No matter how you slice it

There are so many options to choose from, we have to cut through a lot of details before making an informed choice about which packaged bread to buy.

Whether you prefer it white or brown, round or square, thin or thick, sliced bread is first and foremost a matter of taste. Even popular white bread is not completely devoid of nutritional value... But we can do better, as long as we understand the vocabulary required to analyze the packaging.

Wheat under the microscope
A grain of wheat consists of three parts: the bran, the germ and the heart or endosperm. Some parts of the grain are present, in varying amounts, in different kinds of bread, and this is the key factor in determining nutritional value.

Grain of wheat

1. Heart of the grain (endosperm): 85% of the grain
› Rich in starch
2. Bran (outer covering):12% of the grain
› High in fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals
3. Germ: 3% of the grain
› Rich in vitamins and minerals

One sandwich, two choices
Our fibre consumption has not changed much over the last twenty years and remains well below the recommended 21 to 38 grams per day, depending on age group. We need to practically double our daily intake. The only way to do this is to include more plants in our meals and snacks: fruit and vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grain cereal products. Depending on the bread you buy, you get only 1 gram of fibre per 2 slices of white bread, compared to 6, 7, even 8 grams of fibre per 2 slices of 100% whole grain bread. This is an important difference that can make that sandwich even more satisfying…

Some varieties of bread on the shelves

Whole grains: making the most of the whole grain of wheat
If you want to buy whole wheat bread, look for the phrase “100% whole grain bread” for maximum taste and benefits. And we know why: you can take advantage of the wealth of benefits found in wheat cereal when the entire grain is ground up. This is particularly important when we know that whole grains play a key role in digestive health. Whole grains are a rich source of dietary fibre that accelerate the intestinal transit of food (therefore eliminating waste faster), change gut flora (to make the intestines more efficient) and increase stool weight (to prevent constipation). Thanks to its insoluble fibre, wheat bran is particularly effective in increasing the amount of undigested food and accelerating its movement through the intestines, thus promoting regular elimination.

White: quite low in fibre
Although refined flour has lost some of its components, white bread still provides several nutrients, including carbohydrates, mainly in the form of starch, a little protein and several vitamins and minerals due to mandatory “enriching” of white flour. However, its fibre content is relatively low as fibre comes from ground bran wheat and white bread does not contain these valuable phytochemical compounds.

Whole-grain white bread: looks like a good compromise
Available on the market for a few years, this type of bread appears on the surface to be a good compromise for diehard fans of white bread. “It’s high in fibre,” you say?… Not so fast! Even though it contains new fibre concentrates, such as oat hull, this fibre does not fill you up any better, is not a more effective laxative and is no more nutritious than white bread. 

“Oat hull fibre or oat fibre is like an envelope covering ears of corn. It has nothing to do with flour or oatmeal,” explains Pierre Gélinas, a researcher at the Food Research and Development Centre in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada), who also specializes in the quality of cereal-based foods. “This concentration of insoluble fibre is so finely ground that is loses its beneficial effects… Oat hull fibre seems to have only a mild laxative effect, even when absorbing a lot of water, nothing compared to the demonstrated effect of coarsely ground wheat bran. Its impact on intestinal health is more advantageous than finely ground wheat bran.”

He adds, “To the naked eye, if you are aware that something is filling you up, than you will eat less of it, which is good for many people.” Finally, the researcher remains cautious about the laxation and satiating effects of fibre concentrates and prefers bread made with minimally-processed ingredients. That’s reassuring, with or without wheat bran particles in a slice of bread! In addition, bread made from the most complete flour possible is tastier and needs to be chewed more. By eating more slowly, you appreciate the taste of bread, you have a better whole grain experience. It’s up to you to try it for yourself!

5 to 14-grain bread: Check the list of ingredients
Sliced bread may contain several other grains besides wheat, including: barley, oat, rye, millet, triticale, kamut, spelt, flax, quinoa, brown rice, sorghum, etc. It’s impossible to know the exact mix of grains in bread because the law allows a bread to be classified when it contains 20% or more of a certain type of flour (e.g. flax bread, rye bread). What’s more, 12-grain sliced bread is not necessarily more nutritious than 7-grain sliced bread. To know for sure, you have to check the list of ingredients and also compare the Nutrition Facts tables. A lot of bread in this category is classified among the best choices. These breads are also a good choice if you enjoy eating something with a crunch.

Sprouted grains: an excellent addition
Sprouted grains are nutrient goldmines packed with vitamins A, B and C, calcium, zinc, magnesium and protein. It is possible to sprout several ingredients that are added to bread, from cereals (wheat, oat, rye, millet, kamut, and corn), oilseeds (sunflower, flax) or legumes (lentils). Naturally processed and easily digested, these ingredients are excellent additions to sliced bread.

Fat-free, sugar-free: a personal choice
These two ingredients are not necessarily part of a bread recipe, even though many industrial sliced breads contain them, in particular to speed up the action of the yeast (sugar) and to soften the texture of the inside of the bread (fat). Some like bread with a sweet taste, others do not. It’s a matter of personal choice that doesn’t make much difference in terms of health, even for those with dietary restrictions.

Made with extra-virgin olive oil: a marketing ploy
At first glance, fat is not an ingredient you need to make bread. While some brands use a bit of canola or soybean oil, others prefer extra-virgin olive oil. However, given the small amount added (2 to 4% of the flour’s weight), this is more a marketing ploy than a health kick. The important thing is to choose sliced bread based on the grains it contains.

Source of omega 3: a good option for some
Ground flaxseed is added to some bread to increase the amount of omega-3 fatty acid. If your menu does not include enough fatty fish, flaxseed or canola oil, this type of bread is a good choice for you, even though omega-3 from flaxseed does not absorb as well as that from marine sources.

Bleached vs. unbleached?
Unbleached flour is not more nutritious than bleached flour, but it has not been coloured with artificial bleaching agents.

Can you trust the colour of bread?  
No, because a darker-coloured bread is not necessarily better for your health. That brown colour could be explained by the addition of brown sugar or molasses, without any added fibre or nutrients. The first ingredient on the list is the most revealing!

In conclusion...

#1 choice
Bread with flour made only from whole grains

  • Contains: 100% of the grain, including the bran and the germ.
  • Terms used that aren’t defined by a standard: wholemeal flour, stone-ground or stone-milled whole wheat flour, whole grain whole wheat flour, whole wheat flour including the germ.

#2 choice

Bread with whole wheat flour

  • Contains: at least 95% of the grain. Starch? Not so much, because it erodes the two most nutritious parts of the grain, the bran and germ (Health Canada is in the process of reviewing this standard).
  • A specific case, Graham flour is a type of whole wheat flour. The three parts of the grain are ground separately and then mixed back together.

Flour remains the main ingredient in bread. It’s also what you have to look at in order to make the best choice, without relying exclusively on the Nutrition Facts table. One thing is certain: whether you want white bread, wheat or whole grain, you should choose the least processed bread.

Good to know

› Should you keep bread in the fridge? No, bread stored in the fridge will go stale (dry out) faster. What’s more, bread and flour are real sponges that absorb odours and moisture. The lifespan of bread stored at room temperature is still fairly long. If you want to store bread even longer, it’s best to freeze it and then eat it in the next two weeks in order to preserve its organoleptic qualities. 

› Take a good look at the name of the bread. The name on the packaging can sometimes be misleading and lead you to believe that this loaf of sliced bread is more nutritious than it actually is. Cracked wheat bread, for example, is not synonymous with whole wheat and may contain white flour. Another type of bread may be covered with sesame seeds, but mostly contain white flour. Therefore, it is low in fibre, antioxidants and other phytonutrients.

› “Brown bread” is not necessarily whole wheat bread. Legally speaking, brown bread is white bread that has been coloured with a bit of molasses or caramel, but that also contains whole wheat flour, Graham flour or bran. However, it would be a stretch to call itself whole wheat bread. According to the law, bread has to contain at least 60% whole wheat flour to be called whole wheat bread. This could be an interesting choice if you are thinking about making the switch from white to brown bread.

Hélène Laurendeau

A nutrition and health enthusiast who loves to share: this description fits Hélène Laurendeau to a tee. She has been active for more than 25 years in the media and communications field. Nutritionist, host, columnist, author and speaker, Hélène holds a Bachelor degree in Nutrition and a Master degree in Epidemiology. She has spread her knowledge alongside Ricardo every week since 2005, as part of his daily show broadcast on ICI Radio-Canada Télé, as well as in Ricardo magazine, where she pens the Bien se nourrir (Eating Well) column.