My college daughter called, via cell phone, as she strolled the grocery store to ask which type of bread she should buy. A simple question, but surprisingly difficult to answer. The bread aisle can seem overwhelming, with an abundance of choices. Our ancestors baked basic concoctions of flour, yeast, salt and water, with a bit of sugar to activate the yeast. Now bread is more “interesting,” but not necessarily healthier.
Grocery shelves are stacked with breads offering whole wheat, 100% whole grain, cracked wheat, seven grain, twelve grain, multigrain, stone ground, and enriched bread. Products may be advertised as “heart healthy,” gluten-free, “100% natural,” “with double fiber,” “containing flax and grains,”or “made with whole grain”.
I grew up in the Midwest eating sandwiches of white, processed bread. Few choices were available. Much later, I lived in Paris for a year, and got used to the smells of fresh-baked bread from the local boulangerie. There are healthy choices available in your grocery store, but you have to know what to look for.
Processed vs Whole Grain Wheat
Let’s look inside a grain of wheat. There are three parts to a wheat kernel (also called a wheat berry). The hard outer covering is called bran; it is high in fiber and nutrients, as well as essential fatty acids. The majority of the kernel consists of endosperm, rich in carbohydrates and protein. The inner core of the kernel is the “germ,” rich in nutrients. This germ is the part that sprouts to grow a new plant.
This is the key difference: Whole grain products contain all three parts of the kernel (bran, endosperm and germ), whereas processed white bread is made from the starchy endosperm only.
Most wheat originates from red wheat, though you may encounter “white whole wheat” — made from albino wheat, which has a milder texture and taste.
When wheat is refined, the kernel is pulverized; the bran and germ are stripped away, leaving only the endosperm. Processing removes the natural fiber to create the uniform palatable texture of refined (white) bread products. Protein and nutrients, such as B vitamins, have also been removed.
Nutritionists widely advise adding more whole grains into our diet for better health. Whole grains contain digestive fiber, proteins, essential B vitamins, along with minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants. They are low in fat and free of cholesterol. Consumption of whole grains is correlated with lower levels of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and colorectal cancer, as well as better digestive health. Soluble fiber in whole grain helps lower cholesterol levels. Plant estrogens, known as phytoestrogens, may offer protection against some cancers.
Deconstructing the Labels
* “Wheat flour” is a term used to disguise white flour; it typically contains 25% whole wheat and 75% white flour.
* “Unbleached enriched wheat flour” is another term for refined flour.
* Multigrain bread is made from a mix of different flours; this doesn’t mean that whole grains have been used. Grains may include oats, wheat, buckwheat, barley, millet and/or flax.
* “Stone ground” doesn’t mean whole wheat. Nor does “Crushed Wheat” or “Cracked Wheat.”
* “Bakery fresh” doesn’t necessarily mean healthy. Bakery products may be made from refined flour. Check the ingredients
* Products labeled “enriched” have simply had some of these nutrients added back in. B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin) and iron are used to enrich white flour.
* Breads with “double fiber” have been enriched with bran, oats, soy, cottonseed, cellulose (wood pulp filler), or inulin, a prebiotic fiber from the chicory plant.
* “Light bread” may contain lower fat content — or it may have a lower calorie count because it is sliced thinner. Water is usually the first ingredient. They are usually made with processed flour and high fructose corn syrup. Light doesn’t mean healthy.
* “Sprouted bread” is made from grains that have sprouted or germinated. During this process, enzymes are released which break down proteins and carbohydrates, which makes them easier to digest. These products, such as Ezekial breads, are typically refrigerated; they are highly nutritious, and free of artificial additives.
* Brown bread is usually made with whole wheat; it may also contain dark-colored ingredients such as molasses, cocoa, coffee, wheat germ, or raisins.
* “Gluten-free” bread has no gluten — protein from wheat, rye or barley. Brown rice flour or corn flour may be used instead.
* “All bran” is not whole grain — it uses only the bran part of the wheat kernel.
* See an extensive evaluation of the ingredients in bread in the report A Closer Look at What’s in Our Daily Bread, from The Organic Center.
What you should look for
Read the list of ingredients, which by law must be listed in order of decreasing abundance in the product.
1. Buy breads that are “100% whole wheat” or “100% whole grain.” The first ingredient listed should be “whole wheat flour.” Not “wheat flour” or “enriched bleached flour,” or “unbleached enriched flour.”
Note that many whole wheat breads (such as the Orowheat 12 Grain) list “whole grain wheat” as the first ingredient, but “unbleached enriched wheat flour” as the second ingredient. Remember that wheat flour is not whole grain.
2. Look for breads that don’t list sugar or High Fructose Corn Syrup as the second or third ingredient. Some sugar is needed to activate yeast, and molasses or honey may be added to enhance the sweetness of whole wheat bread.
3. Look at the nutritional content. A single slice should generally contain about 100 calories, at least 2 grams of fiber, and less than 200 mg of sodium.
4. Color may be deceptive. Molasses, beta-carotene, caramel, coffee, cocoa, or artificial colors may be added to make the bread appear browner and healthier. Even this dark pumpernickel bread has been artificially colored — and made from enriched wheat flour.
5. Squeeze it (gently!). If the bread is overly soft, it’s probably not the best choice. Denser breads generally contain whole grains.
6. Look for additives…
And now for something extra
Bakers may add a range of ingredients to enhance flavor, texture, shelf life and/or fiber. These may include:
- Added favors: nuts, berries, seeds, dried fruits, or flax seeds enhance flavor and texture.
- Sweeteners include Sugar, molasses, honey, high fructose corn syrup, or artificial sweeteners such as sucralose.
- Flour bleaching agents are added to make bread appear whiter. These may include calcium peroxide, benzoyl peroxide, chlorine oxide, or azodicarbonamide. Read more about the health consequences of bleaching flour. The ground endosperm is processed with a chlorine gas bath (chlorine oxide) to oxidize and whiten the flour. The chemical alloxan is produced as a byproduct — this chemical is associated with diabetes and hyper-glycemia in lab animals.
Azodicarbonamide, also known as ADA, was in the news as the “yoga mat chemical” — a foaming agent which gives plastics their buoyant quality. The Subway chain of restaurants recently removed ADA from their bread products.
- Dough conditioners are used to improve the texture and speed the processing of bread. These include monoglycerides and diglycerides, ammonium chloride, sodium stearoyl lactylate, DATEM (Diacetyl Tartaric Acid Ester of Mono and Diglycerides), lecithin, and calcium salts. Avoid any breads with bromated flour.
- Powdered cellulose (virgin wood pulp) may be used as a filler in breads to add fiber. It is found in products such as tortillas and Fiber One Ready-to-Eat Muffins. See 15 Food Companies that Serve you ‘wood’.
- Preservatives may added to increase shelf life. These include: calcium propionate, and natamycin.
- Artificial dyes may include caramel coloring, beta-carotene, or Yellow #5 or #6.
What does this leave?
The basic problem is that bread should be consumed soon after baking. In order to manufacture it on a large-scale, transport it, and give it an extended shelf life, bread is processed with dough conditioners and packed with preservatives and other questionable ingredients, including DATEM, calcium peroxide, azodicarbonzmide, and potassium bromate.
Some recommended bread products can be found on the website Food Facts, as well as Food Babe’s blog. These include Ezekial Sprouted Grain Bread, Spelt Ancient Grain Bread, and Good Seed Spelt Bread. Another excellent choice is Dave’s Killer Bread — made with organic whole wheat, sweetened with cane syrup and molasses. No preservatives, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or dough conditioners.
We’ve concentrated on wheat products. Other whole grains include: amaranth, barley, buckwheat, corn, millet, quinoa, rye, oats, titricale, wild or brown rice. Less common varieties of wheat include bulgur, kamut and spelt.
If you have the time or inclination, there are excellent recipes for crafting your own breads at home. For example, see the Five Minute Artisan Bread recipe, or the many recipes for using home bread machines.
A wealth of choices await you at the grocery store or your local bakery. Appearances are deceptive. Breads that are labeled “Healthy Multigrain” may be baked from enriched bleached flour.
Sorting through them begins with reading the list of ingredients, and exercising your power as a consumer to make the healthiest decisions for you and your family.