Bread is one of the oldest foods in the world and a staple in many diets. From lavash and pita to sourdough and classic white bread—there’s just so much to pick from! But which types of this starchy food are better or worse for those of us keeping an eye on our blood glucose levels or those with type 2 diabetes?
It’s not entirely possible to break down every single type of bread. And there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to which one fits into a ‘healthy lifestyle’ either. Some of this will depend on what you're focusing on, like the amount of carbohydrates and added sugar or how it interacts with your blood glucose as part of a healthy diet tailored to your needs.
For example, are you looking for low-carb bread, types that won't raise blood sugar, or simply bread you can eat while on a weight loss plan? Do you need to find out what gluten-free bread has a low GI (glycemic index)? Whether you're looking at diabetes management or just planning a healthy lifestyle also comes into play here.
While it varies quite a bit based on all these and other factors, we’re going to try and run through a few types so you can learn more about what you’re putting in your body when you eat that slice of bread. And if you’re wondering where gluten-free and whole-grain bread fits into all this, don’t worry—we’ll tell you about that too!
Read on to learn about some different types of bread and where they lie on the glycemic index scale.
The Classic: Refined Wheat Flour
Bread made from refined wheat flour is what you’d call white bread. It's a classic, but it's not necessarily the best option if you're focusing on overall wellness or trying to eat a healthy diet. To make white bread, you grind wheat into flour and then separate the endosperm—the part of the wheat that is easier to digest—from the rest of it. You then mix this refined flour with water and yeast and leave it to ferment, producing carbon dioxide (the gas we exhale), making the dough rise.
Let’s talk indexes: As a conservative estimate, the glycemic index of a typical loaf of white bread is around 100 when you compare it to pure glucose.
Alternative Flours: Ancient Grains
Some variations of white bread are made with ancient grains. Think of things like durum, spelt, and Khorasan here. Because white bread has a high glycemic index, almost any variation produces a lower and slower blood glucose spike. For an example here, we’ll use spelt, a form of wheat that is sometimes said to be higher in fiber and easier to digest than wheat. So when we make bread with spelt, it’s a good proxy for what bread may have been like thousands of years ago, which is why “ancient grain” is a good phrase for it.
Let’s talk indexes: The glycemic index of spelt bread is around 61 when you compare it to pure glucose or about 10 lower than bread made with refined flour. There are healthier alternatives, but most aren’t made from wheat flour at all.
Back to Basics: The Whole Grain Options
Whole-wheat bread is made with whole-grain flour. This typically high fiber option includes a variety of options. Whole grains are also typically an ingredient in 'healthy' cereals. Remember when we said classic white bread was made by separating the endosperm from the rest of the wheat? If you grind all wheat to make whole-wheat flour (including the endosperm, germ, and bran), the added fiber will slow down the digestive system’s ability to break down the bread. While spelt is an excellent alternative to refined wheat flour for some people, whole grain (either classic wheat or spelt) formulations may be even better.
Let’s talk indexes: The glycemic index of whole wheat bread is around 71 when you compare it with pure glucose, approximately 30% less than white bread.
To Yeast, or Not to Yeast: Talking Flatbread
Naan, pita, tortilla, focaccia… There are so many different types of flatbread to love. With origins in ancient Egypt, the traditional unleavened bread is made in variations all over the world. It’s made with everything from maize to wheat flour. While most flatbread skips the yeast altogether, some other types have some yeast in them to help them rise. So, its nutritional content can also vary.
Let’s talk indexes: We’re going to use a common one as an example—pita bread. It has a glycemic index of around 57.
A Lockdown Superstar: Speaking of Sourdough
Sourdough is so trendy now that we had to put it in a section of its own. It's often seen as a good inclusion to a healthy diet, but standard sourdough made from all-purpose flour may also be high-carb. Whole-wheat sourdough may be a good high fiber option. The golden, crunchy topped treat is leavened bread, but it doesn’t use traditional yeast. As you may already know from all the pandemic sourdough stories, you make this type of bread using a slow-fermenting dough or’ starter.’
This is a live culture of naturally occurring bacteria and yeasts found within the flour and water mixture. It can be a low gluten, healthy eating option for some people but remember that different people have different food responses. Although methods to make this bread vary, the starter involves feeding microbes with more flour and water over time, so it bubbles and doubles up in size. At this point, it’s ready to use. Once you put this starter into a more significant portion of dough, you can bake it into a traditional sourdough loaf.
Let’s talk indexes: Sourdough is usually thought of as a bread with a lower glycemic index and glycemic load since its glycemic index hovers around 53 or 54.
A Popular Choice: Going Gluten-Free
It’s a good rule of thumb not to make drastic dietary changes without checking with a dietitian first. Gluten-free diets may work, or even be necessary, for some people. Still, they’re not a quick, easy way to get healthy. Some gluten-free bread can have low nutritive value and added sugar. Unless you have an intolerance, sensitivity, or disease stopping you from eating gluten, make sure to talk to a professional to see if it’s really the right option for you. But what exactly is gluten anyway? Gluten is a name for the proteins found in several grains, including rye and wheat. Some grains don’t have gluten, like brown rice, oats, quinoa, buckwheat, sorghum… It’s an extensive list.
Let’s talk indexes: It’s difficult to put a number on this because there are many different types. Just like bread made from white flour, gluten-free bread made with refined grains/starches such as white rice flour or potato flour will rank higher on the glycemic index (around 80 or above) scale. Gluten-free flours made with whole grains (like buckwheat, quinoa, or sorghum) or low-carb flours such as almond or coconut flour will likely be lower on the glycemic index.
A Final Note on Bread and Blood Glucose
No food is all good, or all bad, and different people will react differently to different types. It can be even more complicated with bread, especially if you're aiming for blood sugar control as part of your healthy eating goals. Since bread can often be relatively high in carbohydrates, it’s a food that can spike your blood sugar levels. Regardless of how ‘healthy’ the bread you pick is, it’s essential to be cognizant of that when you choose to consume it.
Some bread also has high sugar content, can be brimming with empty calories, and is overly processed. Many people find that limiting their carbohydrate intake helps them feel better. But there can be a risk of nutrient deficiency when cutting out particular carbohydrate sources. So don’t avoid them altogether. Instead, learn how bread affects your body by experimenting with different types, using tools like continuous glucose monitors, and talking to a dietitian to find out what’s right for you.
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Kara Collier is the co-founder and VP of Health at Nutrisense, one of America’s fastest-growing wellness-tech startups, where she leads the health team. She is a Forbes 30 under 30 recipient, frequent podcast guest & conference speaker.