Slices of bread
Photo: John Walsh/Consumer Reports

For many Americans, eating bread may feel like a guilty pleasure. They worry that it’s loaded with carbs and low in nutrients—sure to spark weight gain—and will put them on the road to a variety of health problems.

With all these notions about bread floating around, you might not know if the concerns are valid or overblown. Bottom line: If you enjoy bread, “you don’t have to avoid it,” says Amy Keating, RD, a CR nutritionist.

Selecting a healthy loaf from the array in the supermarket—one packed with whole grains and low in added sugars and sodium—isn’t as easy as it should be, though. CR experts saw that firsthand in their recent review of the nutrition, ingredients, and labeling on dozens of popular packaged sliced breads.

more on bread & whole grains

Our nutrition pros expected that unraveling the terms on bread labels would be challenging. (See “Behind the Grain Claims,” below.) But even they were surprised at just how often a product was less healthy than it first seemed. And CR evaluated only those that, at least at an initial glance, would appear to be nutritious, such as 12-grain and multigrain breads.

“Less than half the breads we looked at that were labeled multigrain, oat, or made with whole grain, for instance, contained only whole-grain flours,” Keating says. “And even all-whole-grain breads can be surprising sources of added sugars, sodium, and additives that you may want to eat less of.”

This all may seem confusing enough to make you want to give up these grain goods altogether. No need. We’re separating the myths from the truth when it comes to bread. 

Myth: Bread Is Just Empty Calories

Grains have three parts: the endosperm, bran, and germ. White flour is made just from the endosperm, while whole wheat contains all three parts. And many of a grain’s nutrients are in the latter two components.

White bread does offer some protein, and most commercial loaves are made from flour enriched with B vitamins and iron. Bread that’s primarily whole grain, however, has a lot more going for it. In addition to B vitamins and iron, it supplies vitamin E, minerals such as zinc and magnesium, flavonoids and other antioxidants, protein, and fiber.

Most adults should have six servings of grains a day, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. At least half of these should be whole grains.

But on average, we eat less than one daily helping of whole grains, which is a reason whole-grain bread can have a place as part of a healthy diet, Keating says: “Giving up bread would mean eliminating one of easiest ways to work whole grains into your diet.”

Myth: Eating Bread Leads to Weight Gain

Bread isn’t particularly high in calories. About half the products we looked at had 80 to 110 calories per slice, and the fiber in whole-grain bread is filling.

But some evidence suggests that white bread may widen the waistline, possibly due to its meager fiber—1 gram or less per slice compared with 2 or more in whole-grain bread—and its potentially appetite-stimulating effects on blood sugar. A 2014 study in the journal BMC Public Health that followed people for an average of five years found that those who ate a lot of white bread—six slices a day vs. three or fewer a week—were more likely to be overweight or obese. And a 2015 review in the British Journal of Nutrition linked white bread with excess belly fat.

Whole-grain bread appears to be less likely to spur weight gain. For instance, a study in The Journal of Nutrition of more than 3,000 middle-aged and older adults found that those who ate three or more whole-grain servings a day—primarily whole-wheat bread and cold cereal—had smaller waist-size increases as they aged than those who got less than a half serving. Still other studies have linked diets that included whole-grain bread either with a lower body mass index and less likelihood of being overweight or with no increase or decrease in BMI, weight, or waist size.

Myth: It’s Best to Avoid All Grains, Even Whole Ones

Some trendy diet plans hold that grains in general are responsible not just for excess weight but also for diabetes, dementia, and a host of other ills. But a large body of research shows that whole grains, including bread, cut the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. Whole grains may also tame inflammation and boost healthy gut bacteria and immune system function.

Gluten is another reason some say to shy away from certain grains. Found in wheat, rye, and barley, this protein can cause problems for the approximately 7 percent of Americans with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. But for others, there’s very little evidence that avoiding it has health benefits.

And gluten-free bread may not be a healthier choice. “Most gluten-free flours and products are not enriched, which means they will be lower in nutrients compared to even white breads,” says Nicola McKeown, PhD, a nutrition epidemiologist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston. Gluten-free breads are also likely to be lower in fiber than whole wheat, though it depends on the flour used to make them, she adds.

Myth: Multigrain, Whole Grain, and Whole Wheat Are the Same

Not necessarily. “It doesn’t make sense, but ‘multigrain,’ ‘made with whole grain,’ and similar terms can mean one thing on one loaf and something else on another; the terms aren’t regulated,” CR’s Keating says. “They imply that the bread is all whole grain, but there could actually be very little whole grains in there. It’s very misleading.”

Case in point: A study published in 2020 in the journal Public Health Nutrition found that based on packaging claims, almost half the participants overestimated the amount of whole grain in breads and crackers primarily made with refined grains.

“In our bread review, we found the only claims that you can count on to mean a bread has no refined flours are ‘100 percent whole grain’ or ‘100 percent whole wheat,’ ” Keating says. 

Find a Healthier Loaf

Breads that have a whole grain such as whole-wheat flour or sprouted wheat mentioned first in their ingredients list—like 365 Whole Foods Market Organic Ancient Grains—usually have no refined grains. Some breads also list the number of grams of whole grains in a slice (16 grams is considered a serving). “The more whole grains, the better. But it’s not the only criteria for a healthy bread,” Keating says. Consider these points when you’re standing in the bread aisle.

Too much sugar? Look beyond the “no high fructose corn syrup” claims for other sources of added sugars, such as cane sugar or honey. Some breads, such as Arnold Organic 22 Grains and Seeds, have 4 grams or more per slice, but 2 grams or less is best.

Watch the sodium count. Breads without salt can taste bland, but some have more than they need for flavor (and bread is a top source of sodium in the U.S. diet). Choose those with about 150 mg or less a slice. Schmidt Old Tyme 100% Whole Wheat has just 110 mg.

The wrong kind of fiber? Many brands tout their fiber. But more than 2 or 3 grams a slice could mean processed fiber has been added, which may not be as good for you. Pepperidge Farms Whole Grain 100% Whole Wheat has 4 grams, some from sugarcane fiber.

Nuts and seeds are good, too. As long as the bread you choose is all whole grain, getting one with nuts and seeds, like Dave’s Killer Bread Organic Powerseed, can mean nice extras: healthy fats and a bit more fiber. 

Make Bread at Home

One way to ensure you’re getting a whole-grain loaf is to bake it yourself. (If mixing and kneading aren’t your thing, a bread machine does all the work for you.) “Look for a recipe where at least half—and preferably all—the flour is whole grain,” Keating says. For optimal results, pick a one that was created with whole grains rather than trying to swap out the flours in a recipe for white bread. Otherwise, you may need to alter the amount of yeast and liquids. A recipe that lists ingredients by weight instead of volume also leads to a better outcome. (Use a digital kitchen scale.)

BEHIND THE GRAIN CLAIMS
How to make sense of
confusing label lingo
100% whole grain,
100% whole wheat
What it means: All grains are whole;
none are refined.
Made with whole grains, made with whole wheat
What it means: These breads have some whole grains, but there’s no set amount. So quite a bit of the grains may be refined.
Multigrain/15 grain
What it means: These contain a mix of grains, but all aren’t necessarily whole. After all, white flour counts as a grain.
Wheat
What it means: This simply tells you the type of grain used in the bread, not whether the wheat used is whole or refined.
Honey wheat
What it means: Unless accompanied by a 100% whole-grain claim, this bread is probably made mostly with white flour.
Ancient grains
What it means: Often used for breads with grains bred the way they were years ago, such as amaranth, spelt, or kamut. These are whole grains, but breads that use this term may still contain refined grains.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the October 2021 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.