Cooking Tips · Techniques

Bread — Delicious but can it be healthy?

Do you love bread as much as I do? I made some wonderful “Honey Butter Yeast Rolls” for Christmas dinner. Yes, they were fun to make. Yes, they were delicious. However, healthy they were not. Are you able to eat a healthy diet and still consume bread? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip, the 3rd in my series on Healthy Cooking & Eating.

Let me start with the disclaimer that I am not a dietician or a nutritionist. Also, I will acknowledge that there are those who feel we should never eat bread of any kind. Starting from the viewpoint that never consuming bread is not realistic for most of us, let’s try to see if some bread is better to eat than other kinds. I am also limiting this discussion to wheat bread, not gluten-free alternatives.

In my 1st Cooking Tip in this series, I mentioned a definition of healthy foods from the American Fitness Professionals Association. “Healthy foods … are those that are close to how we would find them in nature, have undergone few industrial processes, and contain few to no additives.” How does that apply to wheat bread?

When you find grains of wheat in nature, they are composed of an outer bran layer, an inner core called the endosperm, and the germ.

  • The bran is a fibrous outer layer that has abundant B vitamins, insoluble fiber, antioxidants and phytochemicals as well as a small amount of protein. This layer also contains most of the minerals in grain, such as iron, copper, zinc and magnesium.
  • The endosperm makes up about 85% of the kernel. It is about 50-75% starch and protein although it also contains some iron, B vitamins and soluble fiber. This is the part that becomes white flour.
  • The germ is high in fatty acids, a small amount of protein, trace minerals, B vitamins, vitamin E and phytochemicals.

To make white flour, the bran and the germ are removed leaving only the white endosperm. Because that process removes so many of the natural nutrients, the flour is then “enriched” by adding back in some of these nutrients. Minimum standards of how much should be added is set by the FDA. The whole grain also contains something called “phytochemicals”, the most important being antioxidants. According to Science Direct, “phytochemicals are defined as bioactive nutrient plant chemicals in fruits, vegetables, grains, and other plant foods that may provide desirable health benefits beyond basic nutrition to reduce the risk of major chronic diseases.” It is thought that over 75% of these are removed from the wheat kernel when making white flour. The healthy fatty acids in the germ are also removed to improve shelf life.

There are those that feel enriched white bread is not a bad choice because so many of the nutrients are put back into the flour. There are others that feel that the nutrients that are added in are not as healthful as they are not “natural” to the wheat. Most of those added nutrients are vitamins and minerals (although not all of them are replaced) and not the phytochemicals. One item that is definitely less in white flour is fiber but, once again, some feel the difference in fiber content between white flour and whole wheat flour is not significant. You will have to determine what is important for your family and yourself.

There is what is known as “ancient wheat”. This is a type of wheat that has been grown since the ancient times. One variety is called “Einkorn” and is felt by many to be far superior to our modern wheat. I have personally known people who cannot eat our processed flours who have no problem with einkorn. This even includes those with celiac disease. It is not a trial you should undertake, though, without your doctor’s advice. Still considered “ancient” but slightly different than einkorn are “Durum” and “Emmer” wheat.

How do you use all of this information? Whether you bake your own bread or buy bakery bread, you need to learn to read food labels. Even among the same type of flour or bread, the ingredients will vary according to brand. Let’s start with flours.

If you like white flour but want it enriched, it will be easy for you. Most of the standard supermarket brands will be enriched. If you would prefer to stay away from enriched flours, you need to look at the labels carefully to make sure they don’t list those items. For example, Gold Medal All-Purpose flour’s label shows this: “Bleached Wheat Flour, Niacin, Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Enzymes, Folic Acid”. That is obviously enriched.

On the other hand, King Arthur All-Purpose flour has this ingredient list: “Unbleached Hard Red Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour”. No enrichment there. Bob’s Red Mill is another brand that has chosen not to enrich their white flour. A third one you can sometimes find in the stores is from Arrowhead Mills.

If you would rather get your nutrients in a whole form, opt for whole wheat flour. There should be at least a few options available where you shop. Baking with whole wheat flour, though, is not as simple as swapping it one-for-one for white flour. You should find recipes meant for whole wheat flours and do some experimenting.

Some people say they do not like the taste of whole wheat products as they are heavier and nuttier. There is a product called White Whole Wheat although not all companies make this. This type of flour is made from a different type of wheat but is still whole-grain. Baked goods using this will be lighter in texture and flavor. Not all brands make this product but King Arthur Flour does. I also saw a listing for a Kroger white whole wheat.

There are some wonderful whole wheat/grain bread recipes if you have the time to bake your own. Here are two that I have tried and liked.

If you do not want to make your own bread but just want to buy something acceptable, turn to the labels once again. Do not pay attention to the name of the bread as it can be confusing. The name might say whole wheat, multi-grain, all-natural, etc. This doesn’t really tell you much. What you want to see on the ingredient list is “whole grain” or “whole wheat”. Preferably, choose a bread where it says “100% whole-grain” or “100% whole-wheat”. At a minimum, you want the first ingredient to be whole wheat even if there are other ingredients following that. Even among different 100% whole grain products, look at the fiber content and buy the one that is highest. Try to avoid ones with added sugars. Looking at a number of 100% whole wheat breads in my local market showed the sugar content to vary from 1 gm to 4 gm per serving.

Just as you should check the labels on the store-bought bread, you should also check the nutritional facts for your home-made bread. Other than the preservatives (which I prefer to avoid) that are in the store-bought versions, the other nutritional facts may not be that different. For example, let’s look at this comparison. As you look at these, please note that one serving is one slice although the size of that slice might differ.

RecipeKing Arthur 100% Whole Wheat BreadKroger 100% Whole Wheat BreadPrivate Selection 100% Whole Wheat Bread
Serving Size1 slice/55 grams1 slice/34 gm1 slice/45 grams
Total Fat4 grams1 gram1.5 grams
Saturated Fat2 grams0 grams0 grams
Trans Fat0 grams0 grams0 grams
Cholesterol10 mg0 mg0 mg
Sodium230 mg200 mg270 mg
Total Carbs23 grams18 grams24 grams
Dietary Fiber4 grams2 grams4 grams
Total Sugars4 grams2 grams4 grams
Protein5 grams3 grams6 grams

I think most of us would agree that bread is delicious and very satisfying. It is not something, though, that should be eaten with abandon on a healthy diet. I hope with this information, you will be able to make the best choices for you.