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Articles February 2018 Issue

Selecting Healthy Breads

A huge variety of breads are available on supermarket shelves. Which is best for you?

healthy bread

The ratio of fiber to total carbohydrate in a serving of bread is a good indicator of the overall healthfulness of whole-grain products.

Breads and rolls fill the better part of an aisle in some supermarkets, in part reflecting the appetite of Americans for bread. The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that at least half of your breads and other grain-based foods, including cereals and energy bars, should be whole grain. But how do you figure out which grains are best for you?

“Making smart choices with regard to the breads offer an opportunity to move toward a healthy dietary pattern,” says Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, director of Tufts’ HNRCA Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory and executive editor of Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter. “Whole-grain breads you find in supermarkets differ by the relative amount of whole grain content, the type of grain, the sodium content and the amount of added sugars. By perusing ingredient and nutrition labels you can identify some good candidates within different categories, like bread and rolls, try some out and then decide which you prefer.”

Why Whole Grain? Whole grains comprise the entire grain seed: the bran (outer layer, containing fiber, antioxidants and B vitamins), endosperm (middle layer, consisting primarily of starchy carbohydrates), and germ (inner core, containing B vitamins, minerals and some protein). Even if a whole grain has been ground, cracked or flaked, it contains all the original parts of the grain and its naturally occurring nutrients.

In contrast, refined grains are milled and sorted to mostly retain just the endosperm of the original seed. Refined grains generally contain less fiber and fewer nutrients than whole grains, although federal regulations require certain nutrients, like B vitamins, to be added back into the refined grains as well as rice and cornmeal.

Diets rich in whole grains are associated with a variety of health benefits. The fiber in whole grains cause the body to digest more slowly, leading to feelings of prolonged fullness and a more even rises in blood sugar. (Fat-containing foods such as nuts and nut butters, vegetable oils and protein rich foods blunt the glucose spikes as well.)

How to Choose Better Breads: Shopping for whole-grain breads is straightforward but does initially require a bit of time for on-the-spot research in the bread aisle. Here are some practical suggestions:

  • Identify whole-grain breads: “Usually you can’t figure that out from the Nutrition Facts label,” Lichtenstein says. “You have to look at the ingredients label. The first ingredient of a whole-grain bread should be whole grain.”

The marketing claims on bread—what the front-of-package label says the product contains—can also be misleading. “Multigrain” or “seven grain,” for example, means the bread contains more than one type of grain, but they’re not necessarily all whole grains. It could be a mix of whole and refined grains. “Made with whole grains” may also indicate the product contains some, but not entirely, whole grains.

Looks can be misleading, too. A bread’s dark brown color could be nothing more than food coloring. “Darker bread does not equal whole grain,” Lichtenstein notes.


Here are additional tips to aid your detective work:

  • In the ingredients list, look for “whole wheat” or “whole grain” or just the word “whole” in front of a type of grain or grain flour.

  • If you see “100% whole grain/wheat,” that’s a good sign, but if it only says whole grain it may not be 100% whole grain. Manufacturers are permitted to market bread as “whole grain” when only 51% or more of the flour is whole grain.

  • Check sodium levels:Breads and rolls—including whole-grain versions—could contain a significant amount of sodium. High sodium intake is associated with greater risk of high blood pressure; studies have shown diets low in sodium reduce elevated blood pressure. “Go to the Nutrition Facts label and just line up a couple of breads right there on the supermarket shelf and compare the levels of sodium,” Lichtenstein suggests. “Make sure the serving sizes are reasonably equivalent, and aim for the product with the lowest level.”

  • Check added sugars: Bread and rolls can contribute a significant amount of sugar to the diet. As new Nutrient Facts labels are phased in, it will be easier to compare the relative amounts of added sugar among different breads. For now, you will have to rely on the ingredient list and gut feeling: if it tastes sweet, it is probably high in added sugar.

  • Try a few: Just because a bread is whole grain doesn’t mean the smell, taste and texture of the product will appeal to you. “Choose one you think you may like the most, try it, and if you don’t like it, try another one,” Lichtenstein says.

Given the number of products on the shelves, you will find a whole-grain bread, or maybe a whole variety of whole-grain breads that you like.

Comments (9)

Where does sourdough bread fall in the healthy bread spectrum?

Posted by: Brooklyn | January 23, 2018 2:47 PM    Report this comment

Generally, bread is not a good addition to ones health for many of the reasons listed above, particularly because it is essentially a carbohydrate and will be converted to sugar. Bananas and Potatoes (not sweet potatoes). The conversion of potatoes to sugar can be slowed down by applying butter to the potato. Let me know your thoughts on my comments.

Posted by: | January 23, 2018 5:18 PM    Report this comment

tufts shud comment on potassium bromate in flour and its effects when not baked properly. this is banned in europe and even china. and how to detect if used in bread.

Posted by: r a | January 24, 2018 1:00 PM    Report this comment

I also would like to know if and why sourdough bread is a healthy choice

Posted by: Cheezie | April 17, 2018 9:56 AM    Report this comment

Reasearching Bread ingredients in the past, I discovered bread previously contained Iodine. Iodine was removed and was replaced with Bromine, which is a carcinogen. How can I tell if current Breads contain Bromine? Can it be listed under another name ?? Why is there not more information available about Bread containing Bromine and why do they not reverse this decision and put Iodine back into Bread since so many people are Iodine deficient??

Posted by: Gahealthnut | November 20, 2018 9:55 AM    Report this comment

The 10 to 1 rule descibed here really should be 5 to 1 if you want to avoid eating empty carbs and sugar load. Divide the carbs by fiber and it should be 5 or under. If it's not, you may as well be eating a candy bar.

Posted by: consciousconsumer | November 20, 2018 1:37 PM    Report this comment

consciousconsumer, how did you arrive at the 5:1 ratio? Is that a guess on your part or can you provide one or more references showing that such a ratio leads to better health outcomes (however you wish to measure them)?

Thanks in advance.

Posted by: DenisBH | December 16, 2018 7:03 PM    Report this comment

Could you mention a few bread brands which are while grain?

Posted by: maurojanoski | December 17, 2018 11:36 AM    Report this comment

This is a typo. I meant "which are whole grain" on my post

Posted by: maurojanoski | December 17, 2018 11:48 AM    Report this comment

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