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Kathy Whelan

Posted on July 09, 2019

Nineteenth century English poet Robert Browning once said, “If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens.” A hundred years later, cookbook author Julia Child asked, “How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?” In the US, we have it all today: simple, handcrafted breads that could make a non-poet wax lyrical and bread so highly processed it should really go by another name. With such a range, it’s hard to know what to choose.

It helps to understand what happens before bread appears in our stores. All grains begin as whole grains, which have three parts: bran, germ and endosperm. Some breads are made with only whole grains in which all three parts are present. Most of a grain’s vitamins, minerals and other healthy compounds are found in the bran and germ, but these parts are stripped away when grains are refined (primarily to increase shelf life), leaving only the less nutritious endosperm. Although some nutrients lost in refining are required by federal regulations to be added back in, refined grains like white flour typically contain less fiber; this makes them less nutritious than whole grains because fiber helps lower cholesterol, blood pressure and body weight, reducing the risk of obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. In addition, sugar, salt and unhealthy chemicals are often added during processing to enhance the taste of refined grain breads.

Telling the difference between breads is not always easy. A recent Consumer Reports article does a good job of explaining the terms you may encounter on a bread’s ingredient label:

• “100% Whole Wheat” and “100% Whole Grains” mean exactly what they say: no refined grains here. Whole Grain can include other grains besides wheat, such as oats, brown rice and barley. As long as a bread is 100% whole grain, it’s just as nutritious as 100% Whole Wheat.

• “Made with Whole Grain” means only that some whole grains are present. The bread may contain mostly refined grains.

• “Multi-Grain” (or 7-grain, 12-grain, 16-grain, etc.) simply means the bread has more than one type of grain (or a specified number), but the label doesn’t say whether the grains are refined or whole. Look for whole grains toward the top of the list, which means they are a main ingredient. If whole grains are toward the bottom, they may just be sprinkled in or added as a topping.

• Even if bread isn’t 100% whole grain, a shorter ingredient list usually indicates that the bread is healthier, by virtue of being less processed, than one with a longer list.(

A few other things I’ve learned:

• Don’t judge a bread by its color. A darker shade may be due to food coloring: a pumpernickel loaf, for example, containing caramel coloring.

• White flour appears on ingredient lists as “wheat flour.”

• Compare sodium levels even among whole grain breads, especially if you’re trying to control your blood pressure. Fiber levels differ, too.

• Restaurants don’t generally state bread ingredients, so assume it’s not whole grain unless you know otherwise.

• The Fooducate app can save you time locating healthier options in the bread aisle of the grocery store. Helpfully, Fooducate lists reasons for its ratings.

You may be relieved to know that the government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans give us some flexibility here. By recommending that at least half our grains be whole grains, the Guidelines leave room for eating refined grains in lesser amounts. (This applies to all our grains, not just those found in bread.) If you’re unaccustomed to the taste of whole grains, even getting to this halfway point may take time. But I expect that after a while, you’ll enjoy that taste, and the less healthy breads you’ve been eating may even start tasting a bit like Kleenex.

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