I’ve been baking bread now for about a year now, and I can count with my ears the number of times I’ve bought bread since I started making our own:
- Fourth of July, 2012. We had hot dogs for lunch instead of dinner, meaning I didn’t have time to make rolls. I spent $1 on a package of buns and they were absolutely awful. Never again.
- Family Vacation November 2012. We were out of town, in a rental condo on vacation. I made dinner rolls one night, but let Sprouts handle the sandwiches for the week.
I’ve been out of the bread label business for so long that it literally took me a few minutes to look at everything and familiarize myself again with brands and all the varies types. And I’m not exaggerating!
My goal for this post was to share an easy way to decipher bread labels so that when you walked into the grocery store looking for bread (that is, if you haven’t started making your own yet), you would:
a) have a pretty good idea what to look for,
b) know what you were actually buying, and
c) know whether or not what you were buying really provided the nutrition it appears to be offering
And now I understand why everyone is so confused about wheat! Besides being overwhelmed by the umpteen different brands, colors and prices on the shelf (and this store is a small-town chain, not a huge mega-store or anything), manufacturers try very hard to make their product sound good and healthy, even if it’s not. I wrote down all of the “healthy” sounding bread available:
- 7 Grain
- 10 Grain
- 12 Grain
- Healthy Multi-Grain
- Cracked Wheat
- Split Top Wheat
- Whole Grain White
- Whole Grain Wheat
- 100% Whole Grain
- 100% Whole Wheat
- Honey Wheat
- Honey Whole Wheat
- Honey & Oat
- Health Nut
Holy smokes! How is the average consumer with two fidgety kids in a partially-filled grocery cart supposed to maneuver around a crowded grocery store without losing her purse or mind and still have the time and patience to read all the labels to find what’s best for their family?
You can see why I choose to make my own!
I’ve said this before, but manufacturers are sneaky. They’ll use any method possible to get you to buy their product. For the majority of the food industry, labels and packaging is about making money. Items are made to appear healthy so that homemade granola folk like us will buy them. Just because they appear healthy, doesn’t really make them so.
Is Your Wheat Bread Really Healthy? Probably Not.
The Bad News
While my son used the product shelves to slowly push himself and his sister down the bread aisle to gawk at the Spiderman Cheez-Its (they’re both in the cart mind you), I read the ingredient labels of twelve different “healthy wheat” breads covering three different manufacturers. In summary, here’s what I found:
- The first ingredient listed (i.e. the main ingredient) in 9 of the 12 breads was enriched bleached flour.
- 8 of the 12 breads had high-fructose corn syrup as either #3 or #4 in the list of ingredients.
- No single brand consistently offered a more nutritional product – as in every brand had the wheat varieties for the healthy folk AND processed white varieties for the wheat haters.
- The terms “whole wheat,” “whole grain,” and “whole grain white” don’t really mean anything.
The last one is especially upsetting. We buy whole grain or whole wheat thinking we’re doing good when if you look at the label, it barely meets the minimum.
As of 2003, the government offers “common sense” labeling and suggests to manufacturers that their content be 51% whole wheat by weight if they are going to label it as such. (source) See? Barely.
I don’t personally believe the government has implemented this or any other guidlines very well when it comes to grains (they allotted four years to review and approve the WIC guidelines for whole wheat), but I do know this: if something is going to be labeled 100%, then it must be so. It is our job as consumers though to pay attention to what comes after than percentage.
If something is labeled 100% whole grain, that is no indication to the flour used. You could easily find 100% whole grain bread made with bleached white flour. My post-label reading conclusion: breads labeled 100% whole wheat are the best of the bunch. But I’m hesitant to write that because one of the packages of 100% whole wheat bread had high-fructose corn syrup listed as #3 and we should all avoid HFCS like the plague!
So what’s a real foodie to do? You have a few choices.
- Make your own bread. I probably sound like a broken record here, but this is the easiest way to control what goes into your body. Yes, it takes longer to bake bread than it does to throw a loaf in your grocery cart, but your work is certainly worth the effort in taste and nutrition. BONUS: Not only do you control WHAT goes into your body, but you control the quantity too. My family eats significantly less breads and starches now that mommy makes it at home. There are many times when there is just too much to do and making bread is not at the top of the list. Instead of sandwiches, we eat fruits and vegetables!
- Barter with someone who makes their own bread. I don’t think yeast is difficult to work with, but I can’t ice a cake without getting frosting EVERYWHERE. Literally. Maybe you can barter your skills with a friend who does have time to bake. Honestly, if I’m already baking bread, it’s no more trouble to bake another loaf or two.
- Start with 100% whole wheat bread and read the labels. If I really wanted bread and didn’t have the time to make it, this is what I’d do. There was one brand whose first three ingredients were fine whole wheat flour, water and whole wheat flour. Not only is the primary flour whole wheat, but the supplemental flour is too and I like that. The manufacturer didn’t feel compelled to cut back on the nutrition of their product just to get a better rise.
- Buy organic. I personally haven’t been able to find organic bread, but I have friends who only buy organic so it must exist out there somewhere in grocery-store-land. The key with organic bread is that the ingredients must be organic too, so you won’t find bleached or enriched flour because they’re made with chemicals that aren’t certified organic. It’s like a last resort safety net. I don’t know how much whole wheat you’ll find, but at least it’ll be free from the really bad stuff.
The one thing you should take away from today is this: READ EVERY LABEL. Yes, STILL! The front of the package doesn’t count. It’s deceptively made to be appealing to us as consumers. Flip that package over and read what’s inside. Unfortunately, our “whole wheat bread” may just be bleached enriched flour in a fancy package.
Do Something: Read the labels of bread items currently in your house and know what they’re really made of. This goes for sandwiches, buns, rolls – ALL types of bread. The next time you buy any type of bread, make sure “whole wheat flour” is the first ingredient listed and “enriched bleached flour” is nowhere to be seen.
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