Gone are the days when buying sliced bread was simply a matter of choosing between white, whole wheat or rye. Today, breads are made with added flax, chia and hemp seeds, quinoa, spelt, sprouted grains, even extra protein. Some loaves promise heart health, while others claim digestive and weight-control benefits.
But a healthy-sounding name doesn't mean that a loaf of bread is jam-packed with whole grains – or has any, for that matter. And two slices might deliver more sodium, added sugar and calories than you want.
When comparing the calorie, fibre and sodium contents of different breads, do so for a similar serving size, which is given in weight (grams) and the number of slices. Labels of small loaves of bread usually state nutrition information for two slices, whereas larger loaves typically list nutrient numbers for one slice; if you make a sandwich with two large slices of bread, you may need to double the numbers.
Use the following tips to guide you through the bread aisle.
Choose 100-per-cent whole grain
Whole grain breads are made with flours that contain the entire grain – the outer bran layer, where nearly all the fibre is, the germ layer rich in nutrients and the endosperm, which contains the starch. When whole grains are processed into refined flour (i.e., white flour), all that's left is the starch.
Breads labelled 100-per-cent whole grain are made entirely from whole-grain flour – they don't contain any refined flour. If the label doesn't say so, read the ingredient list and look for words such as whole-grain whole wheat, cracked wheat, whole rye, rye meal, rye kernels, whole spelt, oats, brown rice meal and flaxseed.
Enriched flour, wheat flour, unbleached wheat flour and rye flour are not whole grain; they are other names for refined (white) flour.
Next best: Choose a bread that is predominantly whole grain, meaning the first ingredient is whole grain. (Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight.)
Look for fibre
Whole-grain breads naturally have more fibre than white bread, but some brands deliver even more by adding flaxseed, oats, oat bran, psyllium, barley kernels, wheat bran, peas or soy flour.
Choose bread that has at least two grams of fibre per 30-gram slice or three grams per 45-gram slice.
Salt is added to bread to enhance flavour and aid in processing. Two slices of bread add roughly 170 to 360 milligrams of sodium to your diet.
Depending on what you're putting between those two slices of bread – think smoked turkey, ham, tuna – your meal may be supplying more sodium than you realize.
Choose whole-grain bread with less than 200 mg of sodium a slice. Healthy adults need no more than 1,200 to 1,500 mg of sodium a day, depending on age.
Limit added sugar
Read the ingredient list and you'll usually find added sugar in commercial breads, be it sugar/glucose-fructose, molasses, brown sugar, honey, raisin syrup or raisin juice concentrate. In some cases, sugar ranks second or third on the ingredient list.
Sugar imparts sweetness and texture to bread. It also serves to slow moisture loss, preventing bread from becoming stale as quickly.
Most breads contain two to six grams of sugar per two-slice serving. Some, such as Dempster's 100-per-cent Whole Grains Seed Lover's Bread and Dimpflmeier Organic 100-per-cent Rye Bread with Wholegrain, have none. Others, however, can serve up as much as 10 g of sugar (2 1/2 teaspoons' worth) per two-slice serving. That's a lot, considering recent guidelines advise that women cut back to no more than 24 g (six teaspoons) of added sugar per day and men no more than 36 g (nine tsp).
Be mindful of portion size
According to Canada's Food Guide, one serving of bread weighs in at 35 g and about 70 calories. But loaves of bread have grown in size over the years.
Many slices of whole-grain bread weigh 45 g and have as many as 120 calories, in part due to the addition of whole-grain ingredients and seeds. That's not a bad thing: Bigger slices offer more whole grains and fibre. But if you're watching your weight, you may not want the extra calories. Check the nutrition facts box; depending on the bread you choose, one slice may count as two servings.
Look for 100-per-cent whole-grain bread with at least 2 g of fibre per 30 g slice, less than 200 mg of sodium a slice and as little sugar as possible.
While there are other smart choices, here are five whole-grain breads that make the grade (note: these are not gluten-free).
ACE Bakery Organic Granary Bread
Per slice (37.5 grams): 110 calories, 3 g fibre, 3 g sugar, 4 g protein, 125 mg sodium
Country Harvest Seeds & Grains
Per slice (45 g): 120 calories, 4 g fibre, 3 g sugar, 5 g protein, 135 mg sodium
Dempster's 100% Whole Grains Seed Lover's Bread
Per slice (43 g): 110 calories, 4 g fibre, 0 g sugar, 5 g protein, 140 mg sodium
ShaSha Organic Chia and Poppy Seed Spelt Bread
Per slice (30 g): 60 calories, 2 g fibre, 0.5 g sugar, 2 g protein, 65 mg sodium
Stonemill Bakehouse Sprouted 3 Grains
Per slice (30 g): 75 calories, fibre, 0.5 g sugar, 4.5 g protein, 95 mg sodium
Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto.