The healthiest bread you can buy according to nutritionists
Basic foods don’t get much simpler than bread. And finding the healthiest bread for your dietary preferences ensures that you get as much fiber and other nutrients in your bread as possible.
But carbohydrate-rich foods like bread have been unfairly maligned in recent years. Although you may want to track or limit your carbs depending on your health goals, you don’t have to cut them out completely, experts tell TODAY.com.
“I joke all the time that I’m a carb fan, and I’m a big fan of bread,” says Carolyn Susi, a registered dietitian based in Dallas.
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients the body needs and a major source of energy. Although individual needs can vary, healthy adults should aim to get about half of their daily calories from carbohydrates, Teresa Gentile, a registered dietitian in New York City and a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells TODAY.com.
Bread can be a great source of fiber, protein, and essential vitamins and minerals, says Susie, who is also a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. A single serving of bread, which is usually just one slice, can contain 3 grams of fiber or more, she says.
Bread “can be a vehicle for so many other foods,” Susie says. “There are a lot of nutritious foods that people probably wouldn’t eat if they didn’t put them on bread,” Gentile agrees.
Consider meeting your protein goals with hummus, peanut butter, or tuna salad on a piece of toast. Or maybe you pile a ton of roasted veggies into a sandwich at lunchtime.
“But you still want to wear your nutrition hat and be smart about what you’re looking for,” says Susie.
What to look for in healthy baking
In general, experts recommend looking for whole grain bread, which is made from flour containing the whole wheat kernel.
The USDA explains that there are three parts to the kernel: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. Whole grain bread contains all three of these elements and comes with a good helping of fibre, protein, vitamins and antioxidants.
Eating whole grains supports gut, brain and heart health, and is a key part of top-rated Mediterranean diets like DASH and MIND.
Bread made with refined flour contains only the endosperm, which means it loses a huge dose of nutrients in the process. Gentile explains that some of these vitamins and nutrients are added back into the final product when making enriched white bread.
But experts generally recommend choosing whole grain bread that contains all parts of the kernel and therefore does not need to undergo this additional processing. (Note that multigrain breads contain a mix of whole grains and refined flour, Gentile explains.)
There are different types of whole grain breads available, such as whole wheat, sprouted grains, and whole grain breads made from gluten-free grains, such as millet or oats.
When you’re shopping for healthy whole-grain bread, experts say you should look for:
- Whole wheat flour, or any other type of whole grain flour, should be the first ingredient listed on the label. The USDA says it may also appear as “100% whole grain” or “100% whole wheat.”
- Look for as few grams of added sugar listed on the label as possible.
What type of bread is healthy?
Whole wheat bread contains whole grain flour, so it will give you the nutrients found in the whole kernel, including a good amount of gut-healthy fiber, filling protein and energizing carbs.
Look for “whole wheat flour” as the first ingredient on the label, Gentile says. Or better yet, look for the percentage. “Some breads may say ‘100% whole wheat’ on the package,” she explains. “You probably wouldn’t announce it if it wasn’t 100%.”
The USDA says the color of bread alone is not a reliable indicator of how much whole grains it contains.
That’s one reason Susie encourages people to study the nutritional label and ingredient list when choosing whole wheat bread. “You have to look and see that the first ingredient (is) whole wheat flour,” she says. “What you want to avoid, probably, is just wheat flour, because (that’s) basically white flour.”
Susie explains that some people prefer sprouted bread, which contains whole grains that have been allowed to germinate before being turned into flour.
These types of breads tend to have fiber and protein-rich nutrients similar to whole grain breads, but there is some evidence that the sprouting process increases the bioavailability of some of these nutrients, Susie says. “You’ll get more bang for your buck for some vitamins and minerals,” she says, especially iron and B vitamins, such as folic acid.
Susie says this is more of a “nice-to-have” in baking than a necessity. Gentile adds that sprouted bread can also contain more antioxidants, especially plant polyphenols.
Some people may not enjoy the denser texture of sprouted bread, Susie says, adding that it can be better for toast than a sandwich.
You’ll likely find different types of whole grain breads with added seeds, which can increase the nutritional content of those products even further.
“The seeds can be full of good fats,” says Susie, which is another way to add fiber and protein. She especially recommends looking for breads that contain flaxseeds and chia seeds, which are packed with nutrients.
Susie notes that the seeds will change the texture of the bread.
They can add extra calories, which may be something to consider depending on your goals, Gentile explains. “It increases the calories of the bread, probably dramatically,” she says.
If you need or prefer to avoid gluten due to an allergy or sensitivity, gluten-free bread will be the healthiest option for you.
Susie says there are a lot of gluten-free options available at the grocery store these days, many of which are made from alternative starches, such as corn, chickpeas, oats, millet, or rice flour.
These alternative flours tend to provide less fiber than whole-grain flour, Gentile points out. Because gluten is what gives bread its distinctive spongy texture, gluten-free bread may be a little more crumbly than other types, Susie explains.
Gluten-free bread can also be made using almond flour, which provides some extra protein and healthy fats, Gentile says.
Additionally, sourdough bread naturally contains less gluten than other types of bread, because the gluten breaks down during the bread-making process, Gentile explains. So it may be another good option if you are sensitive to gluten. But sourdough bread is not completely gluten-free, so people with gluten allergies should stay away from it.
No matter what type of bread you choose, remember that carbohydrates are not the enemy. “People are very distorted and afraid of carbohydrates,” says Susie. “It’s great to remind people that you can fully enjoy these foods, and that they are very good for you.”