"I love bread," Oprah professes in a popular recent commercial. Anyone who's ever sunk their teeth into a crusty baguette or a warm slice of fresh sourdough can probably relate.
But when it comes to whether or not bread is bad for us, there's some conflicting information out there. Low-carbers think it's a bad idea, while others believe this longtime staple of the table can be enjoyed in moderation. What's the real story? Is bread unhealthy? Or can it be part of a wholesome, balanced diet?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating roughly six one-ounce servings of grains a day -- and that includes bread. But not all bread is created equal; it's increasingly hard to walk into the average grocery store and pick out a loaf that's wholesome and nutritious. Here's what you need to know to buy bread that you can feel good about feeding to yourself and your family.
Focus on the Facts
Catchy slogans on the front of the package such as "double-fiber," "added flax seed," or "made from ancient grains" may sound helpful, but they're mostly marketing jargon and can often be misleading. To find out what's really in your bread, flip over the package and check out the Nutrition Facts label and the ingredient list. The Nutrition Facts reveal key details about the nutrients in your food, including carbohydrate, protein, fat, sugar, and fiber content. Its companion, the ingredient list, tells you exactly what's in your food in order of greatest amount to least, with no marketing hype to cloud the issue.
Look for loaves that list whole grains (whole wheat, spelt, barley, etc.) or 100 percent whole-grain flours at the top of the ingredient list. People who regularly eat whole grains tend to weigh less and have a lower risk for cardiovascular disease than people who favor refined grains such as those found in white bread (i). What about wheat flour? Even though this may sound healthful, wheat flour is simply processed white flour made from wheat. Because the most nutritious parts of the wheat kernel have been stripped away, it lacks the vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and fiber that you'd get from whole grains.
Keep Servings Sensible
Bread itself isn't fattening. In fact, a one-ounce slice of whole-wheat only contains about 70 calories. Oversized slices, on the other hand, can cause calories to add up quickly. Aim for slices that weigh one to one-and-a-half ounces and deliver no more than 120 calories.
Fiber does more than improve digestive health -- it also fills you up, which can help you eat less overall. Seek out breads with at least two grams of fiber per serving or slice. You'll also want to probe the ingredient list to make sure that your fiber is coming from whole grains rather than added fiber in the form of inulin, chicory root, or cellulose. Even though these provide roughage, they lack the other the beneficial nutrients that make whole grains so good for you.
Bread may not taste salty, but it's actually the top source of sodium in the American diet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and excess sodium intake can raise blood pressure. Considering that 89 percent of U.S. adults consume too much sodium, also according to the CDC, avoiding foods with high amounts of this mineral is key. Choosing a bread with no more than 150 milligrams of sodium per slice can help you keep your intake in check.
Companies sometimes add sugar to bread to make it brown or improve its taste. While a small amount isn't cause for concern, steer clear of breads that contain upwards of three grams per slice or serving. In addition to scanning the ingredient list for the word "sugar," be on the lookout for less-obvious forms as well, such as high-fructose corn syrup, honey, or fruit juice. Try to avoid breads that contain artificial sweeteners, too: These only serve to confuse your sweet tooth by adding a sugary flavor where it doesn't belong.
So, is bread unhealthy? Not necessarily. If you read the label carefully, compare brands, and choose the most nutritious bread possible, you can feel good about incorporating this delicious food as part of an overall healthy diet.