Freshly baked loaves of bread displayed in a basket

What’s Really in your Bread

Source: The Straits Times, 23 October 2014, © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction.

Wholegrain bread is gaining popularity here, with many people championing its health benefits

More people here are eating “brown” or wholegrain bread, believing it is healthier for them.

New figures from the Health Promotion Board show that the biggest increase in the past 10 years is in the higher consumption of wholegrain bread, which now accounts for one in five loaves or buns bought.

However, like most things in life, it is important to read the small print before you buy.

A true “brown” bread, as bread made from unrefined grains is called in Singapore, has more nutrients than white bread because it is made with flour which is less processed.

This means that less of the grain, which is used to make the flour, has been removed, keeping its nutrients intact.

Related: Steamed Wholemeal Bread Cupcake

Look Beyond the Colour

A plate of kaya toast with a cup of coffee in the background

Bread is the most commonly eaten breakfast item in Singapore, say dietitians.

However, many consumers are often confused by the variety of bread found in supermarkets.

First of all, just because the bread appears brown does not mean it is made of whole wheat or whole grains, said Ms Ang Yi Pei, a dietitian at the department of dietetics at National University Hospital.

It could be white bread with added colouring or processed sugar, such as caramel, said Ms Ang. For example, this type of brown-coloured bread is a popular choice for the traditional kaya toast sold in many coffee shops here.

White bread is made from refined wheat flour in which the bran (outer layer) and germ (innermost area) of the grain has been removed.

What remains is the carbohydrate-laden endosperm (middle layer), said Ms Ang.

Therefore, it is important for consumers to check the ingredients list and nutrition information panel on the packaging before buying, she said.

Brown bread, which includes wholemeal bread, sprouted wholemeal bread, soft meal bread, wholegrain bread, whole wheat bread, seed bread, muesli bread and multigrain bread, generally contains a combination of wholemeal flour and white flour or enriched high-protein flour. All these types of bread are available at local supermarkets.

Some types may even be made of 100 percent white flour, but with added wheat bran, wheat germ, multigrain blends or seeds, such as in soft meal bread, muesli bread and seed bread, said Ms Ang.

These, however, are not as nutritious as bread made of 100 percent wholemeal flour.

Do not be misled by words such as “multigrain” or “enriched”, as this does not mean that the product is whole grain, said Ms Apple Chan, a dietitian at Singapore General Hospital.

Instead, look out for words such as wholemeal, whole grain or whole wheat to ensure it is a wholegrain product, she said. Sometimes, the percentage of wholemeal flour or white flour used may be stated on the packaging.

Another way to determine how much wholegrain flour is in the product is to check the ingredients list, which lists ingredients in order of the volume used, with the highest quantity mentioned first.

For wholegrain products, whole grain should be listed as the first few ingredients on the product’s ingredients list, said Ms Chan.

Also, look out for the “Higher in Whole-Grains” Healthier Choice Symbol on the packaging, said Mr Clement Gan, a nutritionist at Eat Right in Far East Shopping Centre.

Bread can also have many ingredients added to them to alter its texture and increase shelf life, said Ms Jackie Green, lead dietitian at The Family Dietitian at Osteopathy & Podiatry Centre in The Forum (Office Tower).

Some types of bread are high in added salt, sugar and oil. “On the whole, I’d be inclined to choose a bread with the fewest ingredients,” she said.

Related: Introducing Whole Grains to Your Child

What makes Wholegrain Bread Better

Rolled oats in a wooden spoon is placed beside ears of wheat and some slices of nut bread

The refining process, which removes the bran and germ from a grain, causes a significant loss of fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals (antioxidants), said Ms Ang.

“If we were to compare brown bread made mainly of wholemeal flour with white bread, white is nutritionally disadvantaged,” she said.

Wholemeal flour usually contains more fibre than white bread, as well as greater amounts of vitamins B6 and E, magnesium, folic acid, copper, zinc, potassium and manganese, said Ms Ang.

However, many types of white bread are now enriched or fortified with vitamins B1 (thiamine) and B3 (niacin), as well as fibre and minerals (iron and calcium), which could lead to some enriched white bread products having higher calcium levels than brown bread.

Nonetheless, white bread generally lacks the higher soluble and insoluble fibre content of its brown counterparts, said Ms Ang.

There are benefits to soluble fibre, especially beta-glucans and psyllium, which have been found to significantly reduce the amount of cholesterol in the bloodstream and, thus, the risk of cardiovascular disease, she said.

Soluble fibre helps to slow food digestion and create early satiety, which discourages overeating. It also slows down the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream after meals, which helps to keep blood sugar levels under control.

The insoluble fibre in whole grains also helps to make bowel movements regular and prevent constipation, said Ms Chan.

It has also been linked to a decreased risk of developing colon cancer and diverticular disease – a condition in which “pouches” form in the wall of the intestine, said Ms Ang.

Those with diabetes should choose bread with a low glycaemic index (GI) as it indicates a lower sugar absorption rate into the bloodstream from the breakdown of carbohydrates.

Low-GI bread is usually made of multigrain with less processed flour.

However, people with diabetes will still need to control their carbohydrate intake as lower-GI bread may still contain a similar amount of carbohydrates as high-GI white bread, said Ms Ang.

Check the nutrition information panel for the carbohydrate level to determine the amount which is suitable to be consumed for a meal. Those with diabetes should consult their dietitians if they are unsure of their carbohydrate allowances.

Related: Why Are Whole Grains Good for Diabetes?


A pile of milled flour beside a couple of eggs

Wholemeal, whole wheat and wholegrain bread all refer to bread which is made of unrefined wholemeal flour, said Ms Ang Yi Pei, a dietitian at the department of dietetics at National University Hospital.

Due to less refining, wholegrain bread has a higher fibre content and a lower glycaemic index.

By not removing all of the bran and germ, nutrients such as folate, thiamin, niacin, vitamin E, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, iron, zinc, trace minerals and phytochemicals (antioxidants), such as lignans, saponins and phytates, are retained. This makes it a healthier choice than refined white bread, said Mr Clement Gan, a nutritionist at Eat Right in Far East Shopping Centre.

According to local food regulations, wholemeal bread has to be made from wholemeal flour or a mixture of wholemeal flour and other types of flour, and contain at least 0.6 percent of fibre, said a spokesman from the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority.

The addition of colouring or caramel is not allowed, to prevent manufacturers from misleading consumers on the proportion of wholemeal flour used.

Manufacturers must indicate the percentage of wholemeal flour used in the product label.

Wholegrain bread, on the other hand, must be made with the intact grain or the dehulled, ground, milled, cracked or flaked grain, which is made up of the endosperm, germ and bran.

The proportion of the endosperm, germ and bran present in the product should be in the same ratio as that of the whole grain.

Related: The GI Values of Common Foods


A loaf of multigrain bread.

Multigrain bread contains different types of grains, but this does not mean all of them are nutrient-rich.

Read the ingredient list.

If the grains used are refined, it is similar to eating white bread, said Mr Clement Gan, a nutritionist at Eat Right in Far East Shopping Centre.

Multigrain bread of superior quality is made of 100 percent wholegrain or wholemeal flour.

The bread should not be made from white or enriched white flour, noted Ms Ang Yi Pei, a dietitian at the department of dietetics at National University Hospital.

It should contain a mix of whole grains, such as oat, barley, maize, rye, millet, quinoa or triticale, she said.

In terms of choosing the healthiest bread, go for one with the word “whole” in its description of the flour used, said Ms Ang.

Related: Wholemeal Bread Pudding With Raisins

Sprouted Wholemeal

Sprouted wheatgerm in a clear glass

This type of bread uses flour made of wheat kernels which are soaked in water so they begin to sprout, said Ms Ang Yi Pei, a dietitian at the department of dietetics at National University Hospital.

It may be used as an alternative for people with mild sensitivity to gluten, as sprouted grains contain less gluten, she said.

According to the United States Whole Grains Council, studies have shown that sprouting increases the production of folate, vitamins B and C, iron and essential amino acids, while reducing gluten load.

It also increases soluble fibre, which helps one to maintain healthy blood sugar and cholesterol levels. This can reduce one’s risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Related: Diabetes - Diet and Lifestyle

White Bread and Enriched White Bread

Freshly baked white bread

White bread is made from refined wheat flour. Most of the nutrients have been removed through milling.

What is left is the endosperm portion, which is rich in carbohydrates.

It has a high glycaemic index, causing blood sugar levels to spike quickly, said Mr Clement Gan, a nutritionist at Eat Right in Far East Shopping Centre.

Enriched white bread is the top choice of bread in Singapore, according to the latest National Nutrition Survey, he said. It is usually enriched with B vitamins, fibre and minerals (calcium and iron).

People tend to choose white bread most probably because it is softer to chew and is enriched with nutrients for more health benefits.

If you must pick white bread, pick one with added nutrients and eat it in moderation.

Related: What Is the Glycaemic Index

Soft Meal / Muesli / Seed / Nut

A loaf of nut bread sliced and displayed on a wooden table

Soft meal, muesli and seed bread are usually made of white flour or “enriched” flour, to which wheat bran, wheat germ, grains or seeds has been added, said Ms Ang Yi Pei, a dietitian at the department of dietetics at National University Hospital.

However, these types of bread are sometimes also made with whole grains. Check the ingredient list.

Those which are made with whole grains or wholemeal would be even healthier with the addition of seeds, nuts and muesli, said Ms Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies at The Whole Grains Council, which is based in Boston in the United States.

Soft meal bread can even be made using 100 percent wholemeal as some bakers can now make whole grains taste soft, said Ms Harriman in a Skype interview with Mind Your Body.

Look for Health Promotion Board’s “Higher in Whole-Grains” Healthier Choice Symbol or The Whole Grains Council’s whole grain stamp.

“Bread should contain at least 25 percent whole grain in order to get our stamp,” said Ms Harriman.

Related: Wholesome Gains with Whole Grains

What to Look Out for When Buying Brown Bread

A young girl using a pair of plastic tongs to pick up some frosted doughnuts in a bakery

  1. Type of flour used: Preferably, choose 100 percent wholemeal flour for the better nutrient content and higher fibre benefit.
  2. More than 2g of fibre per serving: This is usually two slices per serving or about 60g of bread.
  3. Whether it is free of trans fat: This means it has less than 0.5g of trans fat per 100g of bread. Otherwise, check the ingredients list and avoid buying the bread if it contains hydrogenated vegetable oil or vegetable shortening.
  4. Sodium level: Compare the sodium content by using the "per 100g" column. Choose the one which has a lower sodium (salt) content.
  5. Bread products with cream or fillings: Cut back on such types of bread as they tend to be higher in sugar and fat. Also, watch out for sweet and flavoured brown bread with ingredients such as sugar, corn syrup or honey.

Sources: Ms Ang Yi Pei, a dietitian at the department of dietetics, National University Hospital; and Ms Apple Chan, a dietitian at Singapore General Hospital.

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