When I go to the grocery store to buy bread, there are three things I look for on food labels.
1. I prefer breads made from whole grains rather than ones made from refined grains with added fiber. Whole grains (e.g., wheat, oats, rye) are rich in vitamins and minerals and contain at least as many antioxidants as some fruits and vegetables and are good for your heart.
Of course I'd like to bake my own bread, but when I don't have time to bake I look for bread that’s labeled "whole grain," then double check that a grain is listed first in the ingredients list. Keep in mind that for wheat, oats, corn, rye and barley, unless the word "whole" precedes the grain name, you can’t be sure that the entire grain is intact. (Brown and wild rice, buckwheat, triticale, bulgur, millet, quinoa and sorghum are also whole grains, even if the word "whole" doesn’t appear on labels.)
2. I look for breads with low or no added sugars. Added sugars in processed foods are difficult to track. "Sugars" on Nutrition Facts panels include natural and added sugars. Check the ingredient list for sugar and all its aliases: corn sweetener or syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, malt sugar, molasses, syrup and sugar molecules ending in "ose" (dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose). In general, the closer sugars are to the top of the list, the more the food contains.
3. Lastly, and perhaps most surprising, is that in addition to picking a bread that has 0 grams of trans fats and does not include "partially hydrogenated" in the ingredients list, I look for a brand that doesn't contain soybean oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, safflower oil and sunflower oil. So why does this matter? These oils are high in omega-6 fats, which compete in the body with healthy omega-3 fats (the kind that benefit your heart and brain).
As an editor at EatingWell Magazine, I’ve learned that for optimal health we need a balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats. Omega-3s soothe the inflammation known to play a role in conditions ranging from heart disease to dementia, while omega-6s transform into molecules that increase inflammation. Find 5 ways to get in "omega balance" here.
So when I buy packaged foods, such as bread, I look for brands that don’t include oils with high levels of omega-6 fats.
It’s actually quite difficult to find commercial breads that don’t contain these oils, so you’ll have to read labels closely. Our food and nutrition experts at EatingWell went to the market to find a sampling of nationally available breads that didn’t contain soybean oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, safflower oil or sunflower oils. Two nationally-available breads you can feel good about eating when it comes to avoiding omega-6-rich oils are Alvarado Street Bakery (many varieties) and Dimpflmeier (many varieties).
If you can't find these brands, freshly baked breads in the bakery section are more likely to be free of omega-6-rich oils than commercially produced breads. And check the ingredients lists of your favorite brands—they too may be free of omega-6-rich oils. (And if they are, please share your finds with the rest of us in the Comments section!)
In general, choosing products that contain high-oleic versions of the oils mentioned above will also help you to cut back on omega-6 fats. High-oleic oils are produced using plants that have been bred or engineered to have more monounsaturated fats and fewer omega-6s.
Updated May 20, 2010.
What products do you like that are free of omega-6-rich oils (soybean oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, safflower oil and sunflower oil)? Tell us what you think below.