Your Guide to Picking a Healthy Bread

woman selecting bread
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Pass the bread, please! Few things in the food world can compete with a slice of soft and pillowy, melt-in-your-mouth goodness slathered in butter or stuffed with your favorite sandwich fixings. But lately, bread has gotten a bad rap. Ask anyone and chances are they’re trying to avoid bread because “it’s bad for you.” Is it really?

A fresh loaf of bread is not necessarily a health food. Many are made with white flour (AKA enriched wheat flour) and contain little nutritional value due to the lack of whole grains. Even if you opt for 100 percent whole wheat bread, the options on grocery store shelves are often filled with additives to improve shelf life, texture, taste, and rate of dough rising. You can absolutely make a delicious loaf of bread at home using only four ingredients—flour, water, yeast and salt—but it won’t last very long. It will turn hard within a day or so and begin to grow mold in three.

In the U.S. that just doesn’t fly. We need breads that will last for weeks because no one has time (or the cash) to replenish their stash every couple of days. If bread companies didn’t use these extra additives, their breads would go bad fast and they wouldn’t turn a profit.

There’s been a movement towards less additives in foods and more natural whole food ingredients. Consumers want a better-for-you product and many bread companies are taking action. That’s great news, because nowadays it’s much easier to find healthier loaves on store shelves as long as you’re armed with the right tools to navigate.

What to Look for at the Supermarket

Reading labels is the first line of defense you can take towards feeding your family healthy foods. But with hundreds of brands and an over abundance of health claims calling for your attention, the arduous decision can turn your hair gray. But before jumping ship, check out my simple and straightforward guidelines for picking a lovable loaf.

  1. The first ingredient should be whole grain. Many grains fall under the “whole grain” umbrella, such as whole wheat, oats, brown rice, barley, millet, buckwheat, and bulgur. Just make sure the first ingredient is not “enriched wheat flour.” That's code for white flour.
  2. Look for a 100% whole grain stamp. The 100 percent stamp assures you that all the grain (a single type or a multiple-grain blend) within the loaf is whole grain.
  3. Look for at least 2g of fiber per slice.
  4. Avoid breads with excessive additives. Here is a short list of additives to steer clear of: partially hydrogenated oils, potassium bromate, azodicarbonamine, DATEM, and artificial colors.
  5. Be mindful of calories. Aim for no more than 100 calories per slice (80 if you’re watching your weight). And for folks looking for trimmer selections, there are plenty of whole grain brands between 40 to 50 calories per slice.

Ancient Grains Boost Heart Health

Interestingly enough, loaves packed with sprouted grains, barley, millet, sprouted spelt, and even lentils are climbing to the top of grocery lists across the country and for good reason. These cutting edge loaves are packed with nutrients and taking over the bread market—fast.

study published in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition examined ancient grain bread varieties and their potential beneficial health effects in 45 clinically healthy subjects. After eight weeks of eating ancient grain packed toast, subjects experienced a significant reduction in total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and blood glucose (with no health benefits found in those eating modern breads).

This means that swapping your regular slice for bread made with ancient grains is a simple way to reduce your risk of heart disease. You can find these both tasty and healthy breads on shelves at natural food stores and in the “natural” freezer section everywhere else. Next time you’re shopping for a fresh loaf, give ancient grains a try—you may be surprised how much you like it!

Joy Bauer, MS, RDN, CDN, is the health and nutrition expert for NBC’s Today show and founder of Nourish Snacks

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