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It is hard to recall when markets did not offer a stunning array of whole wheat breads. The many people who resolve to eat more grains at the start of the year these days have a nice selection. The important element on the label is that whole wheat flour, or another grain, be the first ingredient.
We sat down with seven brands of 100 percent whole wheat bread, ranging from the artisanal looking Nashoba Brook, squared-off dense Iggy’s, to airy Wonder Bread. It was hard to think of these as the same species, yet they are all entirely whole wheat.
When wheat is processed or refined to make white flour, part of the outer coating is removed, taking away the bran and germ, leaving just the endosperm found in the middle of the grain. This eliminates important nutrients. Bread marked 100 percent whole wheat means that the entire grain is used when the wheat is processed into flour, leaving in fiber and important B vitamins. This gives the flour its dark hue. According to the FDA, 100 percent whole wheat means that the endosperm, bran, and germ must be present in the product.
The difference in taste and texture among the breads has to do with the remaining ingredients added to the dough: water, sweeteners, fats, and additives. In this region, molasses is often added to whole wheat breads.
Eight people tasted the loaves. Nashoba Brook Bakery was the winner by a wide margin that could have been even wider. One taster said she would have chosen Nashoba Brook as the favorite if she were looking for sourdough; for a sandwich, she said, she wants something dense and nutty and that looks like a sandwich loaf. In fact, Nashoba Brook is made with a sourdough starter (although it isn’t the company’s sourdough variety). In other loaves – Freihofer’s, Arnold’s, and Wonder – many tasters detected sweetness. These contain sugar or high-fructose corn syrup as a third or fourth ingredient. Wonder also lists honey and molasses.
When the tasters were done, they got to slather their favorite slices with peanut butter and jelly and enjoy the ultimate comfort sandwich.
Arnold Whole Grains 100% Whole Wheat
$4.49 for a loaf (1 pound, 8 ounces)
Many chose this loaf as second favorite, awarding kudos for its wheat-dusted crust. “Sweet, chewy, and retains its form. Pieces of wheat on the crust, which isn’t bitter. It feels thick and hearty.’’ “Tasty, light crust.’’ Others thought the bread was lackluster: “Just what you would expect from the supermarket or lunch lady – bland.’’ “Soft, slightly chewy.’’ And three found it to be “very, very sweet’’ (it contains sugar, raisin juice concentrate, and molasses), while another called it “cakey.’’ “Doesn’t taste very healthy.’’ There was a lone voice of high praise: “Best whole wheat taste, chewiest.’’
Freihofer’s Stone Ground 100% Whole Wheat
$3.99 for a loaf (1 pound, 8 ounces)
“Very flimsy bread, like it would fall apart as soon as a tomato showed up. Sweet but seriously, where’s the wheat? Turns gluey as you chew.’’ Another taster also used the word flimsy to describe the texture, then wrote, “fine if I was served this, but wouldn’t buy it.’’ Another: “Looks like carpeting, tastes sweet.’’ “Too soft texture. Tastes like it is full of chemicals.’’ “A standard bagged bread. Chewy texture but not great flavor. A little sour when I first ate it.’’ “A dull bread; mild taste.’’
Iggy’s Bread of the World Pan de Mie Wheat
$3.59 for a loaf (1 pound, 1 ounce loaf)
This classic pan de mie sandwich shape (very squared off) got positive and negative comments on the crust and lack of sweetness. The only sweetener is barley malt, listed as the fifth of six ingredients. “Tough texture, less sweet than others. Terrible crust. Hard and chewy; my dentist warned me about bread like this.’’ “More interesting than average supermarket bread. Moist with a chewy crust, kind of a yeasty taste. Not at all sweet.’’ “There is no bounce or give to this bread. The crust is too thick.’’ Another wrote, “I like the hard edge.’’ And finally: “Crust is way too tough, bad taste too.’’ One liked the density and “surprisingly great texture, good balance of salty and sweet.’’ “Slight whole wheat smell and slightly chewy crust.’’
Nashoba Brook Bakery Whole Wheat
$4.99 for a loaf (1 pound, 3 ounces)
The most expensive bread of the lot, which many said is worth the price. The appearance of this round loaf immediately won everyone. Vocal comments are verboten during the tasting, but one person, while staring at the loaf before she sat down, remarked, “I already know which one will win.’’ “This one looks amazing, like from a bakery. I like the flour on the crust and holes in it. Strong scent (rye-like)? The flour is good but a little sour.’’ “Good for Russian cuisine. I want to eat this slowly.’’ “Yummy! Looks healthy, based on the crust and body. Crust is very important; it determines how sturdy the bread is and if it will get beaten up by lunchtime. Would be great as toast.’’ “Great crusty bread, chewy and a slight sourdough taste. Makes me want to toast and butter it.’’ Another ventured a guess: “Is it Nashoba Brook or Iggy’s? Tasty, even without butter. Nice texture, best looking.’’ “Is it whole wheat sourdough?’’ “Artisanal.’’ One detractor: “The smell is yeasty, not in a good way, slightly dirty sock-ish. Texture is very pleasant but there’s a sort of odd aftertaste.’’
Stop & Shop Stone Ground 100% Whole Wheat
$2.99 for a loaf (1 pound)
The texture was striking to most. “Soft, light texture and flavor.’’ “A bit dry and too fluffy, quite tasteless.’’ “Like every other industrial bread, makes you wonder where the wheat is. Very soft crust. This is like something you feed to kids until they’re ready for the real stuff.’’ “Slightly dry, would be OK for a sandwich.’’ “Very chewy, inoffensive flavor. The aftertaste isn’t great.’’ ‘‘Denser than the others, nutty, but bitter taste at the end. Looks artificial.’’ “Soft and easy to eat.’’ “Great crust texture and balance of holes.’’
Whole Foods Market 100% Whole Wheat Bread
$3.99 for a loaf (1 pound, 4 ounces)
“It seems healthy.’’ “Nice light texture and flavor.’’ “Sweet and soft. Easy for children to eat and good for a sandwich.’’ “Too airy and sweet and smells bland.’’ “Texture is chewy soft and sort of gummy, like a whole wheat Wonder Bread. Can’t taste any grains.’’ “Looks like standard bagged bread.’’ One saw no redeeming qualities: “Smells artificial and tastes light. Not very fulfilling.’’
Wonder Stone Ground 100% Whole Wheat Bread
$3.99 for loaf (1 pound, 8 ounces)
“The indentation of my teeth is held in the bread, which makes me a little frightened of what’s hiding in there. Taste is reminiscent of wheat beer.’’ “This one has bread crumbs on the crust. The smell is quite sweet. Taste is OK, not exciting. Strange aftertaste.’’ “Too sweet, bitter aftertaste. Tastes like Wonder Bread.’’ Another: “Tastes like ordinary white bread.’’ “Slightly sweet, crust is soft and unnoticeable. Not much evidence of whole wheat. Maybe the delivery truck drove past a wheat field.’’ One person chose it as a favorite. “Perfect appearance, crust, center, and wonderful taste.’’
Debra Samuels can be reached at .- The Boston Globe...