Gluten-free options for sliced bread have improved a lot over the past decade, but sometimes it can be overwhelming to find the best choices to suit your needs, preferences, and budget. Over the years, I've developed a few strategies to help my clients find what works for them.
It would be awesome if it was as simple as picking up a loaf of any bread with "gluten-free" on the label and it looked and tasted magically the same (not to mention costing the same) as any other bread, but if you’ve ever stood in the bread aisle at your local store scratching your head as your scour ingredients lists, you know it’s not always so easy.
Here are some tips and recommendations to help you enjoy the best gluten-free bread.
First off: What is gluten, anyway?
Gluten is a general name used for the proteins found in wheat, barley, rye, and triticale, which is a cross between wheat and rye. It helps foods maintain their shape by acting as a glue, so to speak. You’ll find it in those grains listed above, but it’s not uncommon for oats to be cross-contaminated with gluten as a result of agricultural practices. Gluten is also found in many processed foods, condiments, and certain distilled beverages. It may also be present in some medications and supplements. Checking labels and familiarizing yourself with sources is your best way to find out if a product contains gluten. When cooking at home or dining out, you also need to be mindful of the possibility of cross-contamination via cutting boards, knives, toasters, and the like.
Why go gluten-free?
There are many reasons someone might choose gluten-free bread. One of the biggest reasons is if they or a family member has celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder in which the ingestion of gluten causes damage to the small intestine. While some people may feel symptoms like stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, or bloating, others may not. Because the small intestines are where nutrient absorption primarily occurs, celiac disease can cause long-term problems such as malabsorption and malnutrition. Some common nutrient deficiencies seen in celiac disease (especially before diagnosis) are vitamin B-12 and vitamin D.
Other long-term complications that have been associated with untreated celiac disease include anemia, weight loss, osteoporosis, infertility, fatigue, and skin rashes. Even gastrointestinal cancers and neurological issues like migraines and nerve damage resulting in tingling in the hands and feet and similar problems have also been noted to be more likely to be present in people with untreated celiac disease.
Celiac disease is estimated to affect one in 100 people worldwide. It tends to run in families and has also been associated with other autoimmune conditions such as type 1 diabetes. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity has also been studied. People may experience symptoms within hours or days of ingestion of gluten, and severity can vary depending on the individual.
While you’ll hear a range of opinions on the validity of gluten sensitivity depending on whom you ask, the approach I generally take with my clients is that you’re the expert on you, so if you feel better eating a certain way, such as gluten-free, we can work with that and find some solutions to those everyday issues that come up with dietary restriction such as just wanting to enjoy a freaking sandwich.
Sometimes I see people get hung up on what they can’t eat rather than exploring the wide variety of options still available to them. Just a note: Just because something is gluten-free does not automatically mean it's healthy. Sometimes I see clients who aren't on a gluten-free diet writing down that they had a gluten-free cupcake or cookie, and I have to gently point out that a cupcake is still a cupcake, and a cookie is still a cookie and still best consumed as an in-moderation treat.
How gluten-free bread is different
Because rye and wheat and its derivatives can’t be used in gluten-free breads, other ingredients need to be used, often in combination to achieve the desired taste, texture, and shelf stability. There are many different foods that may be used in gluten-free products. Here are some of the main ones you might see on labels:
- gluten-free oats
- nut flours
Because various types of flours differ in terms of their leavening, how much liquid they require, and how well they hold their shape when baked, many gluten-free breads contain a combination of two or more flours. For example, you may find some gluten-free breads are denser or some are drier. Some might hold up better when used for sandwiches, while some might be better toasted—trying out different varieties can help you tune in to what you like and why.
Think about how you’re going to use it. Will you be using it to make a sandwich? Toasting it? Using it in a recipe like bread pudding or French toast? What are you planning to enjoy it with? How long do you need it to stay fresh for? You also want to think about how to store it. For stuff you want to last a while, store it in the freezer to keep it fresh and toast up as needed.
The best ingredients for gluten-free bread
Look for gluten-free whole grains, legumes (like beans, peas, and lentils), and nuts. You’ll get more filling fiber and often protein, plus key vitamins and minerals without having to rely on fortification. Just a note about fiber: Some grain-free breads made from beans and nuts can be very high in fiber. Check the label to see how many grams. Where does it fit into that recommended 25 to 35 grams of fiber per day? Especially if you’re not used to it, enjoying a sandwich made with two slices of high-fiber bread (think 5 or more grams per slice) can be a little rough on the gastrointestinal system. Start with one slice and drink with plenty of water if you’re not sure how two slices will feel.
You also want to check to see whether the product has been certified gluten-free by a third-party organization.
What about sprouted grains?
You might see sprouted grains listed on some food labels. Essentially, sprouted grains are the seeds of the grains we eat, so all three edible parts (germ, endosperm, and bran) are present, but because that "seed" is allowed to sprout (dry and wet methods both exist), and enzymes break down the tough growth-inhibitors into simpler molecules, it makes that seed easier to digest. Some people find these products easier on their GI system. It’s also been shown that sprouting may enhance the bioavailability of the nutrients in those grains. There’s currently no regulation on the term "sprouted grain," so check the label to see whether the grains are gluten-free or not.
Ingredients to avoid in gluten-free bread
Go slow if you see a lot of texturizers, stabilizers, or preservatives. Artificial sweeteners and colors are also ingredients you want to avoid. Especially if this bread is going to be something you enjoy regularly, you want to make sure you’re getting a nutritious product without a lot of additives that negate those nutritional benefits.
The best gluten-free bread brands
Just for the record, I don’t have any financial ties to any of these companies—they’re just some of the ones my fellow R.D.s and I feel good about recommending and that we have found our clients love. Consider this list a jumping-off point—don’t be afraid to try new things.
BFree Foods has a variety of sliced gluten-free bread options plus wraps and tortillas, among other treats.
Canyon Bakehouse makes sliced bread, gluten-free buns, and bagels.
Food for Life is the same company that makes the super-popular Ezekiel bread and English muffins—this is their gluten-free line. They feature organic and non-GMO ingredients and are also egg-free and dairy-free, which is helpful for people with multiple allergies.
Schar sourdough is a crowd-pleaser. Like Food for Life’s products, they’re also egg- and dairy-free.
Udi’s offers a variety of gluten-free bread products that pass the R.D. nutrition and client taste test.
The best gluten-free bread recipes
You can, of course, make your own gluten-free breads! Just be sure to use whole food ingredients. These are great recipes:
Gluten-Free Rosemary Bread made with rice flour, almond meal, and potato starch
Hormone-Balancing Gluten-Free Bread made with flax meal and oats
Thyme Gluten-Free Bread made with almond meal
The main take-away?
Gluten-free breads have come a long way, but taking some time to check labels and try a few different varieties can help you find your favorites. Also, don’t be afraid to spend a little more or buy smaller quantities at a time. Your health and well-being are worth the investment.
Wanna go gluten-free for dessert? Here's your go-to guide.
Check out our complete gluten-free diet and food guide.
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