The Best Bread: Tips for Buying Breads

How to decipher labels and choose the healthiest bread.

From the WebMD Archives

Every time you eat bread -- be it a bagel, an English muffin, or part of a sandwich -- you've got an opportunity to improve your diet. For most Americans, choosing whole-wheat bread products most of the time is the easiest way to eat more super-healthy whole grains. But when you're standing in front of the bread array in the supermarket, reading the various label claims, just how do you know which is the best bread to buy?

Choosing the best bread can be confusing. Here are three bread myths that help make it that way:

Bread Myth No. 1: If it looks brown and has the word "wheat" in the name, it has lots of fiber and whole grain.

The Truth: The first ingredient listed on the ingredient label tells the story. If it's "wheat flour" or "enriched bleached flour" (or similar), that tells you white flour was mostly used, not "whole-wheat flour."

Bread Myth No. 2: Breads with healthy sounding names like "seven-grain" or "100% natural" are the best choices.

The Truth: Just because the name of the bread on the package sounds super-healthy, it doesn’t mean the bread actually is. Oroweat’s seven-grain and 12-grain breads, for example, list "unbleached enriched flour" as their first ingredient. Nature’s Pride 100% Natural Honey Wheat bread, likewise, is mainly made with "wheat flour," not whole wheat.

Bread Myth: Rye bread is a 100% whole-grain, high-fiber choice.

The Truth: The first ingredient listed on the label of most brand brands of rye bread, from Russian Rye or Jewish Rye to Dark Rye or Extra Sour Rye, is none other than unbleached enriched flour. The second ingredient is usually water, and the third, rye flour. That explains why most rye breads have only 1 gram of fiber per slice (one dark rye in my supermarket has less than that). So, rye bread isn't usually 100% whole grain (although there might be some enlightened brands out there I haven't seen yet). I wouldn't call them high in fiber, either.

How to Buy the Best Bread

Best Bread Tip No. 1: Go for 100%

Just "whole wheat" doesn't cut it. Neither does "made with whole grain," Look for labels that say "100% whole wheat" or "100% whole grain," and don't settle for anything less. If it’s 100% whole wheat, the first ingredient listed in the ingredient label will be whole-wheat flour or 100% whole-wheat flour.

You want whole grains because they're naturally low in fat and cholesterol free; contain 10% to 15% protein, and offer loads of healthy fiber, resistant starch, minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and often, phytoesterogrens (plant estrogens). With all those nutrients in one package, it’s no wonder whole grains provide so many health benefits, including protection from heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and some cancers.

Best Bread Tip No. 2: Watch the Sodium.

Most bread products come with a dose of sodium, which is added to help control the yeast activity and for flavor. If you eat three servings of whole grain bread a day, and each slice has about 200 milligrams of sodium, that contributes 600 milligrams to your daily sodium total. It may not sound like much, but it represents one-third of your limit if you're trying to stay within 1,800 milligrams a day.

The good news is that there are plenty of breads with 200 milligrams or less of sodium per slice. See the table below for some of your best bread choices that aren't too high in sodium.

Best Bread Tip No. 3: Serving Size Matters.

When comparing bread products, look carefully at the serving size on the label. Some bread slices are much larger than others. In the table below, you will find the weight of the serving listed, for comparison's sake.

Best Bread Tip No. 4. Diet or "Light" Isn't Always Better.

There are several brands of bread that are promoted as being lower in calories. They usually have the word "light" in the name or on the packaging. Often, "light" bread means a smaller serving size and a product that is pumped with some extra fiber. For example, Sara Lee has a "45 Calories & Delightful" whole-wheat bread. Although the 45 calories is "per 1 slice," the nutrition information on the label is given for 2 slices. The weight of a 2-slice serving of this bread is 45 grams, compared to Sara Lee's classic 100% whole-wheat classic bread, which weighs 57 grams per 2-slice serving.

With Thomas English Muffins, it's more about extra fiber adding bulk without calories. A serving of Thomas' "Light" Multigrain English Muffins weighs the same as a serving of their 100% Whole Wheat English Muffins. The big difference is that the Light English Muffins have 8 grams of fiber, compared to 3 grams in the 100% whole-wheat type.

Best Bread Choices in Chain Supermarkets

All of the following bread products have:

  • 4 grams of fiber per 2-slice serving (or similar).
  • 100% whole wheat flour as the first ingredient on the label.
  • Less than 401 mg sodium per 2-slice serving,
  • 1 gram saturated fat or less per 2-slice serving (most have zero saturated fat).

English Muffins (1 whole) Calories Fiber Sodium Carbs Protein

Oroweat Whole Grain & Flax (64 g) 150 5 160 29 5

(contributes 14 mg heart-healthy omega-3s)

Oroweat 100% Whole Wheat (59 g) 130 4 240 25 5

Bagel and Buns (1 whole) Calories Fiber Sodium Carbs Protein

Oroweat Whole Grain 100% Whole

Wheat Hamburger Bun (71 g) 180 6 350 31 8

Oroweat Whole Grain 100% Whole

Wheat Hotdog Bun (56 g) 160 6 320 28 8

Thomas Hearty Grains 100% Whole

Wheat Bagels (95 g) 240 7 400 49 10

Pita Pockets (1 whole) Calories Fiber Sodium Carbs Protein

Thomas Sahara Pita Pockets

100% Whole Wheat (57 g) 140 4 320 28 6

Toufayan Multi-grain Pita (69 g) 173 4 288 35 8

Sliced Bread (2 slices) Calories Fiber Sodium Carbs Protein

Milton’s Whole Grain Plus

Bread (76 g) 180 10 250 32 8

Oroweat Country 100% Whole

Wheat (76 g) 200 6 360 36 8

Oroweat Protein Health (86 g) 200 6 360 36 12

Sara Lee Hearty & Delicious 100%

Multi-Grain (86 g) 240 6 400 42 10

Nature’s Pride 100% Whole

Wheat (56 g) 140 4 300 26 6

(Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the "Recipe Doctor" for WebMD and the author of numerous books on nutrition and health. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.)