Breaking Bread: A Guide to Selecting the Healthiest Loaf

Bread is a staple in many diets around the world, but not all bread is created equal. The bread aisle at your local supermarket offers a bewildering array of choices, from white bread to whole-grain varieties, artisanal loaves, and gluten-free options. So, how do you navigate this sea of bread to select the healthiest option for you and your family? In this article, we'll break down the factors to consider when choosing the healthiest bread.

Check the ingredients list

Start by examining the ingredient list. Look for a bread with minimal, recognisable ingredients. Ideally, the first ingredient should be a whole grain, such as whole wheat, whole rye, or whole oats. Avoid bread that lists refined flours or sugars as primary ingredients. Artificial additives and preservatives should also be kept to a minimum. 

These additives are often used to extend shelf life, enhance texture, or improve appearance. Foods with minimal artificial additives and preservatives tend to be more nutritious. When additives replace real ingredients, they may dilute the nutritional content of the food. Choosing bread with fewer additives means you're likely getting more of the essential nutrients found in the original ingredients.

Look for whole grains

Whole grains offer more fibre, vitamins, and minerals, compared to refined grains. They can help regulate blood sugar levels, promote fullness, and support overall health. Choose a bread that is made from whole grain wholemeal flour with or without added whole grains and seeds.

Figure 1 - Ingredient list for a wholemeal and seed loaf

You can search the Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council's Whole Grain Database to find commercial breads that are 'very high in whole grains'. 

Fibre content matters

Fibre is an essential component of a healthy diet. It aids digestion, helps maintain steady blood sugar levels, and supports heart health. Seek out bread with a high fibre content.

According to the Food Standards Code, a product is considered to be a 'source of' fibre if it contains at least 2g of dietary fibre per serve, a 'good source' if it contains at least 4g per serve and an 'excellent source' if a serve contains at least 7g of fibre.

Consider the Glycaemic Index (GI)

The glycaemic index (GI) measures how quickly a carbohydrate-containing food raises blood sugar levels. Breads with a lower GI value are digested more slowly, helping keep blood sugar stable. As a general rule, whole-grain bread typically has a lower GI compared to white varieties.

A snapshot on sourdough

Sourdough bread is made through a process known as fermentation, which can reduce the carbohydrate content - making sourdough bread easier for some people to digest. It also tends to have a lower GI compared to regular white bread. This means that it may cause a slower and more gradual increase in blood sugar levels, which can be especially beneficial for people with diabetes. The lactic acid bacteria in sourdough may also have potential benefits for gut health. However, the specific effects can vary from person to person.

As with choosing any bread, pay attention to the ingredients. Some commercial sourdough varieties may contain additives, and be equally as high in added sugar and/or sodium. 

Evaluate the overall nutritional profile

Limit added sugars

Some bread varieties contain added sugars, which can contribute to weight gain and poor blood sugar management. Check the nutrition information panel and ingredients list for hidden sugars and choose bread with little or no added sweeteners.

Watch out for sodium

Bread can be a significant source of sodium (salt) in the diet. Excessive sodium intake is linked to high blood pressure and other health issues. Choose a bread with lower sodium content, ideally with less than 300 mg per 100 g, especially if you have hypertension or are watching your sodium intake. 

Check for extra vitamins and minerals

The ideal choice should provide essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and protein. Some specialty breads may contain added seeds or nuts, providing extra nutrients and flavour.

Figure 2 - Check for sodium content using the per 100 g column

Figure 3 - Use the per serve column to check for fibre

Freshness matters

Freshly baked bread typically has a shorter ingredient list and fewer preservatives. If possible, purchase bread from local bakeries or make your own at home to ensure freshness and nutritional quality.

Consider taste and texture

Ultimately, the healthiest bread is one that you enjoy eating. Different types of bread offer varying tastes and textures, so find one that aligns with your preferences to ensure you'll incorporate it into your diet consistently.

Choosing the healthiest bread involves reading labels, considering ingredients, prioritising whole grains and dietary fibre, and being mindful of added sugars and sodium. By making informed choices, you can enjoy bread as part of a balanced diet that supports your health and well-being.