Sugar in Bread: What You Need to Know

Here's What to Look Out For

Traditional Irish wheaten bread

The Spruce / Cara Cormack

The recent ruling in Ireland that has deemed Subway's sandwich bread too sugar-laden to be technically defined as actual bread gives rise to questions about other bread in the food supply: Why is there sugar in a savory food like bread in the first place? And if a restaurant's bread has high amounts of sugar, what about the ones we grab off grocery store shelves?

The ruling in Ireland was derived from an old value-added tax law stating that the sugar content of bread cannot exceed two percent of the weight of flour in the dough and be considered a food staple. Because Subway bread was found to have a sugar content of approximately 10 percent by weight, it far exceeded this threshold. 

Based on nutrition information currently available on Subway’s menu items, a six-inch roll that weighs approximately 2 1/2 ounces contains 3 to 6 grams of sugar, depending on the type of bread (Italian, 9-Grain Wheat, or 9-Grain Honey Oat, etc.) with the exception of the pre-packaged gluten-free bread which contains seven grams. Surprisingly, the whole grain breads that most would assume to be healthier due to their higher fiber content are the breads with the higher sugar content. And while Subway does not differentiate between total sugar and added sugar, sugar is clearly listed as an ingredient in their breads (following flour, water, and yeast) and the breads do not have any significant sources of natural sugar (i.e. milk). While 3 to 6 grams of sugar may not sound like a high number, one teaspoon of table sugar is the equivalent of 4 grams. Do some quick math and realize each six-inch Subway roll has between 1 and 1/2 teaspoons of added sugar—and of course double that for a foot-long. 

So, How Much Sugar Is In Bread Products?

The ingredients for making basic bread are not significant sources of natural sugar (i.e. flour, water, salt), so any amount of sugar above 1 gram per serving on a nutrition facts label will be added sugar. There is a big range of sugar content in breads found on supermarket shelves. Some contain none, while others can include upwards of 4 grams per slice, including breads with enticing labels such as “healthy multi-grain” or “organic grain and seed,” and especially any bread with the word honey in the descriptor. (It is worth noting that many sliced breads on retail shelves in the U.S. are even higher in sugar than the equivalent ounce-to-ounce portion of Subway bread). Now, if a few slices of bread were the only source of added sugar in the average American’s diet, this would not be a major cause of concern but the fact is that sugar is a common ingredient in most processed foods—even “healthy” ones and it can quickly add up. And for PB&J lovers, a simple sandwich can turn into a sugar bomb from the hidden sugar in the bread, potentially hidden sugar in peanut butter (another story for another time), and of course, the added sugar in the jelly.

Current Sugar Intake Recommendations

The World Health Organization (WHO) and current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a daily sugar intake of less than 10 percent of total calories for both adults and children. This means, for those consuming an average 2,000-calorie diet, this is less than 200 calories from sugar, which is the equivalent to 50 grams of added sugar (or approximately 12 teaspoons). The WHO goes on to state that reducing sugar intake to less than 5 percent of calories (25 grams or approximately 6 teaspoons) per day would have even greater health benefits, but this has not been established as a formal policy.  According to the US Dietary Guidelines Report 2015-2020, the average American consumes 270 calories from sugar per day (nearly 17 teaspoons or over 1/3 cup)!

Why Is Added Sugar Unhealthy?

Added sugar becomes a problem when it sneaks into foods throughout the day that aren’t even perceived as sweet, such as breads, crackers, “healthy” multi-grain cereals, yogurt, granola, energy bars, muffins, and even salad dressings.  If added sugar were limited to just foods that were meant to be sweet (such as desserts, cookies, and other confections), most people would be within the recommended thresholds for daily added sugar (assuming portions are reasonable). However, when sugar makes its way into so many other foods, it is easy to exceed a “healthy” amount especially on top of other sweets, baked goods, and sugary drinks.  Consuming too many foods with added sugars can contribute to excess calories without beneficial nutrients (otherwise known as “empty calories”), can condition taste preferences towards sweet foods even in savory items, and over time, can increase risks associated with numerous health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and of course, dental cavities. Regular excess sugar intake can also contribute to overall inflammation in the body as well as a poor gut health, which is linked to poor overall health status. 

Why Is Sugar Added to So Many Processed Foods? 

The primary reason sugar is added to so many different foods—including bread—is a combination of shelf life, texture, browning, and taste. Sugar, like salt, acts as a preservative against mold and also helps bread keep its moisture.  Think about the difference in texture between Wonder Bread or a sweet Hawaiian dinner roll, both containing added sugar, versus a slice of stone-ground whole wheat sourdough with zero added sugar. Small amounts of sugar are often added to help feed the yeast in the bread as part of the leavening process however this amount is minimal and even negligible in many recipes.  

Healthier Bread Buying Tips

Breads can vary significantly and because added sugar in bread isn’t regulated in the U.S., it's up to the consumer to read labels and make choices. The first step is to skip the front of the package labels and go straight to the ingredient list and look for sources of added sugar: 

  • Any ingredient that ends in -ose such as dextrose, sucrose, maltose
  • Any kind of sugar, such as cane sugar, beet sugar, invert sugar, coconut sugar, date sugar
  • Honey and syrups including maple syrup, brown rice syrup, and date syrup
  • Fruit juice concentrate

Then, look at where it falls on the list of ingredients. If it is one of the first few ingredients, consider that a red flag. Next, look at the nutrition facts label and find the Sugars or Added Sugars content—aim for as close to 0 or 1 gram per serving as possible if buying bread as a daily staple. And remember, 1 teaspoon of sugar is the equivalent to 4 grams of sugar so doing some quick math can be helpful for perspective. Lastly, an added nutritional bonus is to look for dietary fiber to be at least 2 grams per slice.

Remember, eating healthfully is about overall balance and a variety of foods; hidden sugar in bread may pose more of a problem for those eating larger quantities of bread on a regular basis, along with other processed foods that contain hidden sources of sugars. This may also be in addition to actual sweets and sugary drinks, which is certainly imbalanced. On the other hand, for someone who has a very low intake of sugar from these other sources, a couple of slices of honey wheat bread a few days per week may not be a cause for concern when taken into the context of their overall diet.