While bread is synonymous with quick and easy meals (toast, PB&J, and grilled cheese, to name a few), the bread aisle in the grocery store isn’t nearly as straightforward. The options go far beyond wheat vs. white—and if you’re hoping to make a healthier choice, there’s a lot to learn. With the help of Katie Cavuto, MS, RD, we’ve decoded every type of slice—as well as what to look for in labels and how to pick the freshest loaf.
White Bread: Grain kernels are made up of three parts: the fiber-dense bran, the nutrient-rich germ, and the starchy endosperm. White bread is made from wheat kernels that have been processed to remove the bran and the germ, leaving only the endosperm. This results in a lighter texture and flavor—as well as fewer nutrients.
Wheat Bread: Wheat bread should not be confused with whole wheat bread. “Wheat bread merely means the product is made using wheat flour, which is another term for refined white flour,” Cayuto says.
Whole Wheat Bread: The word “whole” is crucial here: it means that the bran, the germ, and the endosperm of the wheat kernel have all been left intact. The bread is made up entirely of wheat kernels (as opposed to being mixed with other grains). It is a healthier choice than wheat bread.
White Whole Wheat Bread: White whole wheat bread is made from an albino whole wheat grain, which is lighter in taste and color than traditional varieties of wheat (which are red, and therefore darker in color). If you prefer the taste of white bread but want the nutrients and fiber found in wheat bread, this is a good option. Nutritionally, 100 percent white whole wheat bread is the same as whole wheat bread.
Whole Grain Bread: Similar to whole wheat bread, whole grain bread is made up of grains that are fully intact. In addition to wheat, whole grain bread can include other whole grains, such as whole barley, brown rice, whole grain oats, and rolled oats, among others (all of which are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals). Though whole wheat is the most popular type of whole grain, whole wheat bread is only one type of whole grain bread. They are the two healthiest options in the store, varying slightly in nutrition depending on the exact combination of grains.
Multigrain Bread: Though it sounds like a healthy choice (multiple types of grains!), there is no guarantee that multigrain bread is made with 100% whole grains—or that it is free of refined grains. It simply means that it contains more than one type of grain, such as wheat, oats, and quinoa. These grains may have been processed to remove their bran and germ, which strips them of nutritional value (including fiber and important nutrients). Because of this, it may not be as healthy as whole grain or whole wheat bread. Read the ingredient list, and look out for terms like “bleached” or “enriched,” which means the bread is not made up entirely of whole grains.
Sprouted Grain Bread: Sprouted grain breads are made using flours from sprouted grains, which are formed when grains are exposed to moist warm conditions. “The carbohydrates stored in the endosperm become more easily digestible, [and] sprouting is also thought to increase the bio-availability [the degree at which something is absorbed into your body] of some vitamins and minerals,” Cayuto says.
What’s the healthiest choice? Any bread made with 100 percent whole grains, whether it is whole wheat or whole grain, is the most nutritious option. But be careful: just because a label says “whole grain” doesn’t guarantee that the product contains exclusively whole grains, Cavuto says. The best way to learn about your loaf is to look at the stamps on the front of the packaging. If it bears the 100% Stamp, all of its grain ingredients are whole. These loafs also contain at least 16 grams (one full serving) of whole grain per serving, according to the Whole Grain Council. If it bears the Basic Stamp, it contains at least 8 grams (a half serving) of whole grains per serving, but may also contain some refined grain.
If you’re going to eat the loaf quickly, your best choice is a bakery-fresh loaf of whole grain bread, Cavuto says. But you can still make a healthy choice among packaged breads. In addition to being 100 percent whole grain, “healthy bread should contain at least 3 grams of fiber, less than 200 mg of sodium, and less than 2 grams of sugar per slice,” Cavuto says (she prefers this whole grain Arnold loaf). “Focus your intentions on nutrient density and ingredient quality instead of calories alone. Avoid artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives whenever possible.”
How long will a loaf of bread keep? While bakery loafs last for two to three days (a few more if toasted), packaged breads stay fresh for a week or two (toss at any signs of mold), and can be frozen for up to three months. The best method to determine freshness is to look at the sell-by date. “Most people agree that packaged bread will still be fresh about one week past the sell-by date, though it depends on the brand and the presence or lack of preservatives.”
Now that you you’re a pro at navigating the bread aisle, it’s time to build the best sandwich, ever.