Want to Buy a Healthier Loaf? Avoid Breads With These 7 Nutrition Red Flags

Not every slice of bread you eat needs to be the healthiest, but here's how to get the most nutritional bang for your buck at the store.

<p>Tanja Ivanova/Getty Images</p>

Tanja Ivanova/Getty Images

For many, eating bread is a daily occurrence. In fact, this pantry staple is so embedded in our everyday lives and diets that it has a place in most meals—toast at breakfast, sandwiches at lunch, and baskets of bread at restaurants.

Some Breads Are Better for You Than Others

All bread has a place in a balanced, healthy diet. That said, certain types of bread come with even more useful, beneficial nutrients than others, like fiber, protein, vitamins, and essential minerals. Less-nutritious breads on the other hand, while delicious and wonderful, don’t provide much in the way of nutrients, in large part due to the processing of their grain flours. If you’re a regular bread eater, it’s smart to rotate in some more nutritionally well-rounded breads, too, in order to get the most from your sandwiches, toast, and dinner rolls.

If you need help identifying which breads aren’t as good for you, avoid options bearing these potential red flags—telltale signs that they either won't deliver what they promise or lack substantial nutrients to fuel your body long term.

Related: 9 Ways to Tell if You're Buying a Healthy Type of Bread

Signs That Your Bread Choice Could Be Healthier

1. There’s no sign of whole grains.

“Healthier breads include whole grain wheat or flour as the first ingredient on the ingredient list,” says Amy Davis, RD, LDN, registered dietitian at FRESH Communications. “Some breads that aren't as healthy will just have ‘wheat’ flour listed as the first ingredient.” If there’s no indication of whole grains or whole wheat—the word “whole” is important here— that’s a sign you’re looking at less-than-stellar bread choice.

There are so many reasons why whole grains are important, the primary one being that they provide a more complete and impressive nutritional profile than their refined counterparts, like white breads (more on that here). In the case of wheat, these nutrients include unsaturated fats, fiber, and protein, as well as micronutrients like iron, zinc, calcium, phosphorus manganese, selenium, plant compounds, vitamin E, and B vitamins such as riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, and folic acid. This robust nutrition is linked with major health benefits. In fact, research shows that whole grain intake is correlated to reduced risk for heart disease, several types of cancer, type 2 diabetes, and elevated body mass index (BMI) scores.

There are many sneaky ways food marketers can deceive consumers into thinking their bread product is whole grain when it is not, including advertising terms like “wheat,” “grain,” and “multi-grain” on the packaging. But for assurance that your bread is fully whole grain, you want to see terms like “100 percent whole” and/or “whole” in front of the wheat or grain advertisements. And finally: “Always look for the Whole Grain Stamp,” Davis adds.

2. There’s little to no fiber (less than 2 grams).

“Ideally you want to see three to five grams of fiber per serving of bread,” Davis says.

Breads made with refined grains (like white bread) often contain less than two grams of fiber per slice. Why? The process of refining grains strips away the fiber-rich parts of the grain—the bran and germ—leaving only the endosperm (a whole grain maintains all three of its layers: the bran, germ, and endosperm). While it creates a tasty and texturally pleasing bread, this refinement process removes a majority of the fiber and micronutrients, resulting in a much lower-nutrient final product.

Fiber supports overall digestive health, and soluble fiber acts as a prebiotic that feeds the healthy gut bacteria in the gut microbiome. It also benefits metabolic health by slowing digestion and steadying the blood sugar response. This aids in blood sugar management while offering stable energy levels for those with and without metabolic concerns like diabetes. What’s more, soluble fiber binds to dietary cholesterol in the small intestine, helping to rid it from the body instead of being absorbed into the blood. This prevents high blood cholesterol levels and plaque build-up on the vein and artery walls, which can lead to heart disease. This is why whole wheat bread has a lower glycemic index compared to white bread counterparts and is just that much heartier and more satisfying than white bread.

3. There’s a high amount of added sugar.

Seeing loads of added sugar on the ingredients list should also give you pause. “In bread, added sugar can take the form of molasses, cane sugar, or tapioca syrup,” Davis says. While no added sugar is ideal, it can be tricky to find in the bread aisle. In general, good-for-you bread options should contain no more than five grams of sugar per slice (and fewer is even better!).

Frequent and/or excess consumption of added sugars is smart to cut back on wherever possible because it’s 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 illness like heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. 

Related: How Sugar Causes Inflammation—and What You Can Do About It

Outside of the sneaky added sugars found in seemingly savory breads, sweet breads and baked goods are a no-brainer source of sugar. These include cinnamon raisin bread, sweet Hawaiian bread, pumpkin bread, and any other obviously sweet breads you can think of. While these are excellent treats now and then and some of life’s greatest, delicious pleasures, consider moving away from eating them as your daily, go-to bread of choice.

4. It’s made with a variety of other refined flours (besides wheat).

Wheat flour isn’t the only grain flour that can be refined and used in bread baking. “There may be several other additional white, refined flours present, including tapioca starch, maltodextrin, or white rice flour,” Davis says. Oftentimes, we don’t realize that starches and maltodextrin are actually refined flour products. Again, this means they’ve been stripped of the outer grain layers where the majority of their health-promoting nutrients live. Another less-known red flag to be aware of if searching for a healthier loaf.

5. It has a long ingredient list of additives.

If a brand of bread has an ingredient list that’s several lines long, and filled with words that are alien to you and hard to pronounce, take note. “In less healthy brands of bread you will likely see longer ingredient lists overall, which may include several emulsifiers and preservatives,” Davis explains.

These ingredients are technically deemed as safe by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), however, most of them have not been in our food supply for a very long time, and we lack the research and evidence to understand their impact on long-term health. An ingredient list loaded with additives and preservatives also indicates that the bread has potentially been on the grocery store shelf or in transit for a long time—as that’s the intention of these ingredients, after all.

6. The sodium content is high.

OK, what counts as "off the charts"? Ideally, the best breads for you should have no more than 160 milligrams of sodium per slice. Sodium is a mineral that can really add up without our realizing it. Sodium, aka salt, is great—it seasons the bread and gives it irresistible flavor. However, excessive sodium intake over long periods of time can lend to high blood pressure levels that strain the heart and kidneys. It's important to know common, sneaky sources of sodium—and choose lower-sodium options instead.

7. There's little to no protein.

Did you know a hearty whole grain bread also offers a decent boost of protein? When unrefined, grains are solid sources of plant-based protein. This protein, combined with the fiber found in whole grains (and, therefore, whole grain bread), will keep you that much more satiated until your next meal. And overall, protein is a vital building block of basically every structure in the body—and many of us could benefit from eating more healthy 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 out there 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 an excellent gluten-free option is Base Culture."

Otherwise, now that you're equipped with some nutritional knowledge, you should feel empowered to take on the bread aisle with confidence. And remember that very few bread types or brands will check off every single ideal nutritional box—so don't agonize over choosing something that balances optimal nutrients and enjoyment for you and your family.

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