When you walk into the grocery store, there’s literally a whole wall of breads to choose from. To an average shopper who is not exactly a bread expert, the multitude of choices seems absurd. You just want something healthy to hold your sandwich!
Depending on your preference, some breads are undoubtedly tastier than others. The tastiest, though, might not be the best for daily use. We might not be bread experts, but we’re all smart enough to understand the health risks of Wonder Bread as opposed to that grainy, oat-infused option on the other end of the aisle.
Sometimes, though, it’s not so clear cut. Marketing ploys by bread manufacturers have gotten increasingly creative over the years, conjuring new terms for old tricks. “Stone-ground,” “spelt,” and “enriched” labels are confusing. Who knows what those terms even mean? Before you go buy your next loaf of bread, here’s what you need to know.
It’s hard to lie on a label that reads “100 percent” of anything (though they did it with parmesan). Breads with this label have to be made with all whole-grain flours — no refined anything is allowed. These whole grains are the slow-digesting, fiber-rich compounds that give you the energy and nutrients you want from your bread.
The rest of this slideshow can get complicated, but all the other nuts and bolts aren’t super necessary to consider when making a bread purchase. When in doubt, just remember this simple rule.
Currently, there is no genetically modified wheat that’s been produced for human consumption. This is due to wheat’s long history of selective breeding practices for farming — there’s never been a need to genetically modify it. So if a loaf boasts a “non-GMO” label, just bear in mind that while that’s an accurate attribute to brag, the same could be said of any other loaf on the shelves.
Ancient varieties of wheat such as emmer, spelt, and Khorasan wheats have a nearly identical nutritional profile to normal wheat and grains. A product marked as containing “ancient grains” might not be all that much healthier — though they could taste very different.
Okay, those don’t even sound healthy. Butter is infused with (surprise) butter, and honey oat has lots of added sugars — most of which are not from natural sources such as honey. The “oat” part doesn’t make it all that healthier; oats are another whole grain, comparable nutritionally to whole wheat grains or spelt.
Even non-honey-related varieties of bread are often sneaking additives and syrups. The only surefire way to ensure your bread is just made of the wheat and other baking products it needs to rise and cook is to check the label of ingredients. High-fructose corn syrup, fructose, and any other ‘–ose’ words are red flags for added sugars.
Carrie Motschwiller, a registered dietitian and wellness manager in New York City, told Bon Appetit, “If something simply says ‘wheat,’ it is an enriched product that has been stripped of beneficial nutrients. Some nutrients are added back but it is not the same as a whole-grain product.” We’d rather have our grains baked whole, without all that processing and unnecessary drama.
“Good” is ambiguous at best. How much fiber is really in the bread? To use the label, a loaf only has to contain 2.5 grams per serving to qualify. The only way to really know is to read the label on the back. Know what to look for — that’s half the battle.
Sometimes, to make the bread more nutrient-rich, companies will enrich the bread with various vitamins and minerals. While this does increase the nutrient profile of the loaves, it also adds ingredients and makes the bread less of a simple, whole food product.
As it turns out, this label can indicate any amount of baking — so the product could be manufactured and partially baked elsewhere to up to 80 or 90 percent completion, but just finished baking for a short time in an oven in store. The dough itself could have been combined weeks prior, for all you know.
These non-grain ingredients can supply a lot of the nutritional value that wheat flour alone lacks. For instance, chia seeds contain more omega-3s per serving than salmon. Flax seeds are phenomenal healthy fat sources that also provide a hefty serving of fiber. All of these added nutrients make your bread healthier by diversifying the nutrient profile each slice has to offer. So with those breads, you could be getting more than just carbs.
Multi-grain literally just means that they use multiple types of grains. Whether or not these grains are whole wheat or not is left undefined by the label. These multiple grains could be different types of refined wheat, a mixture of whole wheat and refined white wheat flour, or a mixture of wheat with another species of grain.
Reduced calorie means an increase in everything else. To reduce the calorie number of each slice, companies must remove some density of wheat used in its manufacture. In order to remove wheat, they need to add something else. Often, this results in many fillers and non-nutritious additives being used instead. Nutrients from real food are more important for your health than a minute difference in calories. Go for the bread that’s made of bread. It probably tastes better, too.
The reason those loaves are stored in cooler temperatures is to avoid mold and other growths — spoiling that occurs only when certain preservatives and chemicals are absent. So even though it’s slightly annoying to store your bread in the freezer, it’s probably a better bet if you’re trying to avoid preservatives.
Most sourdough, to be honest, is made with the same exact ingredients as regular bread. It’s simply the process of cooking it that gives it that distinctive taste. Some fancier bread companies and at-home bakers, however, use sourdough starter cultures as a method of adding taste. These more crafted sourdough loaves are much better for you — largely since they’re made with higher quality ingredients and without preservative chemicals.
The term ‘sprouted’ refers to the use of wheat that’s been germinated before it goes into production. These breads use the entire grain of wheat, but whether or not it’s any better for you than 100 percent whole wheat bread is up in the air.
When it comes to nutrition, at least. ‘Stone ground’ simply refers to the method used to grind the wheat. This has no effect on the type of wheat itself, or the nutritional outcome of the bread. It is, however, an indicator of a bread company that uses a more labor-intensive method of baking and therefore likely sells less processed breads.
"Natural" is as meaningless a label on a loaf of bread as it is on any other product.
Of course, any product containing trans-fat has to indicate it on the label. However, it doesn’t have to show up on the nutrition label — it could be hiding by another name in the ingredients.
If a product has less than 0.5 grams per serving, it’s allowed to write 0 on the nutrition label. However, hydrogenated oil is a trans-fat. Search the ingredients list for it; trans-fat has been shown to cause many health problems in those who consume it regularly.
Oftentimes, corn is used as filler in bread products because it’s cheaper than wheat ingredients. However, it’s not as nutritious for a number of reasons. Read the label and be sure that your wheat bread is made entirely of that — wheat.
According to a recent study published in Cell Metabolism, different people have different reactions to wheat and white bread. While some people’s blood sugar spikes from white, others’ spikes from wheat. There’s no real attainable way to tell which group you’re in — so wheat bread could be worse for your blood glucose levels than wheat and you wouldn’t even know it.
After all that, it might be best to just nix all the worrying and pick the bread you think will go best with your amazing brunch.