Bread is a food that features heavily in the average western diet. So how do you pick the most nutritious loaf when faced with the many types of bread now available on supermarket shelves, all containing different ingredients and advertising a variety of health claims?
I love bread, preferably straight out of the oven and slathered with butter. I’ve given it up all together in the past, but I really missed it. Now I do eat it, just not daily, and when I do (mostly on the weekend when I can buy my favourite loaf from the market), I really enjoy it.
Bread is a staple that has become a victim of the industrialisation of our food chain. To make bread all that is needed is four ingredients – flour, water, salt and a rising agent (yeast or sourdough). However the average supermarket loaf today contains up to twenty ingredients. So let’s break down the good, bad and the ugly of this formerly simple staple.
Starting with flour…
Let’s start with bread chief ingredient, flour. The flour used in bread ranges from ultra refined white to wholegrain flour and everything in between. No, surprise that I’m picking the whole grain variety! Why? Well, the history of refining wheat into flour is a sordid tail (you can read more about it here). Bread made from refined white flour, even when fortified, offers only a fraction of the nourishment of whole grain bread. It fills a void in your stomach, but not for long, and provides little else than plenty of empty calories. It’s no wonder bread generally is gaining a bad reputation.
Wholemeal bread is a little better than white bread though they are still made from refined flour with just the fibre added back.
Multigrain bread, can also be deceiving as often they are made with white flour, dressed up with a few whole grains and seeds.
Whole grain bread, on the other hand, contains vitamins, minerals, fats, protein and carbohydrate – just as nature intended. They are fibre rich and provide sustained energy in the form of complex carbohydrates. Consumed in moderation and topped with fat (butter), protein and lots of leafy greens, bread can form part of a balanced meal. It’s just not a meal in itself.
But there’s more…
Now to the other ‘added’ ingredients. The purpose of these ingredients is three-fold. Firstly you have the essentials, that is salt, water and a rising agent (either yeast or sourdough). I prefer sourdough over a yeast leaven bread. Traditionally prepared sourdough bread have been found to be more digestible, have lower levels of gluten and are much more nutritious than yeast leaven bread. Also, many people suffer from health complains which are aggravated by yeast.
Next, you have the fortifying or enriching agents, the vitamins and minerals that are either mandatory inclusions or included to assist in the marketing of the product. Fortification returns some, but not all of the nutrients stripped away in the refining process. I think it’s quite presumptuous of us to think we can take a natural whole product, break it down and then replace some of its parts. Once more, any nutritionist will tell you that B vitamins need to be supplemented only as part of a complex. Many experts argue that mass medicating with folate and niacin may be in fact detrimental to our health (time will tell here). Wholegrain bread, however, doesn’t need to be fortified as a whole, unprocessed grain naturally contains these vitamins, minerals and fibre (intricately balanced), and a whole lot more.
Finally, you have a variety of agents which are designed to preserve (extend the shelf life), improve the texture and crumb of the bread and lastly speed up the process of making the loaf. These preservatives and chemicals which are found in many types of bread include vegetable oils which improve the crumb and extend the shelf life. These are dangerous to your health and best avoided. High fructose corn syrup is cheapest and most dangerous version of sugar and helps the bread to rise faster. Calcium propionate (282), is a preservative used to inhibit mould and bacteria growth. It has been inked to behavioural and learning problems in children, skin irritation, headaches, migraine and asthma. Due to recent press reports about the dangers of 282, manufacturers have started using other propionates (280 and 281) – sadly these have the same effects as 282. According to fedup.com.au, ‘manufacturers have started using whey, dextrose or wheat that has been cultured with propionibacteria to create a ‘natural’ form of propionate preservative. This bread can then be labelled ‘no artificial preservatives’, although it contains the equivalent of the propionate preservatives.’
So many additives to speed up the process of making bread. This is another example of health being compromised for profit. I feel many of these mass produced bread have ultimately become ‘fast’ foods! All of these preservatives to allow your bread to stay soft and mould free for longer. But what about the freezer? It works just as well without the potentially damaging health effects. And a word of warning – just because you’re buying bread from a bakery, don’t assume it is free from preservatives and dough conditioners. Always check thoroughly with your baker.
Making the best choice
So in short, bread with lengthy ingredient lists are to be avoided. It really is quite simple to choose a nourishing loaf – the basic rule of thumb is LESS IS BEST. No more than four ingredients, naturally – whole grains, salt (preferably sea), water, yeast or sourdough. The only other acceptable ingredients, in my opinion, are nuts, seeds and whole grains.
Whilst you are shopping around for the best bread, investigate wheat free bread like spelt and Kamut. These grains yield a very similar crumb to wheat bread, so kids like them and they are generally more nourishing and digestible (much lower gluten levels). Take it another step and try a sprouted bread which you’ll find refrigerated in your health food shop. At the very least, look at labels, ask your baker questions and find the best possible product available.
I love the bread from my local farmers market (pictured) or the Ancient Grains range of spelt and Kamut sandwich loaves (great sliced bread for school lunches).