Bread is one of those food basics that we often take for granted. We’ve eaten bread of one kind or another since childhood. So, what’s the big deal?

Most of us know that whole grain bread offers more nutrition than white bread because it has more fibre. I however, make the exception and insist on white bread when I’m making a yummy egg salad or ham sandwich with Dijon mustard and a couple of leaves of crispy head lettuce. For some reason, whole wheat bread just doesn’t do those two fillings the justice I think they deserve. I like to use two not-too-thick slices of fluffy, crusty white bread – it really makes all the difference as far as I’m concerned. And the French know that a ‘sandwich jambon fromage’ should always be served on a crusty white baguette!

The Staff of Life

But back to the proverbial bread debate. Fibre helps keep us regular, works to lower our cholesterol, and helps control our blood sugar – all very important issues as we age.

Still, whole grain bread contains a lot of other good stuff, such as protein, vitamin E, vitamin B6, magnesium and potassium. So, when push comes to shove, whole grain bread – for most of us anyway – beats plain old white bread hands down.

But wait.

How do we choose between whole wheat, whole grain, rye or pumpernickel bread, for example? The purveyors and packagers of these kinds of bread are pretty cute when it comes to promoting one variation over another, through the use of healthy-sounding names and darker-coloured textures.

In a recent column in The Globe and Mail, dietitian Leslie Beck posed the classic question: “What’s the difference between whole wheat and whole grain bread? Is one more nutritious? How does sourdough bread rate?” As Ms. Beck went on to observe: “It’s not readily apparent if one is better for you than another.”

Deploying her considerable professional expertise, Ms. Beck proceeded to break down the differences between whole grain vs. whole wheat bread. What follows is a selective summary of her very thorough analysis:

Whole Grain Bread

  • Whole grain kernels are made up of three parts: the bran, the germ and the endosperm, each delivering valuable nutrients.
  • The bran layer is filled with fibre, B vitamins and minerals.
  • The germ provides B vitamins, healthy fats, vitamin E and protective phytochemicals.
  • The endosperm contains the grain’s starchy carbohydrates, plus a little protein and some vitamins.

The whole grains in whole grain bread deliver several health benefits. They offer protection against type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, colorectal cancer and, according to some recent research, “aging-related increases in waist circumference.”

Whole Wheat Bread

  • Bread that is 100% whole wheat is made with whole wheat flour; it doesn’t contain any refined flours.
  • A loaf of 100% whole wheat bread may not be whole grain.
  • Because whole wheat flour is finely milled, whole wheat bread is more quickly digested and, as a result, causes a sharper and higher rise in blood sugar compared to denser whole grain breads.

Ms. Beck recommends we do this: “Look for 100% whole wheat breads that list ‘whole grain whole wheat flour including the germ’ on the ingredient list.” She also concludes by saying: “Whole wheat bread is more nutritious than refined white bread.”

Rye & Pumpernickel Bread

Rye and pumpernickel bread are another story. While both are a healthy choice, many rye breads – especially those found in your local supermarket – don’t deliver whole grains.

Some do, some don’t – so, read the labels.

Sourdough Bread

Traditional sourdough bread is a curious hybrid. It’s made from a mix of flour and water, deploying a slow fermentation process resulting in a low glycemic index – making sourdough bread easier to digest.

That same fermentation process, according to Ms. Beck, “transforms some of the flour’s carbohydrates into prebiotics, carbohydrates that nourish beneficial gut microbes.”

Too technical? Go for whole grain sourdough breads – read the label – that are typically available at your local artisan bakery. This may take a little more time, but the effort is worth it to obtain a sourdough bread that is both nourishing and delicious.

A Note About Keeping Bread in the Refrigerator

I’ve been refrigerating my bread for years, as a means of prolonging its freshness. Idiot! After reading an article in Good Housekeeping (UK), I stand corrected.

Here’s what happens if you do: “The starch molecules in bread recrystallize very quickly at cool temperatures and causes the bread to go stale much faster when refrigerated.”

The folks at Good Housekeeping insist that store-bought loaves should be kept in an air-tight plastic bag at room temperature – not in the fridge. Who knew?

Bakery breads sold in a paper bag should also have the paper bag removed and the contents wrapped tightly in cling film and stored at room temperature. Bread boxes only work if you want to keep a loaf for a couple of days.

Finally, don’t hesitate to freeze leftover bread – which as I know from my own experience is great for making croutons, French toast, stuffing for roast chickens and turkeys or for that classic dessert, bread-and-butter pudding. I cut up all leftover bread into cubes and freeze them in zip-lock bags.