Waking Up in the Bread Aisle

In the last post we promised to check our local supermarket for breads that met Healthy Change #9Your daily bread must be whole grain, with more grams of natural fiber than added sugar.  To do this we spent a Friday evening studying the labels of 70 different breads; the short answer is just two bakeries met the rule and one came close (their fiber wasn’t all natural):

Food For Life offers their Ezekiel 4:9 sprouted-grain breads, named after the Bible scripture with a bread recipe.  A slice typically contains 3 grams of fiber and no sugar—the only company we found that doesn’t add sweeteners.  Price $4.49; on sale for $3.99.  (In some stores their bread is kept in the frozen food section to preserve freshness.)

Oroweat offers bread at all the quality levels (but watch the sugar in some of their whole wheat breads, it's often equal to the fiber). Their Healthfull brand (Nutty Grain, 10-Grain, and Hearty Wheat) had 4 grams of fiber and 2 grams sugar.  Price $4.59; on sale for $2.99 

Milton’s Whole Grain Plus had 5 grams of fiber and 3 grams of sugar per slice.  (Three grams of fiber are all you can usually get from a slice of whole wheat; breads offering more may not meet the natural fiber requirement.)  The sugar was a combination of brown sugar and honey, so give them a point for slightly better sugars.  Price $4.59; on sale for $3.49.

The bread companies are in a difficult place; people generally have a dim view of store-bought bread and the low-carb diet folks think bread is unhealthy.  The store manager approached me in one store (after all, I was standing there looking at his goods and making notes in a black notebook).  “I’m looking for your healthiest bread,” I told him.  His response was interesting: “Is any bread healthy?”  I laughed with him but answered, “Yes, a few are”. 

I asked him how they decide which breads get the best shelf space and he answered, “Simple, slotting fees.  I think we make more on renting out the shelf space than we do selling the bread”.   I looked down the aisle and saw Oroweat had the biggest space followed by the store brand and then Sara Lee.  There was a small section for Wonder bread on the lowest shelf, a sign of its fall from grace.

The bread aisle is a strange place.  First, it doesn’t smell like bread, it smells chemical, kind of like plastic.  Second, in a desperate attempt to get our attention over 70 different kinds of bread are offered, each with the most extravagant label claims the FDA will allow.  Labels that say “100% wheat” aren’t actually whole wheat.  And the label that says “With Whole Wheat” may only have a little whole grain mixed in with the refined grains.  Third, there is the issue of past fibs, like Wonder bread building strong bodies, 8, 10, then 12 different ways.  Is it any surprise the public is properly skeptical?

Here’s another issue:  Is there a premium for healthy bread?  The answer is “Yes”.  The healthiest breads were the highest priced, around $4.59 unless on sale, though the difference in ingredients only makes a slight difference in material costs.  Is the cheapest bread the least healthy?  Again, the answer is “Yes”.  The cheapest bread was sold under the Supervalu label, price $1.39 but on sale for $.99.  It’s not actually that much cheaper per pound because the loaf is lighter.  And it has the worst ingredients, including high fructose corn syrup.  (The store manager whispered in my ear that Supervalu was controlled by the store—they just didn’t want their name on the worst bread.) 

Would you want to eat 99-cent bread?  It’s a trick question, because you can bake your own perfectly healthful bread for about this price, not counting the cost of firing of the oven.  Yes, I know what you’re thinking—this presumes the cook isn’t getting paid for her hour of work.  But we know the answer to that—the pay she (or he) receives is dearer than money.  In a later post we’ll share our favorite of the bread recipes you submitted. 

For the times when it’s not possible to bake your own bread, here are my personal favorites, though they’re not available where I live:  One is Great Harvest, which sells through franchise stores.  Prairie Grain Bread Co. is the other.  The whole wheat breads meet the fiber rule and have just five or six ingredients.  (The typical store-bought breads have 12-20 ingredients, many of them chemicals.) 

A last comment from the store manager on slotting fees:  “If you really want to see how these fees work, visit the chip aisle.”  So on my way out I visited the chip aisle—I’ll save what I learned for the next (and last) post on converting our diet to whole grains. 

If this post is helpful, would you please share it with your friends?  It’s a way to thank my wife for spending her Friday night in the bread aisle.

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Reader Comments (62)

I love this. I have always bought my bread at Costco, they use to have the prairie grain co. bread, now it's from Aspen Mills, and I Love Great Harvest's bread too. One day I'll get around to making my own :)

March 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

oh, and I shared this post on facebook, I really do love what you are doing here with your blog, I think it's great!

March 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

Question: how do you know if the fiber is natural?

March 3, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermelissa

I want to second that question about natural fiber! I'm also curious if you know more about the chemicals... It just isn't practical for me to buy all natural bread that's going to mold in a few days, and so I make the trade-off and eat bread loaded with chemicals Is there anything specific about the chemicals themselves that you can share that would help me make a better decision about which products to buy?

I love that the store manager was so honest with you. I always suspected there were slot fees. That seems so unethical... Thank you wife! I'll be sure to pass your blog along!

March 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLiz

I think some of Barowsky's bread products may fit the bill. Thanks for this week's healthy change... I look forward to your posts each week!

March 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTara

As I was reading your post I was thingking I should let you know about Prairie Grain Bread Co. I'm glad to see you already do. I guess I am lucky that my Costco still carries their product.

Thanks for your excellent blog!

March 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLeeAnn

Although I always prefer fresh-baked at home or bakery to plastic-encased bread that is shipped to far-flung places, I do like the Ezekiel breads a lot. They are organic and, I think it bears mentioning, flourless. They are made with sprouted whole grains and I think that in the sprouting process, some of the inherent sweetness of the grain may come out, reducing the need for sweeteners. I seem to recall seeing that some of these types of breads may have some dates or date paste mixed into them? -- but don't take my word on that. Trader Joe's makes a similar style bread that is a bit cheaper than Ezekiel. I don't have the proof, but I suppose I've rationalized that the flourless, sprouted nature of these breads makes them much better in terms of glycemic index, since the grains sort of become vegetables in the process.

So interesting about the slotting fees.

March 3, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterritu

We have a Great Harvest bread store super close to my house but I've never tried it. I will definitely try it now. We've been buying bread from Costco but I'm not feeling great about it lately.

March 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKelly

I am enjoying your blog so much! It is so inspirational and is really benefitting our family. Thanks and keep up the good work.

March 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMadschill

What is unfortunate is that we get the cheap bread for the kids (and as backup for sacrament - I am the teacher's quorum adviser). I prefer whole grain but I am a cheapskate. My wife loves to bake so maybe we should really consider just making our own if it so affordable.

Would love to see your healthy recipes. We grind our own hard white wheat. Is that considered whole grain?

March 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMicah

Melissa and Liz, you asked about added fibers. Breads with more than three (or possibly four) grams of fiber per slice likely have added fiber. They can be found in the ingredients list, as bran, or simply fiber; other fibers with a history of use in processed foods as thickening agents or stabilizers include gum arabic (made from the resin of a tree), inulin (chicory root extract), maltodextrin (a starch hydrolyzed from corn or rice), or polydestrose (a synthetic fiber).
We all wonder if added fibers are as healthy as the naturally occurring fibers. Like many nutritional questions—we don't know. Until more is learned, I prefer natural fiber as found in whole foods. Because of the food industry's interest in "functional foods" we'll likely see more artificial fiber being added to processed foods. Another reason to cook your own food.

March 3, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

I usually pick up Vermont Bread Company bread at my local grocery store. It usually has more fiber than sugar, but low grams of fiber (ranging from 1-2). What would you recommend as the minimum number of grams of fiber for bread for it to be even worth it?

BTW, I absolutely LOVE your blog.

March 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLori

This is fantastic! Thank you so much. I'm going to see how well those brands translate to my local stores here, on the East Coast.

I am eager for the bread recipes--if possible, will you provide nutritional information with them? Calories, fiber, etc.

March 3, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercabesh

Lori, it's true what you observed. Even breads that claim to be whole grain can have as few as two grams of fiber. This mainly has to do with the weight of the slice—the thinner or "fluffier" slices weight less and have less fiber. Some multigrain breads mix whole grains with refined grains, so they have less fiber. Ditto for the breads that vaguely say "with whole grains" as this means refined grains with a little whole grain added.
One thought: because it is hard to get more than 3 grams of fiber in a slice of whole grain bread, to meet our fiber>sugar rule they are limited in the sugar they add. This is good, isn't it? Who wants a teaspoon or two of sugar in every slice of their bread? (One teaspoon of sugar weighs four grams.)

March 3, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

My problem with homemade bread is its density (thus making it more caloric per slice) and the fact that it never lasts long. I know that preservatives and chemicals are no trade-off for healthy ingredients (and knowing what's in my homemade bread), but I don't think that my homemade loaves are comparably priced to the $.99 loaves, once I factor in the wastage.

March 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterShelly

As an aside, I learned about slotting fees in high school, when one of my friends worked for P&G negotiating slot fees at stores for all sorts of things. It's very interesting. When you consider the low margins that grocery stores get, it all comes down to making money where they can, I guess.

March 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterShelly

Love the blog! Looking forward to the homemade bread recipes!

March 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJenna

Did you test any breads from Barowsky's? I love the Organic 12 Grain, which is lightly sweetened with honey and molasses. 3 g sugar, 3 g fiber. $3.99 for a 24 oz loaf in the NE. The only bread I could find without sugar or corn syrup.

March 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSandi

I started reading your blog not too long ago and have really enjoyed it. You are explaining diet-related health problems in a wonderful way. I have been looking forward to reading about the bread results. I was pleased to see Prairie Grain Bread Co. on the best choice list since it is my current favorite. Thanks to your sweet wife for taking the time to scour the bread aisle. Thanks for all your hard work!

March 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

For those that want to make their own bread, I suggest a small investment in a bread making machine. The cost is under $50, and is quite easy to use. You just dump all the ingredients in the bread pan, press a few buttons, and the machine does all the work. We got an "Oster" at WalMart for under $50. (Not the way Dad used to do it, but easier to use.)

The only disadvantage to a bread machine is the temptation to eat several slices of hot bread slathered with butter.

March 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRick Hellewell

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