What is the healthiest bread? Dietitians share their favorites

Bread is not the enemy. But some types of bread provide more nutrients than others.

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Staple foods don't get much simpler than bread. And finding the healthiest bread for your dietary preferences ensures that you're getting as much fiber and other nutrients in your bread as possible.

But carb-heavy foods like bread have been unfairly maligned in recent years. While you may want to track or limit the carbohydrates you're eating depending on your health goals, you should not cut them out entirely, experts tell TODAY.com.

"I joke all the time that I'm a carb crusader — and I'm a huge fan of bread," says Caroline Susie, a registered dietitian based in Dallas.

Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients the body needs and a major source of energy. And, while individual needs can vary, healthy adults should aim to get around half of their daily calories from carbs, Theresa Gentile, a registered dietitian in New York City and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells TODAY.com.

Bread can be a great source of fiber, protein and essential vitamins and minerals, says Susie, who is also a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. A single serving of bread, which is usually just one slice, can contain 3 grams of fiber or more, she says.

And bread "can be a vehicle for so many other foods," Susie says. Gentile agrees: "There are so many nutritious foods that people probably wouldn't eat if (they didn't) put it on bread," she says.

Think about meeting your protein goals with hummus, peanut butter or tuna salad on a piece of toast. Or maybe you pile a ton of roasted veggies into a sandwich at lunchtime.

"But you still want to put on your nutrition hat and be smart about what you're searching for," Susie says.

What to look for in a healthy bread

In general, the experts recommend looking for whole-grain bread, which is made with flour containing the entire wheat kernel.

There are three parts of the kernel: the bran, germ and endosperm, the U.S. Department of Agriculture explains. Whole-grain bread contains all three and come with a good helping of fiber, protein, vitamins and antioxidants.

Eating whole grains supports gut, brain and heart health and is a major piece of the top-rated Mediterranean, DASH and MIND diets.

Bread that's made from refined flour only includes the endosperm, meaning it loses a hefty dose of nutrients in the process. Some of those vitamins and nutrients get added back into the final product when making enriched white bread, Gentile explains.

But the experts generally recommend opting for whole-grain breads that contain all parts of the kernel and, therefore, don't need to go through that extra processing. (Note that multi-grain breads contain a combination of whole-grain and refined flours, Gentile explains.)

There are different types of whole-grain bread available, such as whole wheat, sprouted grain, and whole-grain bread made with gluten-free grains, such as millet or oats.

When you're shopping for healthy whole-grain bread, the experts say you should look for:

  • Whole-wheat flour, or another type of whole-grain flour, should be the first ingredient listed on the label. It may also appear as "100% whole grain" or "100% whole wheat," the USDA says.
  • Look for as few grams of added sugar listed on the label as possible.

What is the healthiest type of bread?

Whole-wheat bread

Whole-wheat bread contains whole-grain flour, so it will give you the nutrients contained in the entire kernel, including a good amount of gut-healthy fiber, filling protein and energizing carbs.

Look for "whole-wheat flour" as the first ingredient on the label, Gentile says. Or, better yet, look for a percentage. "Some breads might say '100% whole wheat' on the package," she explains. "It probably won't advertise it if it's not 100%." 

The color of the bread alone is not a reliable indicator of the amount of whole grains it contains, the USDA says.

That's one reason Susie encourages people to really study the nutrition label and ingredients list when choosing whole-wheat bread. "You need to look and see that the first ingredient (is) whole wheat flour," she says. "What you want to avoid, potentially, is just wheat flour, because (that is) basically white flour."

Sprouted breads

Some people prefer sprouted breads, which contain whole grains that have been allowed to germinate before getting turned into flour, Susie explains.

These breads tend to have a similar high-fiber and -protein nutrient profile to whole-grain breads, but there's some evidence that the germination process increases the bioavailability of some of those nutrients, Susie says. "You're going to get more bang for your buck with certain vitamins and minerals," she says, particularly iron and B vitamins, like folate.

But that's more of a "nice to have" benefit in bread than an essential, Susie says. Sprouted bread can also contain more antioxidants, particularly the plant-based polyphenols, Gentile adds.

Some people may not enjoy the denser texture of sprouted bread, Susie says, adding that they can be better for toast than a sandwich.

Seeded bread

You'll likely find different types of whole-grain bread with added seeds, which can bump up the nutrition content of those products even further.

"Seeds can be full of good fats," Susie says, and are another way to add fiber and protein. She particularly recommends looking for bread containing flaxseeds and chia seeds, which are packed with nutrients.

However, the seeds will change the texture of the bread, Susie notes.

And they can add extra calories, which may be something to keep in mind depending on your goals, Gentile explains. "It does bump up the calories for the bread, possibly significantly," she says.

Gluten-free breads

If you need or prefer to avoid gluten due to an allergy or sensitivity, then gluten-free bread will be the healthiest option for you.

There are a ton of gluten-free options available at the grocery store these days, Susie says, and many are made with alternate starches, like corn, chickpea, oat, millet or rice flour.

Those alternate flours tend to provide less fiber than whole-grain flour, Gentile notes. And, because gluten is what gives bread its characteristic spongy texture, gluten-free bread may be a bit crumblier than other types, Susie explains.

Gluten-free bread can also be made with almond flour, which provides some extra protein and healthy fats, Gentile says.

Additionally, sourdough bread naturally contains less gluten than other types of bread because gluten gets broken down during the bread-making process, Gentile explains. So it may be another good option if you're sensitive to gluten. But sourdough bread is not entirely gluten-free, so people with gluten allergies should steer clear.

No matter what type of bread you choose, remember that carbohydrates are not the enemy. "People demonize carbs and are so scared of them," Susie says. "It's wonderful to remind people that you can absolutely enjoy these foods — and they're very much good for you."