Is bread healthy?
Convenient, versatile and tasty, bread is a daily staple for many of us, but is it a healthy choice? Read registered nutritionist Kerry Torrens’ guide to different loaves and how they’re made, plus choosing the healthiest option for you
What is bread?
Bread is one of the oldest staples in the world. In its simplest form, it’s a flour and water dough, with or without salt, fermented with a naturally occurring yeast and bacteria starter, or with baker’s yeast. Today, much of the bread lining supermarket shelves is made on a mass scale and often contains additives that help speed production, extend shelf life, improve flavour and texture, and fortify against the nutrients lost during processing.
Is bread healthy or unhealthy?
There are many different types of bread, made in a variety of ways and with a range of ingredients. But not all are created equal: some types are more nutritious, and as a consequence healthier, than others. To understand whether the loaf in your basket is a healthy choice there are a few factors to consider.
Nutritional profile of bread
Nutritional values will vary depending on the ingredients used and the bread variety you choose.
An average slice (25g) of white bread provides:
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- 0.4g fat
- 11.5g carbs
- 0.8g sugars
- 0.6g fibre
- 2g protein
An average slice (25g) or wholemeal bread provides:
- 0.6g fat
- 10.5g carbs
- 0.7g sugars
- 1.8g fibre
- 2.4g protein
Carbohydrate, the main nutrient in bread, is an important macronutrient and a valuable source of fuel for the body. However, carbs from minimally-processed wholegrains contain more vitamins, minerals and fibre, making them a more nutritious choice.
This means one of the most important considerations when buying your daily bread is whether it has been made with refined white or minimally-processed wholegrain flour.
Should I choose white or wholegrain bread?
White bread is made from processed flour which has been milled to remove the bran and germ of the grain, leaving just the starch-packed endosperm. This means much of the fibre and many of the vitamins and minerals have been removed. The resulting flour has a fine, light texture and a longer shelf life. In the UK, any white or ‘brown’ flour (not including wholemeal) is legally required to have calcium, iron, thiamine (vitamin B1) and nicotinic acid (B3) added back by the manufacturer.
White, refined flour produces a bread which is quick and easy to digest. Eaten regularly and in high amounts, foods like this may lead to weight gain and an increased risk of metabolic conditions such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. However, white bread may be a better option if you have a gut condition and have been advised to follow a low-fibre (low-residue) diet.
Wholegrain flour, on the other hand, includes all three parts of the grain – bran, wheatgerm and endosperm. This ensures the naturally-occurring nutrients of the grain are retained, along with the fibre. Slice for slice, when you eat wholemeal, you get more iron and twice the zinc and fibre than the equivalent white loaf.
Wholegrain, wholemeal or whole-wheat are all wholegrain products, but you may be surprised to learn that granary and wheat germ are not. Granary bread contains malted wheat or barley flakes, and may or may not be made from wholemeal flour; whereas wheat germ is white flour to which 10% wheat germ has been added.
Wholegrains, including wholewheat, rye and spelt, are nutrient-rich and, when eaten regularly, may protect against chronic diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, certain forms of cancer and type 2 diabetes.
However, even wholegrain bread may contain 20 or more additives, such as emulsifiers, flour treatment agents and dough improvers, as well as sugar or dextrose. These ingredients are typically added to improve the colour, texture and crumb of a loaf, as well as to support the manufacturing process by improving dough stability and volume.
How do I choose a healthy loaf?
Make the best choice by following these simple tips:
1. Look for a loaf made from an unrefined, wholegrain flour. Labelling can be deceiving, so even if your loaf is labelled multi-grain (made from three or more different flours), granary, 100% wheat or organic, it doesn’t mean that the loaf is wholegrain. Always check the ingredient list to confirm.
2. Select a bread with minimal ingredients. The length of the ingredient list reveals a lot about the baking method and the manufacturing processes used. In simple terms, look for the shortest ingredient list with ingredient names you recognise, and avoid breads with added sweeteners or vegetable oils.
3. Use your loaf and know what you’re looking for. Sourdough is a hot ticket right now, but if you don’t make your own or buy from an artisan baker, there are a few clues to look out for.
In the UK, ‘sourdough’ is not a protected name, which means manufacturers can sell bread as sourdough despite it not being made using the all-important slow fermentation method. Some of these breads include ingredients such as yeast, ascorbic acid, vinegar and yogurt – used to mimic the flavour of sourdough, speed up production time and extend shelf life. If you want to enjoy the benefits of a true sourdough, check labels and avoid these ingredients.
Is bread safe for everyone?
Some people have to avoid bread made from gluten-containing grains, due to the harmful effects of wheat allergy or intolerance, or auto-immune coeliac disease. Those living with type 2 diabetes or other blood sugar management issues are also advised to manage their carb intake and as a consequence, their bread consumption. Many retailers are now selling a wide selection of quality gluten-free products – see our top picks of the best gluten-free breads.
However, for the majority of us, regular glutinous bread is safe and, when made from unprocessed wholegrains, is a healthy addition to a balanced and varied diet.
One of the best ways to ensure your bread is a healthy choice is, of course, to make your own, that way you know exactly how the bread was made and the ingredients that were used.
For recipe inspiration check out:
Do you bake your own bread? Share your baking experiences as well as your favourite recipes in the comments below…
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a registered nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food. Find her on Instagram at @kerry_torrens_nutrition_
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