Choosing a Healthy Bread: White, Brown or Wholemeal

A quick stop by the supermarkets nowadays reveals a rather interesting fact – when it comes to packaged foods there’s a whole lot of variety to choose from. One such foods is bread, the quintessential breakfast starch.

We truly love our bread don’t we? No wonder the market is flooded with a whole lot of bread brands, most of them indistinguishable from each other. Even some retail chains have resorted to baking their own breads in house for some extra freshness and tempting aromas. Competition is mighty stiff it seems.

As a consumer this should certainly be good news. Why? It actually gives you more variety to choose from. But then again it’s only good news to you the consumer if you actually understand which the best choice is for you and your family. Otherwise you’re more than likely to make choices based on appearances and claims rather than facts.


The Healthiest Choice of Bread

You ask anybody which is the better choice health wise and most people will certainly tell you Brown Bread. That’s somewhat true, the only complication is that not all brown bread is “brown”.

You may have noticed they all seem to vary in their degree of “brownness” and pricing. The only common thing in all of them is the word brown on the packages. In all fairness though we must take into consideration that these subtle differences is what sets apart one brand from one another.

If they all made bread with the same colour, taste, shape and price some would have long since gone out of business. It’s thus your responsibility as a consumer to be informed so as to make the most ideal choice wih regards to your health and use.


What is the difference between White, Brown and Wholemeal Bread?

wheat on bread
Whetat Head atop a slice of Bread

The main difference is the type of wheat flour used. White bread is baked using refined white flour which has had the bran and germ removed during the milling process. What is left is the endosperm which is packed with starch.

On the other hand Brown bread is baked using a mixture of two flours: the refined white flour and whole wheat flour which has had nothing removed from it. Some brown bread may however just be white bread coloured using caramel, a “burnt sugar” used for colouring and flavouring, to give it that extra brown colour.

Lastly there’s the Wholemeal bread, which as the name suggests is baked using only whole wheat flour which hasn’t had the bran and germ removed from it. You may also find it being called Whole-wheat or Wholegrain bread.

So contrary to popular belief brown bread is not always one and the same thing as wholemeal bread.


Which bread should you buy?

White bread is the most obvious choice for the most of us. However if you want to get the most out of your bread, it’s the least desirable of the three. This is because removing the bran and germ from the flour strips it of some essential nutrients.

The bran which is the outer cover (husk) of the seed is rich in vitamins and fibre while the germ has vitamin E, protein and essential fats.

Millers remove this components because it makes more economic sense: they can make other products using them (e.g. feed) and make up for the lost nutrients by fortification. The law in Kenya and other countries recognises this and expects refined wheat flour to be fortified, though it’s not clear whether this adhered to in flour used in manufacturing wheat based products like bread.

For that reason, Brown bread is a good alternative to white bread as it retains some of these nutrients, though you should always read the label since some brown bread could be merely coloured.

Wholemeal bread however is more nutritious than the brown bread as it uses the whole wheat grain hence retaining most of the vitamins, minerals and fibre in the flour. Consequently it’s comparatively richer in B Vitamins (e.g. thiamine, riboflavin, niacin) Vitamin E, Iron, folate, selenium, magnesium and zinc than bread baked with plain white flour.

In some cases however, white bread may contain higher amounts of some of these nutrients (e.g. thiamine, riboflavin & Iron) if it’s fortified. Nevertheless, wholemeal bread is always richer in fibre which is key for a healthy digestive system.

Wholemeal bread is clear winner nutritiously though there’s a catch – it costs more than both white and brown bread. If you do decide to buy wholemeal bread, whether branded as brown bread or otherwise, always make sure in the ingredients it says wholemeal flour.


Kelvin Muriuki is the founder and editor of the Nutrition Point blog. He's a trained clinical nutritionist with a BSc in Food Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Nairobi.

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