Bread: Is Bread Bad For You?

Bread has been a major staple of the human diet for thousands of years.

As early as the Roman Empire, bread was a common accompaniment to most meals. Bread, in its many forms, continues to be the most regularly consumed food in the world due to its convenience, portability, nutrition and taste.

There are many different types of bread, some much healthier than others. There are leavened and unleavened breads, whole grain or whole meal breads, sweet breads, corn breads, flatbreads, breads made with ancient grains, soda bread and many, many more.

Present-day packaged and pre-sliced white bread is made of highly processed simple carbohydrate, which is digested quickly without providing many nutrients or benefits to the body.

Bread is made mostly of carbohydrate. Despite their bad reputation in the dieting world, carbohydrates are our bodies preferred source of fuel.

The healthiest sources of carbohydrate – fruits, vegetables, beans and minimally processed grains – also provide vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals.

Carbohydrate to your body is like fuel to a car. If there is no fuel, the car will not go very far. If there is high-quality fuel, the car will run more efficiently. Highly processed carbohydrate like white breads, refined pasta, cakes, donuts and candy bars are like cheap fuel – they are digested very quickly and may give you a quick surge of energy, but you are left feeling hungry, drained or craving more fuel soon after.

“Simple” carbohydrates (also known as refined carbohydrates) spike the blood sugar soon after eating and have no nutrient or fiber buffer to help keep us full or satiated. A high intake of simple carbohydrates can lead to weight gain and a higher risk for diabetes, heart disease and other lifestyle-related chronic conditions.

The best thing since sliced bread?

Almost a century ago, sliced white bread became a huge success, a popular household staple, and a cultural phenomenon. It was actually a sign of wealth if you could afford processed bread.

sliced white bread
The grain is processed to remove the bran and the germ portions in white bread. Whatever its shape or size, white bread is always made with refined flour.

To make white bread or white flour, the grain must be processed to remove the bran and the germ portions, leaving only the endosperm.

In this process, the product gains a finer, lighter texture, and shelf life is extended, but in turn you lose most or all of the fiber, vitaminsand minerals. The remaining endosperm provides quick-digesting carbohydrate but little else.

When certain widespread nutrient deficiencies became evident, “enriched” flours were born. Manufacturers fortified the processed white flour with some of the missing nutrients using supplements likefolate and other B-vitamins.

However, supplemental vitamins are not as good as the real thing. Our bodies cannot absorb or utilize nutrients as well as when they come from the real, unprocessed source.

How to find whole grains

When choosing store-bought bread, look for the word “whole” as the first word in the ingredient list. This ensures that all three parts of the grain are contained in the product. The definition of a whole grain, obtained from The Whole Grains Council, is as follows:1

“Whole grains or foods made from them contain all the essential parts and naturally-occurring nutrients of the entire grain seed in their original proportions. If the grain has been processed (e.g., cracked, crushed, rolled, extruded or cooked), the food product should deliver the same rich balance of nutrients that are found in the original grain seed.

This definition means that 100% of the original kernel – all of the bran, germ, and endosperm – must be present to qualify as a whole grain.”

Consuming 2-3 servings of whole grain foods per day can reduce the risk of:

  1. Cardiovascular disease
  2. Type 2 diabetes
  3. Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  4. Colon cancer
  5. Obesity.

As whole grain intake goes up, the risk for all five of these conditions goes down. That’s a pretty big deal.

whole grains in a box
All grains start life as whole grains. In their natural state growing in the fields, whole grains are the entire seed of a plant.

Beware of grain foods labeled:

  • Multigrain
  • Wheat bread
  • Organic flour
  • Bran
  • Wheat germ
  • Unbleached wheat flour
  • 100% wheat.

None of these terms guarantees a whole grain product. As with a lot of packaged products, just because something looks or sounds healthy does not mean that it is. Skip the claims on the front of the label and go straight to the ingredient list.

We should all be aiming to consume 48 grams of whole grains per day (equivalent to 3 servings of 16 g of whole grains).

Despite all the great things whole grains can do for our bodies, Americans consume on average less than 1 serving of whole grains per day. Fewer than 5% of us get the recommended 48 g per day.

Choosing good bread

Unfortunately, making sure you buy bread with the word “whole” as the first ingredient still does not guarantee you are buying a healthy product. It is only the first step. Even whole grain breads can have upwards of 20 ingredients, most of which are hard to pronounce and do not bring the word “food” to mind when reading.

Look for bread with a short list of ingredients that you can pronounce and recognize. Buy freshly baked breads with minimal preservatives whenever possible and store the bread in the refrigerator or freezer to maintain freshness.

Many types of bread have added sugars or sugar substitutes. Avoid those with corn syrup or any ingredient ending in “-ose” listed at the beginning of the ingredient list. Ingredients lists are ordered by the amount of ingredient it contains, so if corn syrup or cane sugar is in the top 3 ingredients, you may want to put that bread back on the shelf.

To step it up a notch and get even healthier, look for bread made with sprouted grains. When a grain is sprouted, its nutrients become easier to digest and more available to the body for use.

Bread made with sprouted grains is often higher in protein, fiber, vitamin C, folate and other nutrients. Ezekiel bread is a type of bread made with only sprouted grains and no flour. Sprouted grain breads should also be kept in the refrigerator or freezer.

Examples of whole grain, sprouted breads with minimal or no added sugars or preservatives:

As you can see, the answer to the question “is bread bad for you?” is not black and white. There are breads that certainly would not be considered healthful and contribute to weight gain, spikes in blood sugar and other adverse conditions, just as there are breads that are nourishing and can be part of a healthy, balanced diet when eaten in moderation. It is up to you to choose whether the bread you are consuming is the former or the latter.