The Skinny on...Bread

From doughy white slices to the crustiest artisanal loaf, here’s what to look for when buying bread
Published March 12, 2016

Who hasn’t heard that bread is fattening? Some people would have you believe that eating a slice is akin to downing an entire birthday cake, frosting and all. But in reality, if you stick to whole grains, bread can be downright healthy. Here’s a guide to navigating the bread aisle.

The whole-grain shebang
Whole grains — for example, wheat flour milled using the entire grain, which preserves all the fibre, vitamins and minerals — have multiple health benefits. Some studies have shown that eating whole grains may lower the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some cancers.

What to look for at the store
The supermarket bread aisle overflows with options. Our advice: Read packages carefully. Ingredients are listed in proportional order, so if the first item doesn’t begin with the word “whole,” beware. Even if it’s the second or third item, the amount may not be substantial.

Multigrain breads are trickier, since each individual grain is only a small portion of the recipe, but taken all together the whole-grain content may be superb. Other whole grains you might see include barley, brown rice, buckwheat, bulgur (cracked wheat), corn, millet, oats, rye and spelt. Ideally, you’re looking for 16 grams of whole grains in a serving — most bread that meets this level will mention it somewhere on the package. This advice works across the board for sliced bread, English muffins, bagels, wraps — you name it.

What to avoid
When you’re reading the label, steer clear of breads with predominantly “white flour,” “enriched white flour” or “wheat flour” — all three terms signify that the grain has been refined: stripped of the nutrient- and fibre-rich bran and germ. All you’re getting here is the starchy stuff, with none of the health benefits. Also look at what kind of fats are listed, and avoid trans fats (partially hydrogenated, vegetable oil shortening or hydrogenated vegetable oil). These are the fats that can increase your risk for heart disease. None of them are essential in bread-baking, so they’re easy to dodge.

At the bakery
Without a package to read, it’s difficult to know for sure exactly what you’re getting with bakery bread. But there are some rules of thumb: Look for whole-wheat bread. Ask if you can pick up the loaf before buying, and if it’s lighter than air, don’t buy it. Generally speaking, the heftier the bread, the higher the whole-grain content. And don’t be afraid to ask questions! Bakers are often proud to discuss their product and will be more than happy to tout high-quality ingredients. 

Know your options

  • Whole white wheat 
    If you (or your kids) don’t like the hearty taste of whole-grain breads, this option uses an albino variety of the grain, which is not only lighter in colour but also milder in flavour. Double-check that you’re buying whole white wheat, though, or you may wind up with refined flour, which offers very little nutritional value.
  • Light breads
    Choosing bread isn’t only about whole grains; carbs, protein, fat and fibre should be taken into account too. Light whole-grain breads can save calories while still offering fibre to keep you feeling satisfied.
  • Organic breads 
    This is more of a question of overall health benefits than dietary ones. The ingredients are grown without pesticides, herbicides or fungicides, which may be beneficial to your body and the planet, but won’t make much difference nutritionally.