and sports enthusiast he is today. His sports include swimming, scuba, trekking, rock climbing, mountain biking, spelunking, and — most importantly — surfing. Denis writes for Beachbody, which provides effective and popular workout videos, including the Insanity Workout, a high intensity interval training program for total body conditioning.