These days, the bread aisle at the supermarket is crowded with choices far beyond the old white, whole-wheat, rye and pumpernickel. It takes careful label reading to know what you’re buying. But the good news is that your options for buying bread are much better than they used to be. Even the “all-American” spongy white bread of yesteryear is less prominent on supermarket shelves. In its place you’ll increasingly find white whole-wheat, the new “wonder” of the bread aisle. This is indeed whole wheat, but from a different variety of wheat that has a softer texture and lighter color. Use our tips to make better purchasing decisions when shopping for bread.
Bread and your health
Bread can be an excellent way to get additional fiber into your diet. Being made with whole grains guarantees some fiber, but not necessarily as much as you may want. Some manufacturers add bran, inulin and other fibers to boost the fiber content. If you see a highly refined white bread that lists a fair amount of fiber on the nutrition label—4 grams in a slice, for example—chances are that one or more types of fibers are listed in the ingredients. There’s nothing wrong with that, though it’s not clear whether adding fiber to food has all the same health benefits as eating foods that are naturally high in fiber. The best advice is to find bread with a high proportion of whole grains.
Understanding bread products
Finding a bread that’s right for you may take some detective work. Don’t lose sight of the basic premise—that you want a whole-grain bread, preferably 100 percent whole grain (but if not, at least one with whole-grain flour as the first ingredient). And you want a bread that has good flavor yet doesn’t have much added salt or sugar. By comparing brands, you’ll see how much these numbers can vary. Fat is generally not a problem in bread, so don’t concentrate on that as long as the nutrition label shows 0 grams of trans fat. Extra fiber or calcium that is sometimes added can be a bonus.
Keep in mind that white bread is really just another term for refined wheat bread. So when you see “wheat” or “enriched wheat” at the top of the ingredients list, what you’re holding is basically just white bread, made from refined flour. What about other grains? Oat, rye and pumpernickel breads suffer much the same fate as wheat; they, too, typically have refined flours as their primary ingredients.
Enriched flour does have more iron than whole-grain flour, because after milling it is enriched with a set amount of this nutrient, along with the B vitamins folate, thiamin, niacin and riboflavin, to make up for what’s lost during processing. The trouble is, the enrichment doesn’t make up for all of the B vitamins that are missing, or for key minerals, like copper, magnesium and zinc. These nutrients, along with phytochemicals in the whole grain, are removed as the outer bran covering is separated and discarded. Enriched flour is an important source of B vitamins and iron, but overall you are still much better off with whole grains.
Beware the bread traps. Marketers use some simple strategies to make their breads appear more healthful than they really are.
- Don’t be fooled by labels that say “made with whole grains” (as opposed to “whole-grain bread”). That could mean just a tiny bit of whole grains mixed in with a lot of refined flour.
- Don’t assume “multigrain” breads are whole-grain. They are just what they say they are—made up of multiple grains, none of which are necessarily whole. Often, all the grains are refined.
- Don’t go by color. Breads come in all shades of brown, but darker breads are not necessarily more nutritious or higher in fiber. Pumpernickel breads, for example, are often made with refined flours; the color comes from molasses or caramel coloring. On the other hand, now that white whole-wheat is out there, even some “white” breads can be good choices.
- Resist the lure of descriptive words on packages that make it sound as if the bread just came out of a brick oven, such as “country,” “home” and “harvest.” They don’t make the bread any more healthful.
- Check the serving size (one slice or two?)—and be sure to modify the nutrition information provided to match the number of slices you eat. Even the size of slices varies considerably (check the grams of weight to compare them). Breads advertised as “light” are often simply sliced thinner. Some companies also offer “small slices” that have fewer calories.
Bread: good-to-know facts
At home, keep bread out of the refrigerator. There are two different starches in bread and, over time, each changes from a flexible to a more rigid structure as the bread goes from fresh to stale. Though refrigeration inhibits the growth of mold, it provides the perfect temperature for one of bread’s starches to turn stale. If you need to store sliced bread for more than a few days, wrap it well and put it in the freezer, thawing a slice at a time as needed.
Healthy grocery shopping tips for bread
- Buy breads that are 100 percent whole grain or at least have a whole grain first in the list of ingredients. Ignore the color of the loaf and any packaging come-ons such as charming pictures and homey names. Some breads now display a stamp from the Whole Grains Council that indicates the grams of whole grains per serving.
- If you don’t like regular whole-wheat breads, which are made from red wheat that has a dark color, try “white whole-wheat” bread, which is made from a different kind of wheat, called white wheat. It’s lighter in color, softer in texture and milder in flavor.
- Check the fiber content. A slice of whole-grain bread will contain about 2 or 3 grams of dietary fiber per slice.
- Compare breads to find one with the least sodium (140 milligrams or less per serving is considered a low-sodium bread) and the least added sugar (no more than 2 or 3 grams per serving).
- Calcium-fortified breads can provide more than 10 percent of your daily calcium needs in two slices. But note that such breads may fall short elsewhere (they may not be whole-grain, for example). As with other foods, it’s often a trade-off. For some people, especially children, such breads may be an easy way to get more of this bone-building nutrient.
- Think outside the slice. Choose whole-wheat pitas, whole-wheat English muffins and whole-wheat tortillas.
Published August 15, 2013