Nutrition and health aspects of white versus wheat bread
October 14, 2013 10:13 PM   Subscribe

Most people have heard the mantra that wheat bread is "good" but white bread is bad. However, virtually all commercial wheat breads contain added sugars in some form (molasses, etc.) while it is possible to obtain commercial white breads with zero added sugars (e.g. scali or Italian bread) and sugar is meant to be "bad" for us, contributing to cancer, obesity and diabetes. From a scientific or evidence standpoint, how do the relative merits of sugarless white and whole wheat breads stack up assuming one buys the best quality option from each category?
posted by mintchip to Food & Drink (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Thinking about things like this as "good" vs. "bad" is not really helpful.

Read the labels on the breads you are considering buying. Look at the metrics that are important to you, whether that's sugar content, calories per serving, fiber, whatever.

Personally I buy wheat bread because I prefer the taste. If you prefer the taste of white bread and are looking for permission to eat white instead of wheat, I hereby grant it. You are correct that, nutritionally, it is probably a wash (again, depending on what nutritional metrics you're tracking).

My understanding is that the "healthy" label for wheat bread is for whole grain bread, specifically, and has to do with fiber content and the vitamins present in the various grains used. Again, this is spot on if you are looking to add fiber to your diet or are trying to get more omega 3s or something. If you are just counting calories, or you're diabetic, wheat bread might not be "healthy" for your purposes.
posted by Sara C. at 10:26 PM on October 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

I always go to Marion Nestle for this sort of information.
posted by mykescipark at 10:26 PM on October 14, 2013 [6 favorites]

I can't provide a whole answer for you, but some small points that may help on the way there:

1) The amount of sugar in most breads is really very marginal on a per-slice basis, for most breads. Dare I say negligible.

2) The main nutritional benefits of wholemeal breads lie in their extra fibre content, and concomitant low glycemic index. There are some white breads with added fibre to accommodate this.

3) Most commercial "wholemeal/wholewheat" breads (i.e breads that you buy in the supermarket) are actually still mostly white flour. It's unusual that they would be over 60% wholemeal, many of them would be under 50% wholemeal. This is also the case for supermarket "rye" breads and other types as well - check the nutritional labels to see how much fibre you're getting.
posted by smoke at 11:22 PM on October 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

'No ADDED sugar' does not necessarily mean sugarfree.

Almost all home made/yeasted bread has some sugar, since that's what the yeast eats.

Everything smoke said.

Check out how much sugar is in plain yogurt... it's not added either.
posted by jrobin276 at 11:26 PM on October 14, 2013

Here is the glycemic index and glycemic load for a lot of foods. It looks like commercial wheat vs. white bread is more or less a wash, unless you're getting really dense and chewy wheat bread with intact kernels in it. Glycemic index refers to how much your blood glucose spikes after eating a certain amount of that food, while glycemic load also takes into account the typical serving size.

However, the Mayo Clinic website states that the evidence for using glycemic index/load to achieve weight loss or health outcomes is equivocal, and goes on to say:
One major concern with the glycemic index is that it ranks foods in isolation. But in reality, how your body absorbs and handles carbs depends on many factors, including how much you eat; how the food is ripened, processed or prepared; the time of day it's eaten; other foods you eat it with; and health conditions you may have, such as diabetes. So the glycemic index may not give an accurate picture of how one particular food affects your blood sugar.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:02 AM on October 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

In the US, the lables on bread are deceptive. All bread is wheat bread, including white bread. Brown bread that is just called wheat bread has additives to make it look brown. You have to look for the words "whole wheat." That means that the whole grain is used.

Anyhow, the reason that whole wheat bread is better than white bread is that the nutrients in the grain and the fiber have been removed from white bread.
posted by Gringos Without Borders at 12:15 AM on October 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

I buy bread based on it's 'heaviness'. So the heavier it is, the more grains and whatnot are still in it, so it's better for you. How's that for scientific? Note these breads are definitely brown/darker as well.
posted by bquarters at 12:47 AM on October 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Until I read Gringos' answer, I was very confused by this question!

In Australia, people usually refer to bread as being either 'white' or 'wholemeal', but I gather that what we call 'wholemeal' bread is what you guys call 'wheat bread'.

The reason wholemeal bread is nutritionally superior is right there in the name: it uses the whole grain (meal), rather than a refined, de-husked version of the grain. Much of the fibre, plus some important nutrients and trace elements, is found in the husk. Therefore, wholemeal bread is not only more satisfying (because it takes longer to digest)and better for bowel health, but also nutritionally superior to white bread. (Same goes for white rice vs brown rice.)

My (rough) rule of thumb when choosing between different versions of most foods is that the less-processed version is better for you. So it's oranges rather than orange juice, natural Greek yoghurt instead of flavoured yoghurt, plain rolled oats & grains instead of oats & grains processed into commercial cereal, nuts and seeds instead of muesli/granola bars...and so on. Generally the best way to maximise nutrition and minimize sugar and additives.
posted by Salamander at 1:08 AM on October 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I make bread quite a lot and add a tiny amount of sugar to get the yeast going. Sugar can be used in this way, as a yeast food, to make the yeast generate more gas and hence a lighter and fluffier bread. The thing to remember with this is that the yeast digests the sugar, it's not sugar by the time you are eating the bread.
posted by deadwax at 1:41 AM on October 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh, forgot to add, whole wheat flours (or at least closer to whole wheat) can be slower and harder for yeast to work on, so I'd suspect sugar may be added as a yeast food more to these flours. That's my hunch, I'm not certain though, I don't make bread commercially.
posted by deadwax at 1:43 AM on October 15, 2013

it's not sugar by the time you are eating the bread.

Sadly, this isn't really true for commercially available breads - which have far more sugar in them than yeast will consume. It's also not really true for homemade breads with added sugar - by time the bread has finished proofing, there is still lots and lots of the original sugar left, albeit not very much per slice.

As I said before, the nutrional labels are your best source of information.
posted by smoke at 2:30 AM on October 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

You might be interested in cardiologist William Davis talking about the problems not so much of bread - but of the semi dwarf varieties of wheat that go into almost all of it. This specifically attacks the assertion that there is any sort of whole grain - sugar added or not.
posted by rongorongo at 4:05 AM on October 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

1) The amount of sugar in most breads is really very marginal on a per-slice basis, for most breads. Dare I say negligible.

Check the nutrition label. Whole wheat bread has significantly more sugars and calories. Generally.

My understanding of the concern with white bread was just that the flour is bleached and has the germ (I think that's what it is) removed. Not that it's bad, just that it has less nutritive value left in it.
posted by gjc at 4:38 AM on October 15, 2013

White flour is like sugar
posted by oceano at 6:14 AM on October 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

This image from Wikipedia can explain a lot. White bread is composed of the endosperm of the wheat kernel. That's basically all carbs and almost nothing else.

Although the bran (shell) and germ (center) make up a smaller portion of total weight, that's where all the good stuff is. That includes B-vitamins, iron, protein, and fiber. Check the labels on your bread for protein next time when comparing white and wheat. Also, eating whole grain can keep you full and fueled longer because of the way your body burns it.

Also totally agree with the glycemic index info above. I can't eat white bread because it causes a reactionary hypoglycemic sugar crash because it raises your blood suger high so quikly.
posted by Crystalinne at 6:20 AM on October 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

it's not sugar by the time you are eating the bread.

All carbohydrates are sugar once you digest them. Some of them digest more slowly and some breads contain more vitamins because they haven't been removed by refining. The sugar some breads add for flavor and texture is in addition to the sugars (carbohydrates) that comprise most of the flour in even the most basic bread.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:12 AM on October 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

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