How to Choose a Whole-wheat Bread

Beware: Multigrain does not mean whole grain.

In truth, the higher fibre content of whole-wheat bread makes it more nutritious than white bread. But the quality of a bread goes well beyond its fibre content. The nature of the fibre matters.

The subtle difference between whole wheat and whole grain

A wheat kernel has three parts:

  • Starch (endosperm)
  • Bran
  • Germ

When wheat is milled, the three parts of the kernel are separated, then recombined to make whole-wheat flour. According to Canada’s Food and Drug Regulations, whole-wheat flour must contain at least 95% of the wheat’s natural components. Most of the time, the 5% removed contains most of the wheat germ and some of the bran. Unfortunately, these two parts of the grain contain most of the nutrients (and the fibre), most of the vitamins and minerals, as well as the antioxidants. Hence, whole-wheat flour that does not contain 100% of the grain does not qualify as “whole grain.”

However, there are whole-grain breads that do contain all the parts of the grain. To find them, look for these words at the top of the ingredient list:

  • Whole grain flour
  • Whole-grain wheat flour
  • Whole-grain or stone-ground (wheat, rye, etc.) flour
  • Whole-grain wheat flour with wheat germ

On the Québec market, there are more than 200 breads claiming to contain various whole grains. Making a wise choice can be quite confusing.

When whole-wheat flour is really white flour in disguise

You might think that white flour is present only in white bread. However, a quick look at ingredient lists reveals that several so-called “whole-wheat” breads can contain up to 40% white or enriched flour, devoid of bran and wheat germ. Here are some terms that will help you spot the white flour:

  • Flour
  • Wheat flour
  • Enriched flour
  • Unbleached flour
  • Untreated wheat flour
  • Sifted wheat flour

Beware: “multigrain” does not mean whole grain. Multigrain breads may contain white flour only, with some added grains, usually not in whole-grain form.

White bread with whole grains and fibre

A white bread with all the benefits of whole grain – too good to be true? Unfortunately, yes.

Fibre promotes bowel regularity. It absorbs water and swells, increasing stool volume and reducing the risk of constipation. But this fibre benefit depends on the size of the bran and the fibre particles. If they are too refined, they lose their laxative properties.

To have any effect on bowel regularity, the bran particles in the bread must be visible to the naked eye.

In the new white whole-grain breads, the fibre is ground into fine particles to obtain a smooth, uniform and almost white crumb, but this milling process often grinds the fibre so finely that it loses much of its beneficial effect.

In white whole-wheat bread, the fibre is ground so finely that it loses its properties.

Sometimes, the industry adds fibre concentrates (inulin, oat-hull fibre, oat bran, beet fibre, etc.) to increase the content of dietary fibre. You need to watch out for these ingredients, because they don’t always have the same nutritional value as whole grains, which contain all parts of the kernel.

To learn more about fibre and its properties, visit our web page on dietary fibre.

A slice of bread and the reference serving size

Canada’s Food Guide’s reference serving size for a slice of bread is 35 g , but in reality a slice of bread can vary greatly, from 20 g to 100 g. Thus, the amount of carbohydrates can also deviate from the traditional 15 g per slice. Hence the importance of always reading the Nutrition Facts table on the label to learn the exact carbohydrate and fibre count in the bread you eat. And don’t forget to check the reference serving size: one or two slices of bread.

Meal Planning for People with Diabetes suggests these serving sizes for bread:

Type of bread Serving Amount of Carbohydrates
White bread, white bread enriched bread with fibre, whole-wheat bread, multigrain bread, rye bread, raisin bread 1 slice (30 g) 15 g
French bread (baguette) 1 slice, 5 cm in length (30 g) 15 g
Light bread (Weight Watchers®) 2 slices 15 g

Sliced bread versus artisan bread: watch your portions

It may be tempting from time to time to purchase artisan bread at the bakery around the corner or even at the grocery store. However, you must be careful about serving size. If the bread is unsliced, you must be sure that the portion you eat is close to the reference serving size (30 g). In most cases, artisan-bread packaging does not have a nutrition label. Therefore, it’s impossible to know how much carbohydrate and fibre a serving contains. What’s more, there is often no list of ingredients.

Nutritional claims

  • “Sugar Free” or “Fat Free”

It is not unusual to find bread whose packaging claims that it is Sugar Free or Fat Free. Inherently, bread is not a source of fat or simple sugars. Fat is not a necessary ingredient for making bread. As for sugar, the amount added is usually minimal. Sugar is used to feed the yeast that makes the bread rise. Thus, a bread that claims to be sugar free or fat free is not necessarily the best choice in terms of nutritional value, even less so if the first ingredient listed is white flour.

  • ”Glucose-Fructose Free”

This claim means that no sugar in the form of glucose or fructose has been added to the product. However, nothing guarantees that other types of sugar (honey, brown sugar, etc.) have not been added. The ingredient list is your best guide to the other types of sugar that may have been added to the bread.

  • “No preservatives or chemical additives”

This means that no product to increase the shelf life or modify the texture or colour of the bread has been added. You should store this kind of bread in the refrigerator and eat it soon because it doesn’t keep well in a warm room and goes mouldy quickly.

 

Adapted from: Boisvert, L., Dietitian (Fall 2011) “Les pains de « blé entier », comment s’y retrouver?” Plein Soleil, Diabetes Québec, pp. 30-32.

June 2014 (updated on July 2018)

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