Not every slice of bread you eat has to be the healthiest, but here’s how to get the most bang for your buck at the store.
For many, eating bread is a daily occurrence. In fact, this pantry staple is so ingrained in our daily lives and diets that it has a place in most meals: breakfast toast, lunch sandwiches, and restaurant bread baskets.
Some breads are healthier than others
All bread has its place in a healthy and balanced diet. That said, some types of bread contain even more useful and beneficial nutrients than others, such as fiber, protein, essential vitamins and minerals. In contrast, less nutritious breads, while delicious and wonderful, do not provide many nutrients, largely due to the processing of their grain flours. If you’re a regular bread eater, it’s also a good idea to use more nutritionally balanced breads, to get the most out of your sandwiches, toasts and rolls.
If you need help identifying breads that aren’t as good for you, avoid options with these potential red flags, telltale signs that they won’t deliver what they promise or will fall short of substantial nutrients to fuel your body for the long term.
Related: 9 Ways to Tell If You’re Buying a Healthy Type of Bread
Signs Your Bread Choice Could Be Healthier
1. There is no sign of whole grains.
“Healthier breads include whole wheat or flour as the first ingredient in the ingredient list,” says Amy Davis, RD, LDN, registered dietitian at FRESH Communications. “Some breads that aren’t as healthy will simply have ‘wheat’ flour as the first ingredient.” If there’s no indication of whole grain or whole wheat (the word “whole” is important here), that’s a sign you’re looking at a less than stellar bread choice.
There are many reasons why whole grains are important, the main one being that they offer a more complete and impressive nutritional profile than their refined counterparts, like white bread (more on that here). In the case of wheat, these nutrients include unsaturated fats, fiber and protein, as well as micronutrients such as iron, zinc, calcium, phosphorus, manganese, selenium, plant compounds, vitamin E and B vitamins like riboflavin, niacin, thiamine, and folic acid. This robust nutrition is associated with major health benefits. In fact, research shows that whole grain consumption is correlated with a reduced risk of heart disease, several types of cancer, type 2 diabetes, and high body mass index (BMI) scores.
There are many sneaky ways food marketers can fool consumers into thinking their bread product is whole grain when it is not, including advertising terms such as “wheat ”, “grain” and “multi-grain” on the packaging. But to feel confident that your bread is made entirely from whole grains, you want to see terms like “100% whole grain” and/or “whole grain” in front of wheat or cereal ads. And finally: “Always look for the Whole Grain stamp,” Davis adds.
2. There is little or no fiber (less than 2 grams).
“Ideally, you want to see three to five grams of fiber per serving of bread,” says Davis.
Breads made from refined grains (like white bread) often contain less than two grams of fiber per slice. For what? The grain refining process removes the fiber-rich parts of the grain – the bran and germ – leaving only the endosperm (a whole grain retains its three layers: bran, germ and endosperm). Although it creates a flavorful, pleasantly textured bread, this refinement process removes the majority of fiber and micronutrients, resulting in a final product that is much lower in nutrients.
Fiber supports overall digestive health and soluble fiber acts as a prebiotic that feeds the healthy gut bacteria of the gut microbiome. It also benefits metabolic health by slowing digestion and stabilizing blood sugar response. This makes blood sugar management easier while providing stable energy levels for people with or without metabolic issues like diabetes. Additionally, soluble fiber binds to dietary cholesterol in the small intestine, helping to remove it from the body instead of being absorbed into the bloodstream. This prevents high blood cholesterol levels and plaque buildup on the walls of veins and arteries, which can lead to heart disease. This is why whole wheat bread has a lower glycemic index than white bread and is even more filling and satisfying than white bread.
3. There is a large amount of added sugar.
Seeing a lot of added sugar on the ingredient list should also give you pause. “In bread, added sugar can be in the form of molasses, cane sugar, or tapioca syrup,” says Davis. While no added sugar is ideal, it can be difficult to find in the bread aisle. In general, healthy bread options should contain no more than five grams of sugar per slice (and less is even better!).
It is wise to reduce frequent and/or excessive consumption of added sugars as much as possible, as it is a pro-inflammatory agent in the body. Chronic inflammation can affect everything from mood to metabolic health, reduce immune function, and predispose us to chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes.
Related: How Sugar Causes Inflammation and What You Can Do About It
Aside from sneaky added sugars found in seemingly tasty breads, sweet breads and baked goods are an obvious source of sugar. These include cinnamon raisin bread, sweet Hawaiian bread, pumpkin bread, and any other obviously sweet bread you can think of. While they are great treats every now and then and some of life’s greatest, delicious pleasures, consider stopping eating them as your daily bread of choice.
4. It is made with a variety of other refined flours (in addition to wheat).
Wheat flour is not the only grain flour that can be refined and used in bread making. “There may be several other additional refined white flours, including tapioca starch, maltodextrin, or white rice flour,” says Davis. We often don’t realize that starches and maltodextrin are actually refined flour products. Again, this means they have been stripped of the outer layers of the grains where the majority of their health-promoting nutrients are found. Another lesser-known red flag to be aware of if you’re looking for healthier bread.
5. It contains a long list of additive ingredients.
If a bread brand has an ingredient list that is several lines long and filled with words that are foreign and difficult to pronounce, take note. “In less healthy bread brands, you’ll likely see overall longer ingredient lists, which may include multiple emulsifiers and preservatives,” says Davis.
These ingredients are technically considered safe by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, most of them have not been part of our food supply for very long, and we lack research and evidence to understand their long-term impact. health. An ingredient list loaded with additives and preservatives also indicates that the bread has potentially been on the grocery store shelves or in transit for a long time, because that’s the intention of those ingredients, after all.
6. The sodium content is high.
OK, what is considered “off the charts”? Ideally, the best breads for you should contain no more than 160 milligrams of sodium per slice. Sodium is a mineral that can accumulate without us realizing it. Sodium, or salt, is excellent: it seasons the bread and gives it an irresistible flavor. However, excessive sodium intake over long periods of time can lead to high blood pressure, which puts strain on the heart and kidneys. It’s important to know the common and sneaky sources of sodium and choose low-sodium options instead.
7. There is little or no protein.
Did you know that hearty whole grain bread also offers a decent protein boost? When unrefined, grains are solid sources of plant-based protein. This protein, combined with the fiber found in whole grains (and therefore in whole grain bread), will keep you even more full until your next meal. And overall, protein is an essential part of virtually every structure in the body — and many of us could benefit from eating healthier protein sources. When you can find it, opt for a bread with three or more grams of protein per slice.
Healthy Bread Brands to Choose Instead
There are so many brands that avoid most of these red flags, Davis shares some of her favorite bread brands. “Some nutritious options include Dave’s Killer Bread, Ezekial Bread, and a great gluten-free option is Base Culture.”
Otherwise, now that you have some nutritional knowledge, you should feel able to approach the bread aisle with confidence. And remember that very few types or brands of bread check all the ideal nutritional boxes. So don’t worry about choosing something that balances nutrients optimally. And fun for you and your family.
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