How to Buy Bread [miniseries part 1]

Bread, oh bread. For some, an art form. For others, a guilty pleasure. For shoppers in a supermarket, a torturous decision process exacerbated by hundreds of brands, products, labels, health claims, and confusingly long ingredient lists.

Here is Fooducate’s attempt to simplify the process.

What you need to know:

You can make bread at home with just four ingredients: flour, water, yeast, and salt. If you do it right, the result is exquisite. Bakers who have mastered the proper technique produce batches of bread that are so delectable you want to eat them without any additions. The problem with these breads is that they have the shelf-life of an over ripe banana. They go hard in one day, and within 3 start to grow mold.

In Paris, there is an elegant solution – boulangeries (bakeries) are situated in almost every block, and denizen can walk down in their PJs early in the morning to pick up a fresh baguette or two for the day. The next morning, another fresh baguette.

But in the US, where many families shop just once or twice a week and bread is made in far away factories, it requires a long shelf life. The longer the better, as in weeks. In addition, the techniques used in small bakery batches don’t work well for large scale bread manufacturing facilities. For the reasons mentioned above, many additives are thrown into the dough mix. They help raise the dough faster, improve the crumb (texture), and keep the bread nice and soft for a very long time. Perfect for the supermarket.

Now let’s turn our attention to nutrition. A deliciously fresh loaf of bread is not necessarily a good nutrition choice. In many cases, it is made with refined flour, lacking in all the nutrients of whole grain. So let’s not confuse tasty fresh bread with healthier bread options.

So you’re in the supermarket and you want to buy a decent loaf – both tasty and healthy. Where to begin?

What to do at the supermarket:

These are the  ground rules for choosing healthy bread, according to Professor Marion Nestle, a nutrition expert from NYU:

  1. The first ingredient should be whole grain.
  2. The bread should be 100% whole wheat.
  3. The fiber count should be 2 or more grams per ounce. sometimes that’s one slice, but not always.
  4. It should have a short ingredient list.

In upcoming posts we will drill down on each of these recommendations.

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  • Ken Leebow

    The typical bread is high in calories and low in fiber. For sandwiches, I recommend a high-fiber toritilla. Hard to believe, but you’ll save about 155 calories and get a lot more fiber. Thus you’ll actually have the feeling of satiety.

    Here’s one that I recommend from Trader Joe’s …

    Before you purchase a tortilla, read the label. They are not all the same.

    Ken Leebow

  • Rachel Assuncao

    I have to say that I disagree with rule 2. Why should it be whole wheat always? What about a delicious whole grain rye or spelt bread? Or any of the other amazing flours out there that provide a variety of flavors and nutritional value?

    If we eat bread in our home, it’s usually a sprouted grain bread. Our favorite right now is the sesame Ezekiel bread. The ingredient list is all things I’d have in my kitchen and unlike most breads, it has almost no sodium in it.

    I agree with Ken about using alternatives to sliced bread too. Experimenting with breads like whole grain pita, tortilla and naan helps you add variety to your meals and you have more flexibility about the volume of bread you’re eating too.

  • The Table of Promise

    My rule for bread? Eat less of it. When you start to research the nutrients in wheat you realize that…it comes up a little short.

  • Heather

    These rules are harder if not impossible (rule 2) if you have to be gluten-free, like me. And I would have to agree with The Table of Promise. The nutrients you can get from wheat can easily be found elsewhere, and the blood sugar spike and resulting insulin spike from even whole grain breads are not desireable. Better to use bread and other grains as a condiment, if anything.

  • Brooke

    I agree with Ken about using bread alternatives as well as with Rachel about exploring different grains. Both great ideas.

    I would also like to add that I find it rather counter-productive that you paint a pleasant picture of walking to your corner French bakery and getting a baguette as the optimal scenario. Perhaps that was not your intent, but it most certainly reads as such. Aside from making me really crave bread for lunch, this is counter-productive to this topic because your typical French baguette would not meet #1, #2, or #3! The only thing it has going for it is #4.

    Just my two cents on this post . . .

  • Mabelle

    Ive heard that fortified “Double Fiber” or “Double Protein” breads are not as healthy as the regular 100% whole wheat, normal brands without the “double” this or that in the label. I wonder if this is true. Hope you touch up on that subject on your next posts.

  • roger

    i would avoid bread in the plastic wrap, unless it is sprouted wheat like ezekial bread. If its not fresh its not worth it, eat another carb source. The breads in plastic wrap last longer, because they are made with plastic! (hydrogenated oil, monglycerides,margarine)

  • candice

    Yes, bread shopping is a chore in my household. I like the simple ingredient lists, whole wheat, No High Fructose, and the “stuff” on the crust, but my husband grew up with the unnaturally “soft” bread and can’t stand when I buy anything too “healthy” such as the sprouted wheat, or stuff with seeds in it. Orowheat has some ok options like their 100% whole wheat + fiber…but even that has far too many ingredients. I think I will just start making my own!


  • Renae

    It continues to AMAZE me how many chemicals and preservatives are in store bought bread! Even the “good” kind is not so good. I started making my own bread about 2 months ago and I’ve vowed I will never buy store bought again. It’s that important to me! I have a solid ‘rule’ at my house that I do not buy anything from the store that has more than 5 ingredients, and to date, I have not found a bread that meets that rule.

  • Martha

    We switched about a year ago from whole wheat (280&282 free) to denser sourdough and sourdough ryes. I’ve been told they’re more filling / lower GI, but not sure if that’s true. They seem to be more filling.

    I’ve yet to find a tortilla in Australia that’s 282 and 280 free, but I’ll keep an eye out for Trader Joes as linked above. Mountain bread is a more usual purchase for wraps.

  • Dan

    Bread should be a good source of fiber and typically 5g per serving meets that rec. 2g is very low, especially for something like bread.

  • J in VA

    I make homemade bread with wheat flour (some whole, some reg un-bleached) sea salt, olive oil, honey and yeast. I make batches of 3-4 9X5 loaves, keep one out and pop the others in my freezer in a plastic bag. We usually eat it in about 2 weeks; then, I make a new batch. On the shelf, mine lasts about 4-5 days before molding (but usually doesn’t last that long).

    The only bought bread I buy these days is is a rare homemade loaf from a local bulk store.

  • Mari

    The wheat baguette I had in Paris was the best, most indescribably amazing experience I’ve ever had. I’m a pretty discerning bread buyer (nothing at the megamart is acceptable), and it has not yet been duplicated stateside. The closest might have been the daily-made sourdough baguettes in SF.

    I think it’s safe to say that bread on the street in Paris is about as far from “a loaf of bread” in our supermarkets as Paris itself.

  • Brian

    About 18 months ago we decided to make bread in a bread machine exclusively for our family, and not buy store-bought bread anymore. We can make better tasting whole grain bread, without preservatives or additives, and without a lot of work. A loaf will last at least 4 days at room temperature without significant degradation of quality, but usually does not stay around more than 2-3 days because it tastes great! We go through 2-3 loaves per week, and it does not take more than 10 minutes / week to prepare including cleanup of the machine. Also, it saves considerable money over the bread we used to buy in the store – approx $300 / year – enough to pay for the bread machine in 8 months.

  • Victoria

    I have recently just started to make my own whole wheat tortillas. Ingredients: whole wheat flour, salt, oil and water. That ingredient list certainly beats anything I can find in the supermarket. And I have found a local bakery that makes bread with 10 ingredients (more or less)…but I know what each ingredient is, no preservatives or chemicals. I love it! I want to start making my own bread but this will do for now. And honestly, the whole wheat tortillas are so much more filling and satisfying that those from the supermarket.

  • wet wolf

    How to buy bread: DON’T! It’s a refined processed food.

  • Victoria

    I just have to say that I LOVE FOODUCATE! You all rock! This issue is so important, and though I know how to make bread, I don’t have time. We opt for short shelf life, but it makes for a lot of rotten bread. But I love bread and we buy it often. Oh to be in France…. Thanks for all you do to educate us. YOU ARE BRILLIANT.

  • Betts

    I love great bread just like I love Fooducate! You bring to light so many interesting subject matters. I just wish we could find a way to bring the joys of great, real food to the rest of this country. Once you’ve been there, you’ll never go back!

  • Dee

    What are some other recommendations of brands of store bought bread that isn’t so bad for you?

  • http://coxcable Don P. Simons

    I’ve baked all the bread we eat for 20 years. Ingredients: flours, three usually – white, rye and semolina, 115 F water, salt and dry yeast mixed into the flour dry and it raises very well. I add caraway seeds to the rye and grind some and add that. Oregano is a good flavorsome addition in the white bread – all my bread has semolina flour for body.
    I mix it with a Kitchen Aid mixer and bread hook till it’s a ball, not sticky. After that I hand work the dough for several minutes to be sure it’s mixed thoroughly. It’s hand worked on a wooden bread board, formed in a ball, oiled to keep the saran wrap from sticking and covered with a towel to raise(oil is unnecessary in the ingredients, as are all the other stuff some bakers add). The rye flour is minimal (one cup rye, one cup semolina and 7 of white flour.) My bread is chewy, makes crunchy toast and the semolina flour makes it more like pizza dough than Wonder Bread (Help stamp out Wonder Bread – read the scary ingredient list) The loaves are baked in regular bread pans or on a steel sheet. They are fairly large and I cut them in half and wrap them in freezer paper and store in the freezer till ready for use, In the morning we share a slice. In a few days I make french toast with the remainder (fried in coconut oil) We don’t eat much fried food, but french toast is one exception.
    I raise it twice and after the first raising I punch it down and raise it again. It makes three loaves. Just get started, it’s easy and rewarding. Hints from recipe books will help with the procedure – just ignore all the ingredients, most are unnecessary – flour – water – salt and yeast (seeds for flavor) that’s it!