Bread can be healthy when whole-grain and consumed in moderation.
There are many different types of bread, such as whole-grain, sweet breads, corn breads, leavened and unleavened breads, flatbreads, sourdough, sprouted grain breads made with ancient grains, soda bread, and so on.
Some are healthier than others.
Is bread good or bad for us, and how do we make a healthy choice?
Contents of this article:
Here are some key points about bread. More detail is in the main article.
- White bread may do more harm than good, by providing excess calories and few nutrients.
- Whole-meal bread contains the whole grain and provides fiber, vitamin B, and minerals.
- Gluten-free breads and non-wheat breads are suitable for people with an allergy.
- Consuming bread in moderation will not lead to weight gain, but filling sandwiches with processed meat and other high-fat ingredients can do so.
Carbohydrates in bread: Good or bad?
Carbohydrates provide the body with fuel. Bread mostly consists of carbohydrate.
The healthiest sources of carbohydrate are fruits, vegetables, beans, and minimally processed grains. These foods also provide vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals.
Packaged and pre-sliced white bread is made of highly-processed, simple carbohydrate. This is digested quickly without providing many nutrients or benefits to the body.
Highly-processed carbohydrates, such as white breads, refined pasta, cakes, donuts, crackers, and candy bars are digested quickly, and they provide a quick surge of energy.
They cause blood sugar to spike soon after eating, and, because they lack fiber, the person will not feel full. They will crave more food again soon after, especially when the blood sugar drops.
What are whole grains?
The whole grains in whole-meal bread are a good source of fiber, they provide energy for longer, and they help prevent cardiovascular and other diseases.
The Whole Grains Council defines whole foods as follows:
"Whole grains or foods made from them contain all the essential parts and naturally-occurring nutrients of the entire grain seed in their original proportions. If the grain has been processed (e.g., cracked, crushed, rolled, extruded or cooked), the food product should deliver the same rich balance of nutrients that are found in the original grain seed. [...] 100 percent of the original kernel, all of the bran, germ, and endosperm, must be present to qualify as a whole grain."
The American Heart Association (AHA) note that whole grains are a good source of:
The AHA recommend consuming at least 25 grams of fiber a day. At least half of the grains consumed should be whole grains.
Fiber can reduce the risk of:
Whole grains also provide protein.
How do I know they are whole grains?
When choosing store-bought bread, the word "whole" should be the first word in the ingredient list. The word "whole" ensures that all three parts of the grain are contained in the product.
The following labels do not guarantee a whole-grain product:
- Wheat bread
- Organic flour
- Wheat germ
- Unbleached wheat flour
- 100 percent wheat
The ingredient list will give a better idea of what the item contains.
What is refined flour?
Bread is at its most healthful when baked with 100 percent whole grain kernels.
To make white bread or white flour, the grain is processed to remove the bran and the germ, leaving only the endosperm.
Products made with refined flour have a finer, lighter texture, and the shelf life may be extended.
However, processing removes most or all of the fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
The remaining endosperm provides quick-digesting carbohydrate but little else.
When it became evident that some people were experiencing nutrient deficiencies, manufacturers starting to produce "enriched" flours.
They fortified the processed white flour with some of the missing nutrients, using supplements like folic acid and other B vitamins.
However, supplemental vitamins are not as good as vitamins from food sources. Normally, the human body can better absorb and process nutrients from unprocessed sources.
Whole grains add important nutrients to the diet, but Americans consume on average less than 1 serving of whole grains per day. Fewer than 5 percent get the recommended average of 3 ounces of whole grains per day.
When is bread not healthful?
The highly-processed flour and additives in white, packaged bread can make it unhealthy. Consuming too much white bread can contribute to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
Buying bread with the word "whole" as the first ingredient still does not guarantee a healthful product. It is only the first step.
Even whole-grain breads can have 20 or more ingredients, including preservatives and added salt and sugars. Not all of these contribute to good health.
Preservatives may help bread stay fresh for longer, but freshly baked breads with fewer preservatives can be stored in the refrigerator or freezer to maintain freshness.
Many types of bread have added sugars or sugar substitutes. Avoid those with corn syrup or any ingredient ending in "-ose" listed at the beginning of the ingredient list.
Ingredients lists are ordered by the weight of ingredient it contains, so ingredients that appear near the top of the list will be present in relatively high proportions.
Bread made with sprouted grains is a good option. When a grain is sprouted, its nutrients become easier to digest and more available to the body for use. It can be a better source of protein, fiber, vitamin C, folate and other nutrients.
Ezekiel bread is a type of high-fiber bread made with only sprouted grains and no flour. Sprouted grain breads should also be kept in the refrigerator or freezer.
Should we avoid gluten?
Gluten-free bread can have great benefits for particular dietary needs, but it is not suitable for everyone.
Some people should avoid bread because of an allergy or intolerance.
In recent years, the gluten-free diet has become popular. Gluten can be dangerous for a person with celiac disease.
These people have a severe autoimmune reaction to gluten that causes intestinal damage.
However, many people can tolerate gluten, and they do not need to avoid it.
Scientists have shown that avoiding gluten can cause people to avoid foods that may be healthy for them, such as whole grains.
A study published in the BMJ in May 2017 found that consuming gluten does not increase the risk of heart disease, but avoiding whole grains in order to eliminate it may increase the risk.
Many doctors urge people only to "go gluten-free" if they are sensitive to gluten, not as a lifestyle choice.
People who need to avoid gluten can find gluten-free breads in many grocery stores.
What about a wheat allergy?
People who have a wheat allergy should not eat breads containing wheat flour, but they can choose breads made from rye or other types of flour.
If a person with an allergy consumes a product they are allergic to, this can, in some cases, lead to anaphylactic shock. This can be life-threatening.
Some people are not allergic to wheat, but they have a wheat intolerance.
Consuming wheat makes them feel bloated and uncomfortable. Eating wheat bread is not dangerous for these people, but choosing rye or other types of bread can reduce discomfort.
Will bread help me lose weight?
Consuming whole-meal bread in moderation should not cause weight gain, but it will provide necessary energy for the body. A higher intake of energy than the body needs will lead to weight gain.
Sandwiches made from white bread and containing processed meat, butter, and mayonnaise can add many unnecessary calories by increasing fat and carbohydrate intake.
If bread becomes a default meal or snack for people, it can crowd out more healthful foods.
A more healthful option is to choose sandwiches that contain grilled chicken and salad or eating bread with a healthy, homemade, vegetable soup.
Making your own bread is not difficult, especially if you invest in a bread-making machine. This way, you will know exactly what you are eating.
Overall, whole-meal bread is a healthful product, if consumed in moderation and if the person is not intolerant.