Bread – What’s Best?

Bread – what’s best for my health?

Wholemeal, rye, multigrain, high-fibre, gluten-free, sourdough, soy and linseed – there are lots of interesting breads to choose from these days. Bread is one of our oldest foods and even today is still considered a staple.

It’s nutritious and filling, low in fat and contributes fibre and protein. With the high extraction rate for milling white flour in Australia, all bread is a good source of three B vitamins thiamin, niacin and folate which we need for energy release. A slice of bread (even white bread) spread with peanut butter or jam makes a healthier snack than cracker biscuits or salty packet snacks like potato crisps.

But with so many varieties today, it’s hard to know which is the best to purchase. Here’s a guide to help you along the supermarket aisle or at the local bakery.

Note:  Bread baked and sold at a bakery or hot bread shop does not have to carry any nutrition information unless it happens to make a claim such as “high in fibre”. However the shop still needs to warn customers about possible allergens such as soy or nuts. Usually a list of these allergens in the breads is displayed near the counter or you can ask for it. By law, it must be provided.

To find out about nutrition in the bread for sale, start by asking the shop for nutrition information. Large chain hot bread shops generally have nutrition figures prepared as a handout or printed on the outer paper bag. Smaller shops often just have the figures on display.

Despite the apparent variety, most hot bread can be classified into four main categories – white, wholemeal, rye or multigrain. It’s the same standard bread mix turned into rolls, baguettes, twists or high-tops. Cheese rolls or olive breads have more fat; fruit loaves have slightly more sugar. If the shop doesn’t have any nutrition information, use the material here to work out the differences between breads.

Ingredients in bread

The basic ingredients of all breads are flour (which can be white, wholemeal, rye or a mixture), water, yeast and a little salt. Other ingredients include skim milk powder, gluten (wheat protein), a little fat (often listed as vegetable oil on the label), cracked (kibbled) grains, seeds, sugar, malt and mould-inhibitor, generally calcium propionate. Despite the many different types or shapes of bread such as square, high top, stick, focaccia, ciabatta, flatbread and rolls, all bread is similar in nutrition terms and can be classified according to the flour it’s made from.

Best choice of bread

Ideally your everyday bread should be a wholegrain variety, either a smooth wholemeal or a more chewy multigrain. The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating recommends eating three to 12 serves of grains and cereals a day (mostly wholegrain), depending on age, gender and physical activity level. This means that most adults should eat between four and eight serves per day – two slices of bread is considered one serve.

Wholegrains explained

Many breads now promote the fact that they are wholegrain or that they contain a percentage of whole grains.  What does this mean?

Wholegrain refers to grain foods that contain three components – the outer bran, the germ and inner endosperm – in the proportions that they are found naturally in the original grain.  You don’t have to see intact kernels of grains – they can be ground to a smooth flour, flaked or cracked into bits.

Typical wholegrain foods include wholemeal and some mixed grain breads, crispbreads, rolled oats, many high fibre breakfast cereals, wholemeal pasta and brown rice. They are closer to nature and less refined than white products. They can contain around twice as many naturally-occurring nutrients compared to a processed product.

When grains are milled to produce white flour or white rice, a major portion of the outer bran and germ layers are removed. With them go most of the important nutrients of the grain such as fibre, vitamins and minerals, as well as protective phytonutrients such as lignans and phytates.

Studies show that eating wholegrains can protect against heart disease, reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and assist with weight control.  Wholegrains help you feel fuller for longer and reduce your appetite. Many are low GI*, aid regularity and are good for digestion.

*Low GI – Low Glycemic Index

The Glycemic Index is a rating of the effect of the food on blood sugar levels and is not necessarily related to the sugar content or the total carbohydrate. Foods considered to be low GI will raise blood sugar slowly and may satisfy hunger for a longer period. Low GI foods can help people with diabetes control their condition. Carbohydrate occurs naturally in food as starch or sugar and provides energy.
Nutritionists recommend that you eat at least half your grain foods as wholegrains. As a general rule, look for the word ‘wholegrain’ on the label. If it doesn’t say wholegrain, then it probably isn’t.

Which bread is that? Breads explained

Wholemeal

If you prefer a soft smooth bread, this is a good choice over white bread, with more fibre, B vitamins for energy release, minerals and antioxidants. You may see these breads labelled as wholegrain, wheatmeal or wholewheat – they all mean the same thing. 100 per cent wholemeal flour contains all the components of the wheat grain but it’s been milled to a fine texture.

Multigrain or mixed grain

There are two different types of multigrain bread:

  • Heavier breads that are darker in colour and dense in texture. These are usually based on wholemeal flour with added whole wheat or rye grains which stand out in the slice and add a chewy texture. These are nutritious choices.
  • Lighter multigrain loaves are based on white flour with only a ‘sprinkle’ of softened cracked (kibbled) grains.  These appeal to kids and are a good compromise between the softness of white bread and the wholesomeness of grains.  They’re a good ‘stepping stone’ to heavier breads.

For both types, the grains slow down the rate of absorption of the carbohydrate making them low GI, which is an advantage for people with diabetes. Check the percentage of wholegrains on the label. Ideally go for one with over 50 per cent wholegrains.

Soy & linseed

These breads are made by adding soy grits or soy flour and linseeds (flaxseeds) to a white or wholemeal bread dough.

Originally promoted to menopausal women for their benefits from the phytoestrogens of soy, the research hasn’t lived up to the early promises. There is no consistent evidence that soy reduces the severity or frequency of menopausal symptoms (like hot flushes) or reduces breast cancer.

Nevertheless these are excellent breads, high in fibre, a source of the plant omega 3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and folate, which is important for pregnant women or women wishing to conceive.  These tend to be higher in fat (eight or nine per cent) and have a moist texture, which keeps well.

Rye

Rye is a grain closely related to wheat which is traditional in northern European countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Poland and Russia. It produces a heavier darker bread than wheat so is often mixed with white wheaten flour to produce a light rye bread (usually 30 per cent rye, 70 per cent wheat).  Dark rye breads such as black bread, pumpernickel or schinkenbrot are generally 100 per cent rye. It’s also popular as rye crispbreads.

Rye has a low GI, is high in soluble fibre and contains more antioxidants than wheat. A good choice healthwise and it adds variety to your breads.

Note: it contains gluten so it NOT suitable for gluten-free diets.

Fibre-increased white

These have extra fibre added to boost the fibre content without affecting their colour, taste or texture. The sources of fibre are usually soy hulls or white lupin hulls or Hi-Maize, a unique flour high in resistant starch which acts like fibre in the body.

How do these compare with wholemeal?

White fibre-increased bread is not as nutritious as a wholemeal as it still doesn’t contain all the parts of the original wheat grain so lacks the B vitamins, minerals and phyto-nutrients from the bran and germ. It matches the fibre content of a wholemeal but that’s all. This puts it up above regular white bread. It’s a good compromise for children who refuse to eat wholemeal bread.

Fibre count in two slices of different breads and how they compare to the recommended intake

Bread: 2 slices Fibre count
Soft wholemeal, 60g 3.6g
Mixed grain/multigrain, 88g 5.0g
Rye, 83g 4.4g
White, 60g 1.8g
White fibre-increased, 70g 4.2g
Soy-linseed, 85g 4.5g

Recommended Dietary Intake is 25g a day for women and 30g for men.  So two slices of a wholemeal, multigrain, white high-fibre or soy-linseed bread, gives a woman around 16 per cent of her daily fibre intake or 13 per cent for a man.

White

White bread is made from white flour and has two vitamins added to it (thiamin and folate). In Australia you can now purchase high fibre white bread, low GI white bread, white bread with omega 3 and white bread with iron. White bread with fibre, vitamins and minerals added to it is a healthier choice for children who refuse to eat wholemeal or multigrain bread.

Flat bread, lavash and mountain bread

These are generally made with white flour, so are low in fibre and should not be your main bread choices. However, they add variety and can be enjoyed every now and then.

White bread with added fibre, calcium or omega-3

These breads appear to have it all – soft smooth square sliced bread with no ‘bits’ yet offering those important extras! Remember however that you’re not getting the benefits of a true wholemeal with all the grain.  You get some fibre and a handful of added vitamins, iron or calcium but none of the other grain antioxidants that keep us healthy. Often the quantity you get from the bread is only a fraction of what you’d find in a food that’s a rich source. Think of these breads as a ‘top-up’ only.

See this comparison:

omega-3 amount
2 slices white bread with omega-3 127mg
Small can salmon, 100g 1200mg
Recommended intake* 90-160mg
(but the Heart Foundation suggests
500mg to prevent heart disease)
calcium  amount
2 slices white bread with calcium 145mg
250ml glass regular milk 285mg
250ml calcium-boosted low-fat milk 400mg
Recommended intake** 1000-1300mg
fibre amount
2 slices white bread with fibre, 70g 4.2g
2 slices dense multigrain bread, 88g 5.0g
Bowl bran breakfast cereal, 45g 13g
Recommended intake* 25-30g

*   for adult women (lower end) and men (upper end of the range)
**  for adult men (lower end) and women (upper end of the range)

Which bread is best?

Here are three top tips on choosing and eating bread:

  • Choose mostly wholegrain breads
  • Enjoy white or flat bread varieties occasionally – they are healthier than most crackers biscuits or snack foods
  • Eat a variety of breads

Bread and carbs

With some 45 per cent starchy carbohydrates, bread is a food high in carbohydrates.  For this reason, it’s often eliminated by anyone who’s trying to lose excess weight especially if they’re on a high-protein low-carb diet plan.

How high is bread in carbohydrate? It’s no higher than other common starchy foods and has less than many ‘junk’ foods. Take a look at this comparison:

Total Carbohydrate content
2 thin slices bread, 60g 28g
2 thick toast slices bread, 80g 38g
1 cup cooked rice, 180g 47g
1 medium potato, 150g 25g
½ cup pasta (spaghetti, macaroni) 18g
small can baked beans, 100g 12g
1 medium banana, 140g 20g
1 Danish pastry, 120g 44g
1 cinnamon doughnut, 70g 28g
50g bag corn chips 32g

Why do you lose weight when you cut out bread? Often it’s because you simultaneously cut out the butter/margarine and the toppings that go with it from peanut butter to jam or honey.

However it’s not wise to eliminate all carbohydrates. Our bodies need a minimum amount to fuel the brain (which relies entirely on glucose for energy) and to balance out the protein and fat. Choose a minimum of 3 serves a day of healthy carbohydrates such as a dense wholegrain bread, rye crispbread, brown rice or a high-fibre cereal.  These have plenty of fibre to fill you up, are low in fat and low GI – all good things that help you stay on your diet.

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