ThinkstockThe bread section is the grocery market aisle many of us frequent the most. It's also the most confusing. Faced with labels ranging from "organic whole wheat" to "seven grain" to "flax and grains," it's enough to make your head spin. But the decisions you make in this aisle affect your health, along with your risk of chronic disease, in a big way. Consider this your shopping guide to help you bag a loaf that'll add years to your life, instead of taking away from it.
The Health Risks of White Bread
Good, old-fashioned white bread? It's no more than an enormous sugar cube. It will shoot your blood sugar to the roof and take it back down just as quickly and steeply as it turned it up. Along for the ride is insulin (sugar's chaperone), needed to take sugar into your cells so it can be used for energy. This roller coaster of blood sugar has been shown to increase your risk of heart attack, stroke, fatty liver, obesity and diabetes. It's also a real beauty buster, proven to speed up the formation of wrinkles and cause your skin to look dull and lifeless. White bread is created using enriched or bleached wheat flours. These flours have had their protein and important B vitamins stripped to create a product that is sweeter and more palatable for the average consumer.
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But this article isn't about white bread. After all, most of us know that white bread is a questionable decision; it's about all the other varieties where we remained confused.
The "Good" Breads
Whole wheat. Rye. Pumpernickel. Gluten-free. Which bread is beast for your health?
The most important aspect to look for in bread choice is that it's 100-percent whole grain. Ideally, you'll see this percentage on the front of the packaging. If the package says "wheat" or "contains "x" number of whole grains" or even "multigrain," chances are it's white bread in disguise. Why go 100-percent whole grain? For starters, whole grains will provide you with a great source of fiber, which helps in the prevention of heart disease and colon cancer. Fiber also helps to keep you fuller, longer, so that you can eat less throughout the day and maintain your weight. Whole grains also retain essential B vitamins and protein as well, which means your getting nutrients needed for youthful skin as well as protein for great hair!
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Even though I advise you to keep simple sugars and syrups out of the first five ingredients of any product, bread gets a free pass here since sugar is needed to activate yeast. My rule of thumb is to first find a great tasting 100-percent whole wheat bread (with the percentage displayed) and aim for sugar to come in at ingredient number three or four.
Not all good-for-you breads have the 100-percent label on it, so for those that don't, use these tips to help you make the right decision. If you're still confused, simply look at the grams of fiber; any less than two probably means your looking at a refined product.
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Whole Wheat White Bread
Whole-wheat white breads are made with a type of wheat called albino wheat. While red wheat (used to make whole wheat products) has that golden color that we imagine when we think of whole grain breads, albino is much lighter and less processed. At first, this may seem like a perfect choice for kids or white bread adult fans, but beware. While the majority of whole-wheat white breads do have whole grain wheat in the ingredient list, it's usually followed by refined wheat ingredients such as enriched of refined wheat flour.
Made with coarse brown rye, pumpernickel can be the trickiest bread to decipher. While its extreme dark color may indicate a whole grain bread option, it still may be made with refined flours and in fact, most commercially made breads often are. If you see any other grain other than rye listed on the ingredients panel, it's probably not a great choice.
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Basically white bread dressed up in a pretty bow, wheat bread is white bread with molasses usually thrown in to fool you with some dark color. Wheat bread still contains refined wheat and chances are, you're getting absolutely no whole grains in the product.
No deception here, multigrain is what it claims to be-a variety of grains. The problem is, none of those grains may be whole. While it's easy to be fooled by some of the seeds that often sit on top of multi grain breads, the ingredient label will tell you the whole truth. If you don't see any 100-percent whole grains in the product and you don't see that trusting percentage on the front of the bread label, keep on walking.
White bread with rye seeds in it; finding one that's 100-percent whole rye is possible, but not easy. I've found it's easier to get 100-percent rye bread at local bakeries that are willing to make it for you by request.
Gluten is huge right now and easier to find in even smaller grocery store chains. The percentage of individuals that are either suffering from celiac disease or who just claim to have intolerance to gluten is rising. The rules for bread choosing remain the same, however. Because gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley, these breads will use other grains to make them free of gluten, Regardless of the grain, however, make sure it's 100 percent. For example, whole grain gluten free breads may be made with brown rice flour. If it is, look for options again that claim the important 100-percent claim.
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Hopefully this article makes you raise an eyebrow at the breads that you thought were healthy. Good ones are out there, you just need to look. Perhaps more importantly, you need to go into your decision armed with the knowledge that manufacturers are hoping you'll be confused!
- Kristin Kirkpatrick, R.D.
What's your go-to bread?