The facts on this trendy baked good may surprise you.
You may have seen pics of high-protein bread (or bagels, waffles, or tortillas) popping up on Instagram lately. High-protein baked goods are really taking off, as the popularity of protein-packed everything (from snack chips to coffee creamer!) reaches a fever pitch. But what is high-protein bread exactly—and should you be adding it to your shopping cart? Here are a few things to know before you try a loaf.
Different brands use different sources of protein
Some high-protein breads include the same ingredients typically found in protein powders—such as isolated whey protein, pea protein, soy protein, or egg white protein. Other brands use wheat protein, or vital wheat gluten; while others use ground nuts or pulses, such as almond flour or chickpea flour.
You should always check the ingredients
Because there's no standard formula for high-protein bread, it's important to scan the packaging for things you may want to avoid. For example, many of my clients with inflammatory conditions (like eczema, psoriasis, arthritis, chronic sinusitis, and IBS) avoid gluten, as well as dairy and soy. Other clients are allergic to nuts or eggs. In general, I recommend skipping packaged products made with artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, or "mystery" additives (any ingredients you don't recognize or can't pronounce).
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High-protein may or may not mean low-carb
It depends on the bread's other ingredients. One product I looked at had a whopping 14 grams of protein. But the first ingredient was whole wheat flour, and each slice packed 12 grams of carbohydrate (which is nearly the same amount in white bread!) with only 2 grams as fiber. Thanks to all the added protein (from added whey and wheat proteins), the bread was higher in calories than traditional whole grain bread, with 50 more calories per slice.
Meanwhile a high-protein bagel I reviewed, also with 14 grams of protein, packed 16 grams of carbohydrate—but 14 of those grams came from fiber (meaning a net of 2 grams of carb). That's much different from a regular bagel, which may contain more than 50 grams of carb, just a few grams as fiber, and about 9 grams of protein.
How you eat your bread matters
If you enjoy toast with salmon or an egg on top, for example, or you eat it with Greek yogurt, do you really need your bread to pack an extra 14 grams of protein per slice? Probably not.
Remember, simply adding protein to a food doesn’t make it healthy (much like removing fat from foods didn’t make them good for us, and actually contributed to the obesity epidemic). And keep in mind that it is possible to get too much protein. Excess protein can either prevent weight loss or even lead to weight gain.
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The bottom line
The wide variation in ingredients and macronutrient content makes it tricky to say whether high-protein bread is worth buying.
If you’re trying to eat more protein and curb excess carbs, I recommend focusing on whole foods first. Most of my clients easily meet their protein needs by consuming foods like eggs, seafood, meat, Greek yogurt, and pulses.
If you’re vegan, or your protein sources are limited for some reason (maybe due to allergies or food preferences), a protein-packed bread may help you fill the gap. But again, be sure to check the for ingredients you need to avoid, and choose products that are clean and natural.
If you’re Paleo or gluten-free, some of the high-protein bread products aren’t for you. Take the high-protein, high-fiber bagel I described above: It's low in absorbable carbs, but contains wheat (a no-no for both diets).
If you’re a clean eater, you want to avoid any type of bread that’s highly processed, whether it's high-protein or not. Instead, stick with whole food options, like sweet potato toast, or homemade cauliflower “buns.” As long as you’re not grain-free, there are plenty of regular breads made simply with whole grain flour (including gluten-free options), yeast, honey, water, and salt.
Finally, if you’re a competitive or professional athlete with protein needs that are higher than the average person, high-protein bread might be something to consider. I work with some athletes who get tired of protein shakes and bars, and can only eat so many eggs or chicken breasts. Just remember quality is king, and strategy is important. Eating protein-rich bread without regard to how the bread was made, or the overall balance of one’s diet isn’t smart nutrition.
Protein may be trendy right now, but it isn’t the only answer for your health, fitness, or weight loss goals. So look beyond labels, marketing claims, and Insta trends before you spend your money or your macros on high-protein bread (or any other buzzy food).
Cynthia Sass is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a consultant for the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Nets