Bready or not, here come hundreds of new loaves catering to the weight-conscious, fat-conscious, health-conscious consumer.
"Bread, all of a sudden, has become a very hot commodity," says Lynn Dornblaser, publisher of New Product News. "Doctors used to tell people to cut out the bread when they wanted to lose weight. Now we know the doctors were wrong.
"People should have been staying away from the butter, not the bread."
Interest in whole grains has spawned "light nine-grain" bread, along with "natural 12-grain," "premium sun grain" and "seven-grain buttertop." Want your ham-and-cheese on rye? Sandwich a filling between "hearty rye," "thick-sliced Dijon rye," "soft rye" or "real Jewish rye."
Wheat gets even more confusing, with "golden wheat," "light wheat," "honey wheat berry," "100 percent cracked wheat" and "stone-ground wheat" breads, to name just a few.
Bread's new status -- as a "good" food that's low in fat and sugar and can be high in fiber when made with whole-wheat flour -- was enhanced by the United States Department of Agriculture's "Eating Right" food pyramid. The pyramid, published last year, advises Americans to eat six to 11 daily servings of carbohydrates -- rice, cereal, potatoes . . . and bread.
It didn't take the nation's 2,640 wholesale bakeries, which rack up $30 billion a year in sales, long to jump on the bread bandwagon.
Says Carol Kroskey, senior editor at Bakery Production and Marketing, a monthly trade magazine: "We're focusing on 'pyramid power' and what it can do for the bakers. Hopefully, there will be an increased demand for bread."
Consumers are undoubtedly buying more bread: In 1991, the last year for which figures are available, "variety" bread (whole-grain, rye and oat bread) sales increased by 7 percent and white bread sales increased by 5 percent.
With all the new breads on the shelves -- 283 varieties were introduced in the last year alone, according to New Product News -- how can you tell on which side your bread is buttered?
Or to put it put another way, how do you know which loaves pack the most nutrients?
Nutritionist Jayne Hurley of the Center for Science in the Public Interest has this advice: Be suspicious of breads with names like "rustic," "country" and "multi-grain." While they may command $3 a loaf and up, chances are they're made mostly with white flour. And if you're looking for a nutrient-dense bread, find a loaf in which "whole-wheat flour" is the first ingredient. Not unbleached flour. Not wheat flour. Not unbleached enriched wheat flour. These all have had their germ and bran stripped away.
"They are still complex carbohydrates, but their 'wholeness' is gone," Ms. Hurley says. "Most of the vitamins, minerals and fiber were removed with the germ and the bran during the refining."
Parents bemoaning their kids' aversion to whole-wheat bread can, however, take comfort.
"There is no such thing as a bad bread," Ms. Hurley says. "It's pretty much of a nutritional powerhouse in any way, shape or form. Even white bread is light-years ahead of other foods. It doesn't have the drawbacks other foods do, like fat or sugar, and it is a complex carbohydrate. At least white bread is made with flour that's enriched with vitamins and iron."
Still, white bread's share of the market is falling, notes Ms. Dornblaser of New Product News, and variety breads are becoming more popular. In the coming months, look for even more ethnic and specialty breads -- and more labels touting the USDA's food pyramid as a reason to eat more bread. (Already, Pepperidge Farm's Wholesome Choice breads have the pyramid the package.)
"People are more aware of fat in the diet and they are cutting back on fat," Ms. Dornblaser says. "And when consumers cut back on fat, what do they eat? Complex carbohydrates."
In other words, let them eat bread.