Bread has always been a dietary staple in most households – it’s a good source of carbohydrate and it’s low in fat.
We all know that wholemeal is better for us than white bread. But how does wholemeal, wholegrain and multigrain compare? And what about sourdough, rye, high fibre white, low GI, low FODMAP and gluten-free?
With so many choices of bread available, it’s hard to know which is best for our health.
Writing for The Conversation, Leah Dowling, lecturer in dietetics at Swinburne University of Technology, gives her take on each type.
White bread vs wholemeal
Due to the grains being ground down during processing, white and wholemeal breads have a higher glycaemic index (GI) than wholegrain bread. This results in glucose being released into the bloodstream more quickly.
Foods with a high GI index can can cause blood sugar spikes and have been liked to a raised risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Regular consumption of lower GI foods helps to regulate blood glucose levels, keeping us fuller for longer, and helping us eat fewer calories to keep our weight in check.
Furthermore, white bread is made from wheat that has had the germ and bran removed, thereby reducing the fibre, B group vitamins, vitamin E and minerals such as iron, zinc, magnesium and phosphorus.
Wholemeal bread is made from wholegrains that have been milled to a fine texture, giving a plain brown appearance.
Wholemeal flour contains more fibre than white flour. Wholemeal bread also contains more vitamins and minerals than many white breads, but has a higher GI than wholegrain breads.
What about white bread labelled ‘high fibre’?
High fibre white breads are white breads that have fibre added to them. This makes them a better choice than regular white bread especially for children (or fussy adults) who won’t eat wholegrain bread.
Wholegrain bread has a dense wholemeal flour base and well as lots of grain and seeds.
They contains the entire grain: the bran (outer layer), endosperm (starchy middle layer) and germ (nutrient rich inner part).
It’s a rich source of carbohydrates, protein, unsaturated (good) fats, vitamins and minerals and healthy fats as well as three types of fibre: soluble, insoluble and resistant starch.
Diets high in wholegrains are linked to a reduced risk of health conditions such as excess weight and obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.
The high dietary fibre helps keep us feeling full. It is also beneficial for bowel health by preventing constipation and feeding the ‘good’ gut bacteria which is likely to result in a number of health benefits.
A recent study found a diet high in wholegrains was associated with a lower risk of bowel cancer.
Soy and linseed bread has the added benefit of healthy omega 3 fats. Wholegrain bread is low GI as are wholemeal breads with added grains.
Often multigrain bread is made from white flour with some added grains.
Despite this, multigrain breads tend to have more fibre and a lower GI than white bread, resulting in longer lasting energy.
Rye bread has a heavier texture due to a lower gluten content (but it’s not gluten free).
Wholegrain rye with added grains has a higher fibre and vitamin content than light rye and has a lower GI, as does rye sourdough.
Wholegrain rye is a good choice for health and even light rye is better than white.
Sourdough bread has a lower GI due to the higher acidity level. Fibre, vitamin and mineral levels vary with the flour used, with wholegrain sourdough being the preferred choice.
Be sure to choose an authentic sourdough, as some are faux sourdough and contain yeast rather than the traditional starter.
Authentic sourdough takes a long time to produce and results in an acidic and chewy bread, two features that lower the GI.
Look for a chewy texture and the absence of yeast in the ingredients, preferably with wholewheat flour or rye wholemeal, grains and seeds.
Gluten free breads are made from an alternative grain to wheat, so as to avoid the wheat protein gluten.
Traditionally, gluten free breads have had a lower fibre content and higher GI than their wheat-containing counterparts, although, there are now some with added seeds.
These breads are useful for people with a gluten intolerance such as coeliac disease, but offer no additional health benefits beyond regular breads for the rest of us.
Low FODMAP breads have recently hit the market. These breads are suitable for people such as those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), who are sensitive to a group of carbohydrates known collectively as FODMAPS.
FODMAPS are found in a number of foods including wheat. These breads still contain gluten and are not suitable for people with coeliac disease.
Although better than regular white bread as they contain seeds and grains, the fibre content varies between brands, so people without sensitivities are generally better to choose wholegrain breads.
What’s the verdict?
Not all breads are created equal. Ideally look for heavy, dense breads with lots of grains and seeds. Ingredient lists on food labels are written in descending order so look for words such as wholegrain, kibbled grain, nuts and seeds at the beginning of the ingredients list.
Foods with more than 4g fibre per serve are considered a good source of fibre under the Australian food standards code.
Go for a wholegrain, wholegrain rye or authentic sourdough breads (particularly rye or grain sourdough).
The soft fluffy white breads are best left for the occasional sausage butty, where the only decision to make is onions or no onions.