How to Choose a Healthy Bread

Bread is a staple in many households—but how do you know if you're making a healthy pick?

If there is one food that’s a staple in households across the world, it’s bread. One of the most ancient foods eaten globally, bread comes in many forms, shapes, and sizes. The bread aisle at the store keeps getting larger it seems. It’s also the source of a lot of drama: multi-grain, yeast-free, spelt, sprouted, gluten-free, sourdough, whole grain, sugar-free are all in the general “vocabulary of bread” these days, which has led to some confusion. Is mass-produced bread all that bad? Is the bread from the grocery store bakery actually healthier? Whether you are buying bagels, chapatis, roti’s, sliced bread, pitas, baguettes, or all of the loaves, there are a few key factors that can help you choose a bread that’s both healthy and right for you.

(Related: Healthy Flours to Bake With Now)

Get comfy reading labels. Really comfy

The nutrition facts panel shows you how much of some macro and micro-nutrients are in a serving. The units on a bread food label almost always refer to the exact amount of a nutrient within one. If it lists 5 grams of calcium, or 2 grams of fibre, for example, it can be pretty hard to interpret what that means in a whole day’s diet. The most important part of the label is the Percent Daily Value numbers on the right-hand side, which reference an average diet of about 2000 calories. A 5 percent value or less tell you there is a little of that nutrient or ingredient in that slice of bread; 15 percent or more means there is a lot. For salt or trans fats, which we generally want less of, look for less than 5 percent and ideally 0 percent. Look for a bread with more than 5 percent (or 3 to 4 grams per slice) fibre, calcium, and iron (things we generally want more of).

Then check the actual ingredients list

This is the list that tells you exactly what is in the product you bought. It’s listed in descending order, meaning the first ingredient has the most presence. It’s a great way to check for unwanted things in your food, such as hydrogenated fats or added sugars.

(Related: 50 Surprisingly Unhealthy Foods at the Grocery Store)

Get Whole-ier-than-thou more often

Bread made from 100 percent whole grains have a host of health benefits, including more intact minerals, vitamins, phytochemicals, antioxidants, and insoluble fibre. Fibre is your friend in so many ways — it helps keep gut tissue and function healthy, remove excess hormones and waste products, and builds healthy gut bacteria. Most adults get less than 40 percent of what they need to support their health, so 100 percent whole grain breads are an amazingly easy way to tip the scales in the right direction.

White bread (like a freshly baked baguette!) certainly has a place and time in the diet but aim to make your go-to bread products 100 percent whole grain to reap maximum calorie-to-benefit ratio. The first word on the ingredient list will be “whole” or “100 percent” which will indicate it was made with whole-grain flours as the base.

Don’t be fooled by multigrain claims and sugar shock

Multigrain does not always mean whole grain. Breads can be made with enriched or white flours, and then have seeds or some whole grains added back in. This means you are not eating the intact whole grain and perhaps not getting the benefits you were looking for. Sugar is another tricky ingredient; there may be sugar content from the whole grains that are fermented or sprouted, which is calculated and shows on this label as grams of sugar, but this is naturally occurring. Naturally occurring sugars like lactose are not something to fret over and are very different than added sugars in food. The only way to be sure is to read that ingredients list to see if any sucrose/glucose, fructose or other sugar source has been added as an ingredient. Many breads, even those with gluten, may also contain preservatives, emulsifiers, colours and additives. Generally, the less the number of ingredients on the list, the better.

(Related: 37 Secrets Nutritionists Won’t Tell You for Free)

The Gluten Factor

There is no need to avoid gluten unless you wish to, or need to because you have a diagnosis of celiac disease. Gluten is one of many proteins in grains that gives them their stretch and bend and elasticity when it’s made into flour and baked. Gluten-free breads often have to use a variety of binders, starches, emulsifiers, and other substances to create that same textural quality as gluten-containing breads. Things like guar, xanthan gum, gelatin, tapioca starch can all be used to give elasticity to the bread, but sometimes add a gritty or grainy taste.

These breads, which also tend to be more expensive, are also made with flours that are often much higher in glycemic index, meaning they turn to sugar quickly in your bloodstream, which may be undesirable. Additionally, alternative flours like potato and rice flour can make the bread higher in total carbohydrates per slice; almond, bean and coconut will mean the bread is higher in calories. They are also often much lower in fibre, because they don’t use the gluten-containing higher fibre grains like oat, wheat, rye, and spelt. So, to give an example, a middle-aged person with diabetes or other chronic health issues and a limited calorie budget may be better off with regular fibre-rich bread.

Finally, don’t downplay the role of taste! If you are a bread connoisseur, the hard truth is bread made with grains that naturally contain gluten usually has a much better taste and texture than alternatives. So, don’t just make the switch because you perceive it to be healthier.

(Related: 12 Frozen Foods You Should Avoid at All Costs)

What if it doesn’t have a label?

Buying bread from your local bakery or independent shop can be an amazing, sensory experience. Bread in the bakery section of your grocery store is made using bulk ingredients, not always of the highest quality. If you are looking for larger portions, or you don’t need anything specific, this area can be a great place to score pocket-friendly deals. You can also find special, unusual and often high-quality products at independent local bakeries. If you are wondering about salt, fibres and sugar in your bakery bread, or have special health requirements, they will have labels kept in binders you can ask to see.

Hopefully, you now feel more prepared now for your next bread-buying experience. There are a multitude of choices out there and to meet virtually all diet needs and wants. Aim to choose the highest quality product that meets your needs and budget. Bread is a food that feeds the soul as much as the body, and has for centuries.

Nishta Saxena is a registered dietician and nutrition educator based in Toronto.

Now that you know how to look for a healthy bread, this is how to pick the healthiest cereal at the grocery store.

Originally Published in Best Health Canada