What Makes a Bread Healthy? (Plus, Our Nutritionist’s Picks)
It can be overwhelming to pick out bread, especially since the grocery store dedicates an entire aisle to it. There are countless options: white, wheat, gluten free, oat, protein, etc, etc. So how do you choose? What makes a bread healthy?
The first rule of thumb when picking out bread is to ignore the title.
Bread named “Multi-grain”, “Seven Grains” or “100% Honey Wheat” sound healthy, but are usually filled with more sugar than nutritious whole grains. With most processed foods, the only way to truly decide if a food is a healthy option is to look at the nutrition label. There are five parts of the nutrition label to focus on when looking at different loaves. Brand picks below!
The first ingredient should read 100% whole wheat or 100% whole oat if it is a true source of whole grain.
Many will advertise “made with whole wheat” or “made with whole grains”, but this doesn’t mean the bread itself is a whole grain source. A lot of bread is made with enriched flour that does not contain the vitamins and minerals whole wheat bread offers.
100% whole wheat bread includes the germ, endosperm and the bran, which is where the vitamins, minerals, and fiber come from.
You may also see white bread “fortified” with B vitamins and fiber, meaning the nutrients were added back into the bread after they were stripped in the process of production; some believe these are not digested as well as the natural form.
It is also important to look for bread that is made with minimal ingredients. Why? Often times the more ingredients a processed food has, the more chance unwanted ingredients get added to the mix -like multiple forms of sugar.
If you are not a calorie counter, then you skip down to the next section, but it’s good to note that there is a range of calories for store bread. There is anywhere from 45 calories a slice to almost 200 depending on how thick the slices. Pay close attention to the serving size and notice whether the label is for 1 or 2 slices.
Fiber is one of the best parts of whole grains. Fiber can help with weight loss by slowing digestion and helping you feel fuller for longer, a healthy gastrointestinal system, and decreased cholesterol, which can decrease the risk for heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. Most Americans do not eat their daily recommendations for fiber, which is between 25 and 30 grams per day. (PS: If you’re on the hunt for more fiber, we got you covered.)
There is always going to be some sodium in bread, higher in those trying to make it more palatable. While sodium is an important nutrient, most Americans have far more sodium than their daily requirement. On average, a slice of bread is about 200 mg of sodium, which is fairly low, but beware. When you have two slices with deli meat, mayo, mustard, pickles, and cheese, your sandwich becomes a high sodium meal.
Sugar is used to add flavor, but has absolutely no nutritional value. It is also used for the yeast to feed off of to make the dough rise. However, many loaves have much more added sugar than necessary.
It doesn’t matter if it is in the form of cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, honey or brown sugar. It all breaks down to simple sugars in the body and does not provide any vitamins or minerals.
Almost everything on the nutrition label is important and useful information, but depending on your needs, you may only need to focus on a few specific parts. If your goal is weight loss, then calories are going to be the most important. If you are focusing on heart-healthy, then your deciding factor should be sodium (look for one that is less than 150 milligrams a slice). If you want to pick the healthiest option for your family, then look for one that has less than 2 grams of sugar per slice and has 100% whole wheat as the first ingredient.
What about gluten-free bread?
Gluten-free bread does not mean guilt-free or carbohydrate-free bread. Gluten is protein found in wheat, barley and rye that allows bread to be “spongy” and “fluffy”.
Gluten-free, however, is not automatically the healthiest choice as it’s not sugar, sodium or preservatives- free. It’s important to look at all the five areas of the nutrition label for gluten-free, or any allergy friendly bread because it can still be unhealthy.
What is the healthiest bread?
Even with looking at the nutrition label, sometimes it is easier to have an expert tell you what the best option is. Let’s look at the nutrient content of a few commonly-bought bread. One of these will be the dietitian’s (me) pick for healthiest.
Sara Lee 45 calories and delightful- 100% whole wheat
- Calories – 90
- Sodium – 170 milligrams
- Sugar – 2 grams
- Fiber- 5 grams
- Protein – 6 grams
- Ingredients: It does start with whole-wheat flour, but it contains GMO ingredients like soybean oil and soy lecithin, added sugar, sucralose (an artificial ingredient) and dough conditioners.
This product can be great for dieting because it is a low calorie and low carbohydrate bread. But it is filled with unnatural ingredients. Some people are not concerned with this and if that person is you, this is a great choice.
Udi’s Gluten Free Whole Grain
- Calories – 150
- Sodium- 260 milligrams
- Sugar- 2 grams
- Fiber- 1 grams
- Protein- 4 grams
- Ingredients: First ingredient is filtered water so it is not a whole grain product. Other ingredients include cultured corn syrup, molasses, and enzymes like calcium sulfate.
In my opinion, Udi’s is one of the tastier gluten-free products and is lower calorie. However, it is not one of the healthiest. It has more sodium than I would recommend in bread, only one gram of fiber, and it is not a source of whole grain.
P28 The Original High Protein Bread
- Calories- 130
- Sodium- 215 milligrams
- Fiber- 2 grams
- Sugar- 3grams
- Protein- 14 grams
- Ingredients: First ingredient is water and then whole wheat flour with several artificial ingredients like soybean oil, sugar and enzymes.
This protein bread is the highest ratio of carbohydrate to protein, which is nice for those trying to increase muscle mass, lose weight or looking for a new high protein snack. The bread is made with whey protein to increase the protein content (known as the p28 blend) and contains a healthy source of fats, but also some artificial ingredients.
- Calories- 80
- Sodium- 80 milligrams
- Sugar- 0 grams
- Fiber- 3 grams
- Protein- 4 grams
- Ingredients- The first ingredient is Organic sprouted 100% whole wheat. This bread has 12 ingredients that are either a source of sprouted grains, legumes, and a little salt. This bread has no added sugar.
This is the dietitian’s choice for the healthiest bread because of the high-quality ingredients, lower sodium, no added sugar, and fiber content. Sprouted grains are different because they are harvested the moment the grain (seed) becomes a plant. This offers a ton of nutrients like vitamin C, minerals, b vitamins, folate, fiber and essential amino acids.
Ezekiel bread is the dietitian’s choice of bread, but everyone’s personal needs are different. Use this as a guide and pay attention to the nutrition label to decide if the bread is a healthier choice for you or your family. Read before you buy and taste before you decide.
The author and Vitamin World do not have relationships with the brands mentioned above.
Kelsey graduated with a Bachelor Degree in Dietetics and Public Health Nutrition and is currently working on her Master in Nutrition and Dietetics. Since becoming a registered dietitian, she works at a hospital providing medical nutrition therapy, teaches at Pure Barre, and dances for a professional cheerleading team in the NFL.