Breaking the Bread Code: How to Get the Freshest Loaf

by Paul Michael on 21 February 2011 29 comments
Photo: Romana Klee

Bread.

In America, we each consume around 53 pounds of it every year. It’s the one food eaten by people of every race, culture, or religion. And we all want the freshest loaf whenever we buy it.

But is there a way to spot it, other than squeezing, tapping, or simply guessing?

Well, it turns out that there’s a simple visual code that can take you straight to the freshest loaf in seconds. And it’s all contained in the twist ties or plastic clips around the top of the bread bag. (See also: Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, By the Month)

The Color Code of Freshness

I often wondered why they used different colors on those tags and ties. When I was a kid, I had hundreds of bread clips on the spokes of my bicycle tires, but I just figured the colors were for variety.

As it turns out, they indicate when the loaf was baked. The standard is as follows:

  • Blue: Monday
  • Green: Tuesday
  • Red: Thursday
  • White: Friday
  • Yellow: Saturday

And here's a quick color key that you can keep on you, if you so desire:

An easy way to remember it, though, is to simply recall the alphabet. The colors run in alphabetical order, so the earlier they appear in the alphabet, the earlier in the week the bread was baked. And it’s true. Even the ever-cynical Snopes.com backs it up.

This whole system was set up to help the supermarkets and grocers identify which bread was new, which was getting old (so it can be put on sale), and which was out of date and needed to be removed from the shelves. As a general rule of thumb, you should only see two colors of tags on the shelves at any one time, or three maximum for those days when bread wasn't delivered. But that doesn’t stop the old bread from sneaking in though. Do a check next time and see for yourself.

So when you go to the store for your next loaf, make sure the color of the tag is the same as the day on which you are shopping. Blue for Monday, green for Tuesday, and so on. Please note that if it’s Wednesday, you also want green. Sunday, you want yellow. For some reason, the system does not include those days. Some say it’s because bakers did not used to bake on Wednesdays and Sundays.

There Are Exceptions to the Rule

Of course there are. Life would be too easy if everyone followed the same rules, made the same chargers for every cell phone, and used the same bread code.

So in some rare instances, you may see bread tags that are one color regardless of the day on which they were baked. They may simply contain a date. In that case, here’s what you need to remember:

The date on the tag is the sell-by date, not the date it was baked.

Ahh, but what if there’s just a twist tie that’s always the same color? Well in that case, you should see a date somewhere on the bread bag. The same rule from above applies.

Some Bread Makers Have Their Own Color-Coding Systems

Again, this is not the norm, but some companies have created their own color codes for various reasons. This is not helpful for them, because it makes the task of restocking that much more difficult for the supermarket.

If you’re really anal about having the freshest bread, and you want to check, just call the maker of your favorite loaf of bread and ask what their color-coding system is. It will usually be the one in this article, but better safe than sorry.

Now go, get your fresh bread. Unless you’re making bread-and-butter pudding, in which case buy the oldest loaf you can find.

Additional photo credit: Paul Michael
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Meg Favreau's picture

Does anybody have other grocery-store freshness tricks?

Guest's picture
indio

If I want fresh bread, I bake it myself. Sure it takes more planning time, but it's delicious and I know the date it was really baked. It's probably faster to bake bread than it is to go to the supermarket.
I was going to buy some tzatziki today. When I read the label and saw all of the preservatives in it, I decided to buy Greek yogurt and make it myself. If I wanted to go one step further, I could always make the yogurt too. For me this is the best way to guarantee freshness, and taste for that matter.

Guest's picture
Guest

"It’s the one food eaten by people of every race, culture, or religion. "

...except for the millions of people with celiac disease.

Guest's picture
Guest

Gluten-free bread is still bread.

Guest's picture
Guest

"It’s the one food eaten by people of every race, culture, or religion. "

...except Asian countries such as China and Japan, whose citizens get their starch elsewhere (see: rice).

Paul Michael's picture

OK, so...

In China, the traditional bread is mantou. It is made by steaming or deep frying dough made from wheat flour. In Northern China and northern central China, mantou is often eaten as an alternative staple to rice. Steamed Mantou is similar to western white bread, but since it is not baked, it does not have a brown outer crust. Mantou that have a filling such as meat or vegetables (char siu bao, for example) are called "baozi".

In Japan, there are many delicious bakeries. The breads and pasteries are more similar to French breads than American breads, but they have many original Japanese flavors and fillings. "Pan" means bread or pasterie in Japanese. Popular Japanese breads are "an-pan"(bread with sweet red bean filling), "curry pan"(bread with curry fillings).

Guest's picture
Guest

An easy way to remember the 5 colors in order is this simple sentence:

Bread Gets Risen With Yeast.

Guest's picture
The Doctor

That colour coding scheme is used by Wonder bread and its subsidiaries.

For Mrs. Bairds (including Oroweat, Arnolds, Bimbo) The colour code is:

Mon: Brown
Tues: Orange
Thur: Yellow
Fri: Blue
Sat: Red

Sara Lee (including Rainbo), and Flowers brand bread have their own colour coding system. But as far as a date on the package that is legally required for vendor delivered product (non frozen) FYI, bread generally has a 10 day code (product life) which involves usually 7 days on market and 3 days in thrift store before it is not sold for human consumption. The colour ties are to aid in shelf rotation. Contrary to the article the grocery store RARELY stocks this bread. It is the bread companies themselves who have employees in the store multiple times a day to fill the shelves.

My knowledge on this is based on 16 years as both a manager for IBC Wonder Bread and 8 years as a Bimbo Bakeries (Mrs Bairds) franchise owner.

note: I really enjoy Lifehacker articles, but someone should have done a bit of homework on this, what I have just explained is common knowledge amongst bread vendors or grocery managers.

Guest's picture
Deborah Riddle

Does Mrs. Bairds take a day off on Wednesday and Sunday??? Sunday I can understand, but why no color code for Wednesday? just curuious... thanks for the good tip and information.

Guest's picture
ShannonA

How is it not obvious the date is a sell-by when it's always in the future? Unless you go to a really evil store where the routinely leave bread out past its date, I suppose.

My system is this: reach to the very back and get whichever has the furthest-away date. I've always noticed the colors for each DATE are consistent, but I never knew the colors relate to baking day. That's interesting. But the date interests me more...

Guest's picture
Douglas Dewar

What happens on Wednesday!?...Do the bakers take a day off!??

Guest's picture
Guest

Sunday too, lol.

Guest's picture
Guest

Didn't they dig up a 40 year old loaf of Wonderbread and it was still fresh?

Guest's picture
Guest

Back in the day, most did. It was to keep a Wednesdays bake from getting stale by Sunday. A Thursdays bake kept fresher into Sunday.

Guest's picture
Guest

How about a baked on date????

Guest's picture
Pat S

You could always bake your own... much cheaper. Of course it takes some time.

Guest's picture
Guest

It's also going to be different for places that have preservative-free artisan breads. At Whole Foods Market the bread is only on the shelf for 2 days. Sunday, Tuesday and Thursdays twist tie colors are red. Monday, Wednesday and Fridays it's green, and Saturdays are tan.

Guest's picture
Guest

Yeah, the problem with this article is that you use the word 'fresh' in reference to mass produced bread! It doesn't matter when it's made, it's not *real* bread, and it doesn't taste as good!
The way to get a fresh loaf is to visit a proper bakery, or (best of all!) bake your own bread!!

Guest's picture
Ossi

Ill thought out design. Why switch to color-coding when most of us know what date it is? Bread can also last more than a week, making this solution unreliable.

My suggestion, get rid of them all together since it's a wasteful use of plastic, and use a more environmentally friendly package instead.

Guest's picture
half-baked alaska

Don't forget in some places, like here in Alaska, the bread is shipped in and sometimes is well over a week old. Many times it's frozen to keep it fresh, so really, the tags mean nothing in some areas. ;o)

Guest's picture

that stuff's not real bread...sadly...americans have been duped into eating it for far too long...let the people have REAL bread!!...america needs a bakery revolution...^^

Guest's picture
CNP

This rule doesn't apply to actual bakeries, as most of them have an system of random scribbles that transcribe to the date, and the cashiers are NOT supposed to tell people what they are. You can ask them when an individual loaf was made, or how often that bakery sells bread as "fresh" before moving it to the "day old" rack (in my experience as a former baker, it's three days at the big places, and 1 at the small unless it's a type of bread that costs a lot to make or stays fresher for longer).

Guest's picture
Guest

today (sunday i got a black tie on the bread) what is the reason for that i see no black in the list of colors

Guest's picture
John B

I would imagine the absence of Wednesday and Sunday in the color codes is due to the fact that traditionally, grocery stores do not receive deliveries on those two days. They typically have their receiving personnel scheduled to work Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. I have been in distribution planning and scheduling for the world's largest soft drink bottler for over 12 years now, and I can tell you the grocery stores that will take deliveries on Wednesday are the exception, not the norm, although that trend has been gradually changing the last few years. Nobody accepts deliveries on Sunday, unless the grocery manager or store manager is willing to check the delivery in themselves, or they have some special arrangement with the supplier/vendor whereby receiving personnel are not needed to check in the delivery. So, as the customer dictates, the vendor provides. While I don't have any bakery experience, it would not surprise me if their work schedules followed the same pattern. If they baked on those other days, product would have to sit a day before being delivered, which would be of no benefit to anyone.

Guest's picture
Guest

Is there a reason Wednesday is missing form every list I've seen?

Guest's picture
Guest

this isnt true.each company has different codes.and the only thing you;re doing is creating more waste,in turn raising the price,when a couple days makes little differrence on the freshness

Guest's picture
Guest

Seen orange & black ties today at grocery store? What does that mean?

Guest's picture
Guest

The orange and black would expand the scheme to 7 days, maintaining alphabetical order (Black = Sunday; Orange = Wednesday). I have no fact to back that up except that I too have seen orange ties and after reading this assumed those were from Wednesday.

Guest's picture
Ule Nonknow

Actually Snopes says that every manufacturer has its own color code. The best way to buy the freshest loaf is to check the "best by" date.

http://www.snopes.com/food/prepare/breadtag.asp