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Which bread is healthiest? A Dietitian's guide to choosing bread.

Updated: Aug 18, 2020

I love bread, I think it’s a nutritious staple of most diets. Unfortunately though, bread has had a pretty bad run, it’s the first thing we all seem to cut out when we are choosing to eat “healthier”. I understand why, with all the misinformation and different types to choose from, it’s hard to know what really is best for you. There’s high protein, low carb, low GI, gluten free, seedy, not-so seedy, seedy-but-the-seeds-are-ground-up kind of seedy. So, to make your life easier, here’s a dietitian’s guide to bread.

First, let's talk about grains

A whole grain contains all 3 layers of the grain, these are:⁣

  • BRAN: the outer layer rich in fibre, vitamins (including B vitamins), minerals and phytonutrients. ⁣

  • ENDOSPERM: the starchy middle, which contains carbohydrates and some protein.

  • GERM: the nutrient-dense core that provides B vitamins, vitamin E, minerals, phytonutrients and good fats. ⁣

When all 3 layers are present, whether intact, ground, kibbled or puffed, these are all considered whole grains. Refined grains however, have the bran and germ removed. ⁣This makes them lower in minerals like iron and zinc, lower in fibre and often higher GI.

White bread

This type of bread is the one most often referred to as the “bad” kind, and for once, it’s kind of true. True in that it is the one that provides the least benefit. Not true if we are talking about it being the worst thing ever for your health. Remember, it’s all about moderation.

So, why is it I say it provides the least benefit? White bread it made up of just the endosperm of a grain. This is the middle layer, which is starchy and contains carbohydrates and some protein. Due to only this middle part of the grain being present, the bread is will provide the less fibre, B vitamins, Vitamin E and antioxidants than it’s other doughy counterparts.

White bread will also be high GI due to this processing, which means it is digested quickly, causing our blood sugar to rise faster but not for a longer time. This means we often feel low in energy and hunger again soon after.

Flour using just the endosperm will be listed as “wheat flour” in the ingredient list.

Wholemeal bread

Wholemeal bread includes all three layers of a grain. Sometimes wholemeal bread will also have some white flour added in.

This type of bread is higher fibre, vitamins and minerals than white bread, though it is still quite high GI given the level of processing.

Wholemeal flour will be listed as “wholemeal flour” in the ingredient list.

Multigrain bread

Multigrain bread is the trickiest of them all, I find most people are confused by this type of bread. Multigrain bread is made using WHITE flour, but it will have added grains and seeds (making it multigrain).

This type of bread is slightly higher in fibre, vitamins and minerals than a white bread. The addition of the grains and seeds makes it a medium GI typically. However, as it is made up of white flour, it is not as nutritious as it could be, which bring us to the winner of the bread-off….

Whole Grain Bread

This guy is the winner! The top of the bread list. Whole grain bread is made using wholemeal flour AND had added grains and seeds.

Whole grain bread is the highest in fibre, B vitamins, minerals like zinc, magnesium and iron and good fats. This bread is low GI, meaning it helps to keep out blood sugar levels stable, preventing out energy from dropping away from us and leaving us feeling hungry soon after. I’ve talked before on Instagram about the benefits of whole grains, but as a quick reminder, they have been associated with reduced risk of disease including heart disease, diabetes and colon cancer. They also keep our gut bugs happy.

What about sourdough?

Sourdough bread is made using fermented dough. This helps to reduce the GI of the bread. I’ve not seen many with added seeds and whole grains, which would reduce the nutritional impact, but it is still an acceptable bread choice. The fermentation of the flour for some may make the bread feel more “digestible”- particularly for those that need to avoid FODMAPs, a spelt sourdough is a good option. The fermentation may also increase the absorption of some nutrients. I’d opt for one made from wholemeal flours, and if it has added grains and seeds, it’s a winner in my book!

What about gluten-free?

Okay, so being gluten-free doesn’t make a bread healthier by default. Gluten-free breads are most often made using more ingredients and often, more highly-processed ingredients. This doesn’t need to scare you though, just aim for wholegrain ingredients and a grainy, seedy looking slice…and follow the same below guide! Gluten-free whole grains include: brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, sorghum and amaranth, for some examples.

A note about fortification

It is mandatory for wheat flour used to make bread to be fortified with thiamine (Vitamin B1), folic acid and iodine. This requirement is not extended to breads using other flours or organic breads- so gluten-free bread that is fortified is difficult to find. This is worth considering if bread would otherwise be a key contributor of these nutrients to your diet, and it is for many Australians.

Okay, so how do you choose a healthier bread?

When shopping for bread, here’s a little checklist you can use to guide you to a more filling, nutritious bread:

  • Aim for >3g protein per slice

  • Aim for >2g fibre per slice or >4g fibre per serve

  • Aim for <200mg sodium per slice

  • Check the ingredient list! Look for the first ingredient to be a whole grain source with it saying “wholemeal flour” or “whole grain” or “whole oats”.

  • Look for seeds and whole grains to be added into the bread.

As to whether you need high protein, low carb, low FODMAP and so on varieties...this will really depend on your preferences, goals and needs. If you're in the eliminaton phase of a FODMAP diet, it makes sense to buy low FODMAP bread. If you aren't, it isn't more beneficial because it is absent of FODMAPs (it's likely less so, really). So, follow the above guide and choose the small variances at your own discretion.

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