Look for these green flags—packaging clues, labels, and ingredients—to identify more nutritious bread options.
There are few things more comforting than bread: a warm slice fresh out of the oven, a piece of buttered toast, or a bowl of custardy bread pudding for dessert. Bread is undoubtedly delicious, and it truly can be a healthy food in its own right. This is much to the surprise of many since carbohydrates have been increasingly villified over the years (perhaps with good intentions in some cases, but still!).
It is also true that some kinds of bread are healthier than others, meaning that they deliver more (and more available) nutrients. But with so many bread varieties out there, the majority of which are laden with confusing packaging claims, it can be hard to determine what the healthiest bread option actually is for you and your family.
Learn how to navigate the bread aisle, product packaging, and ingredients labels like a pro. If your mission is to choose a more nutrient-rich and satisfying loaf (sometimes it isn't, and that's OK—food can also be purely about pleasure!), seek out breads that check off at least a couple of these nutritional green flags.
Signs of Healthy Types of Bread
1. If it's made with 100% whole grains—and says so clearly.
On the packaging:
“At first glance, a tell-tale sign of a healthy bread is that the packaging states ‘100 percent whole wheat,' or has the Yellow Whole Grains council stamp showing that it contains 100 percent whole grains,” says Caitlin Carr, MS, RD, Portland-based registered dietitian. “This is favorable because whole grains pack in essential nutrients like B vitamins and fiber.”
And on top of these important nutrients, whole grains also offer unsaturated fat, some protein, zinc, calcium, iron, manganese, phosphorus, selenium, vitamin E, and plant compounds. These work together to support bone, immune, metabolic, gut, and heart health. In fact, whole grain intake has even been associated with lower risk for several types of cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
When it comes to determining whether or not a given bread is made with whole grains, just know that food companies have confusing and misleading shoppers down to a science.
Here’s a definitive rule of thumb: Unless you see the exact words “whole” or “100 percent whole” on the label, you’re most likely not getting a whole grain product.
Other common labeling phrases used to trick buyers into thinking a bread is whole grain are “multi-grain,” “wheat,” and “grain.” Mind you, these can be delicious, great bread options—they just don't necessarily mean the bread is whole grain.
On the ingredients list:
The ultimate determinant will be the ingredients list. You want to see the words “whole grain” or “100 percent whole” flour as the first ingredient. If the first ingredient is just “wheat” or there are subsequent ingredients like any sort of starch, maltodextrin, or even white rice flour, you know that the bread isn’t 100 percent whole grain.
2. If it contains 3 or more grams of protein.
A really healthy bread will have at least three grams of protein per slice—thanks to the whole grains it contains. And some of the heartiest breads will offer upwards of five grams.
When grains (wheat or otherwise) have not been refined, they maintain all three of their layers: the bran, germ, and endosperm. The bran and the germ are the layers removed in the process of making refined flour—and they’re also the layers that contain the highest concentrations of protein. Therefore, whole-grain breads will inherently have higher a protein content. Breads made or topped with with additional protein-rich ingredients like nuts or seeds will also deliver more of this nutrient.
Protein supports our health in so many ways. Not only does it serve as a satisfying source of energy and is also key in building and maintaining every structure in the body, from muscles and skin to vital organs.
3. If it has 2 or more grams of fiber per slice.
Another way to know a bread delivers on healthy nutrients—and to tell that it’s legit whole grain—is to check its fiber content. Just as the majority of a grain’s protein is found in the bran and germ layers, so is its fiber. If you see a bread with less than two grams of fiber per slice, that’s usually a good indication that it’s been made, at least in part, with refined grains.
“I encourage patients to look for breads that have three or more grams of fiber per slice,” Carr says. Fiber content of whole grain bread can be as high as five or more grams per slice—and that’s fantastic.
The importance of fiber cannot be overstated, and many Americans aren’t getting the fiber they need every day from their diets. “We want fiber from plants as it aids in digestion, blood sugar management, cholesterol, meal satiation, and more,” she says.
Fiber supports digestive regularity, ease, and efficiency, while preventing issues like diarrhea and constipation. The type of fiber called soluble fiber acts as a prebiotic, or food for the microorganisms in the gut microbiome, contributing to support of our immune system, brain, and overall health. It also binds to dietary cholesterol in the small intestine, helping to pass it through the body as opposed to being absorbed—helping prevent plaque buildup in the arteries. On the metabolic front, fiber slows digestion and positively impacts the blood sugar response by minimizing glucose spikes. What results is easier blood sugar management and more stable, long-lasting energy, both for those with and without diagnosed metabolic concerns.
4. If it has a moderate amount of sodium (roughly 160 mg or less).
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans says to limit sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg per day (roughly 1 teaspoon of table salt). But the average American is consuming more like 3,400 mg of sodium per day, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Salt makes everything taste better, and we do need some sodium in our systems—but too much of this mineral over time can lead to elevated blood pressure levels, or hypertension. More immediately, a high-salt meal and sodium-laden foods can also contribute to dehydration and water retention.
Bread can be a sneaky source of extra sodium in the diet. Admittedly, it can be a challenge to find bread with less than 160 mg of sodium per slice, so usually I recommend looking for bread with around that number (or less) per slice.
5. If it’s made from sprouted grains.
Sprouted grain is always a nutrient-rich bread choice. The process of sprouting, also called germination, involves keeping the grains in a warm, moist environment, which causes them to start producing shoots. These sprouted grains are then dried and ground into flour to go on to become bread and other baked goods.
This process increases the absorbable amount, or bioavailability, of many of the nutrients found in sprouted grain products, especially B vitamins like folate. Plus, sprouting degrades common anti-nutrients, like phytic acid, often found in wheat-based products. These anti-nutrients can interfere with the absorption of important minerals like iron.
Finally, sprouted bread also does tend to contain less gluten and have a lower glycemic index, so sprouted grain baked goods will be easier to digest for those sensitive to gluten, and cause less of a dramatic blood sugar spike when eaten.
6. If it’s sourdough.
Sourdough bread, especially whole grain sourdough (no surprise), is a great choice. For bread to be classified as sourdough, its dough must go through a fermentation process prior to baking. This is done through something called sourdough starter, a living culture of wild yeasts and bacteria that feed off a steady supply of flour and water. This starter is used to leaven the bread instead of dry active baker’s yeast like other breads call for.
The microorganisms in the starter need time to ferment the flour in the bread dough—this process starts to break down many of the proteins found in wheat flour, including gluten, resulting in a much more digestible final product compared to quick breads (particularly for those sensitive to gluten).
7. If it has a short, easily recognizable ingredients list.
The healthiest types of bread will usually be made with relatively few, recognizable ingredients. Many less nutritious breads, especially those with a concerningly long shelf life, can be full of additives and preservatives. Many of these will be easy to spot—if you struggle to pronounce it, it’s a likely culprit. (While these ingredients found in supermarket breads are technically considered safe for consumption by the FDA, the vast majority of them have not been around for long, so we don’t have the research necessary to understand their long-term impacts in the body.)
8. If it has low to no added sugar.
Another common additive that many of us do recognize is added sugar—something to be wary of as a shopper in all food categories. Many bread producers employ the use of added sugar in the form of cane sugar, honey, molasses, and syrups, not to only add flavor, but to feed active dry yeast more quickly and speed up the leavening process.
Ideally, the healthiest breads will contain five grams of sugar or fewer per slice—aim for that when possible.
Sugar intake can really add up throughout the day, and excessive sugar consumption, regardless of its source, ultimately contributes to inflammation in the body. When unmanaged this inflammation can contribute to both acute and chronic illnesses.
9. If it contains nuts and seeds.
The addition of healthy nuts and seeds really levels up a whole grain bread’s nutritional value. As excellent sources of heart healthy unsaturated fats, fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, and plant compounds, nuts and seeds are bonafide superfoods. The array of nutrients these snackable morsels offer translate into improved heart, metabolic, gut, immune, brain, and skin health—the list goes on. Since nuts and seeds contain all three major macronutrients (carbs, fat, protein) they’ll make any bread they adorn more satisfying and energizing.
Bonus: If it's gluten-free (for the sensitive and/or allergic).
Bread made without gluten is specifically important for those who either have celiac disease or extreme sensitivity to gluten. While sprouted and sourdough breads can have decreased amounts of gluten they do still contain this wheat protein and can cause harm in celiac patients or extreme GI upset in those highly sensitive to gluten. If you fall under either umbrella, look for a gluten-free bread made with ingredients you recognize and that are ideally whole grain or minimally processed. For example, opt for a bread made with brown rice flour over white rice flour.
Don't Overthink Your Bread
Now you should be well-equipped with enough nutritional know-how to take on the bread aisle more easily. Try not to overthink it, though—and don't spend hours in the supermarket searching for a "unicorn" bread that checks off every single box mentioned above. Think about the nutritional factors or goals you value most, and start there. Trust your knowledge and your gut, and don't be afraid to give different types of bread a try. If you hate a certain kind of bread that looks so healthy on paper, there's no need to force yourself to eat it.
And finally, Carr says, “don’t forget that pairing your bread with vegetables, lean proteins, and heart-healthy fats is key to making a highly nutritious meal.” A few of our favorite, healthy ways to jazz up a slice (or two) of bread include:
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