Use your loaf!
Bread receives a lot of bad press these days, which is a shame. God forbid if you actually admit to some over zealous nutritional evangelists that you eat white, sliced bread. That’s akin to saying you were pen-pals with Saddam Hussein! I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Mr Warburton had been tied to a stake and burnt as the spawn of Satan. Sadly, like much of today’s nutritional advice, the question of eating bread appears to have suffered a common-sense bypass.
Yet bread has been the cornerstone of the working mans’ diet for hundreds of years. It’s no exaggeration to say that industrial Britain was built on bread. So is it that bad, and should everyone stop eating it?
Well, let’s see if we can shed some light on the issue.
Is bread healthy?
Yes, in most cases it is. Health-wise, it’s debatable if two slices of wholemeal toast with peanut butter constitutes an ideal breakfast. But it’s certainly far better than a danish pastry. Don’t forget that quantity and quality are important factors in any dietary situation. So it’s not just what type of bread you eat, but how much as well.
But it contains gluten
Self-diagnosing a gluten intolerance via a Google search is common place today. But it’s probably wrong. A recent study  discovered that 86% of people who think they are gluten intolerant, can cope with gluten just fine. And a diagnosis from a back-street homeopathy practitioner who puts a crystal on your forehead and chants softly is just as pointless.
Unless you have been medically diagnosed with a gluten intolerance, i.e., celiac disease, then gluten may not be the villain you think it is.
But isn’t bread a modern food? Is that why our guts struggle with it?
Sorry, that’s not true either.
It’s an old food
Despite what The Paleo-enthusiasts claim, humans have been eating grains for tens of thousands of years. Archaeologists have found cereal grains in the teeth of fossilised human remains dating back at least 23,000 years. As well as finding pestles (for grinding down grass seeds) dated at over 100,000 years old . So, cereal-type crops are not a recent addition to our diets.
“We have a saying: ‘you shouldn’t blame old foods on new diseases’.
So, what is the problem?
We’re going to argue that in many cases, it’s the bread-making process that’s the problem.
Using traditional methods, baking bread involves just four ingredients: flour, water, yeast and salt. It also takes quite few hours – often overnight – for the fermentation process (proving) to complete. But large-scale, commercial baking processes change this. Increasing productivity – and thereby reducing costs – involves the use of various ‘processing aids’ (additives).
For example, an enzyme called ‘transglutaminase’, increases the natural elasticity of gluten, thereby reducing time spent kneading. Organic baking expert Andrew Whitely, claims this enzyme can make gluten more toxic than normal.
So, your gut may cope with natural gluten but not a gluten/transglutaminase combination.
There’s more – and it gets worse
Let’s have a quick look at some other ‘processing aids’
- Fat: increases loaf volume, makes it softer and extends shelf-life.
- L-ascorbic acid (E300): increases the oxygen uptake of the dough, giving the false impression of a bigger loaf
- Chlorine dioxide (bleach): whitens flour
- L-cysteine hydrochloride (E920): Like transglutaminase, it increases the elasticity of dough
- Soya flour: Increases the volume and softness of bread. Also allows it to hold more water
- Emulsifiers: Allows the dough to hold more gas and retain softness. Stops bread going stale
Artisan versus industrial-scale baking
To us, the issue is clear: properly made bread takes between 12 – 24 hours to make. It contains little more than four, natural ingredients. It also starts to go dry in a day or so. Commercially-made bread however, contains an average of ten ingredients and ready to bake in under two hours. It’s full of additives and will stay both moist and mould-free for five to seven days, possibly longer.
We feel that in many cases, it’s these additives and alterations to the natural baking processes that causes the problems, rather than bread itself.
Okay, we admit that we haven’t submitted our research for a PhD. Nor can we cite dozens of studies to back-up our claims. We’re simply making a common-sense conclusion based on over thirty-five years of offering dietary advice. We have come across very few people who have not felt better (including us) for avoiding popular-branded packaged/sliced bread. Yet have few, if any problems with bread from a traditional bakery.
What about the supermarket bakery?
Okay, not everyone can get to a traditional artisan bakery, so what about the ‘bakery’ at your local supermarket? Is their ‘freshly baked’ bread any better than the packet, sliced variety?
Well, the major supermarkets suddenly become very shy when asked precisely what goes into their bread. Or how they prepare it. They mumble incoherent nonsense about food labelling. And then hide behind vague laws about what constitutes ‘freshly baked’.
Without doubt, the bread is baked on the premises, but the popular consensus is that it’s been partly baked elsewhere. Then frozen for storage until it is eventually delivered to the bakery and re-baked. This method has led to claims in a popular newspaper that ‘Supermarket bakeries are just loaf-tanning salons’ .
That said, we still think it’s a better option than sliced.
Are there any healthier options?
You can look out for ‘Clean labels’ on bread. This is meant to indicate that the baker has not used any additives or ‘processing aids’. But it’s not an industry-wide standard just yet, so may just be another marketing ploy by commercial bread makers.
Sourdough bread seems to be gaining popularity in the healthy-bread category. Due to it’s longer fermentation process, it contains less gluten. It’s also full of gut-improving bacteria. However, to get the full benefits, it must be made with traditional methods and not just contain sourdough flour.
On a personal note, we have no gut issues with most ciabatta, Panini and focaccia-type bread. And flat breads like pitta are possibly healthier alternatives as they are made with olive oil, have less yeast or other chemicals. The downside is they can be quite high calorie.
Finally, we’ve also found tortilla wraps to be good replacements for bread. And you could try rice cakes and crisp-breads, such as Ryvita.
Now let’s have a look at how bread affects your weight.
Is bread fattening?
We have another saying: there’s no such thing as a fattening food, only a fattening diet. By the same token, there are no diet foods either. Successful weight management is more to do with overall lifestyle, rather than any one food. (We delve deeply into this issue in our books.)
Bread, by itself, is not necessarily calorific (about 90k/cals per slice). But it is very moreish and easy to consume in high quantities. And when you slather it with butter and jam or marmalade, you can easily double its calorie value. It’s not hard, when loading on the butter and mayo, to get the calories of a ‘healthy’ chicken salad sandwich close to that of a Big Mac.
So, cutting back on bread when dieting is generally a good decision.
But it not just the calories that are the problem
Most cheap, white bread is made from highly refined flour that has had all the fibre and nutrition removed. So, it’s basically just compressed sugar. This means it scores highly (about 95 out of a maximum of 100) on the Glycaemic Index (GI). And high GI foods are associated with weight gain and type-2 diabetes.
So, white toast and jam for breakfast may leave you craving for the biscuit tin by 10am. If you really want white bread, freeze it first, then defrost and toast it. Research has shown this process lowers the GI score by about 20%. 
Still not the best option but it’s still better than a salted caramel Mocha Frappuccino coffee and a muffin (about 1,000 k/cals)
Is brown bread any better?
First, the definition of the words brown, wholemeal and wholegrain are open to interpretation. It’s one of those positive-sounding terms that bread makers love to use. Yet, they have no real legal definition in food labelling regulations regarding bread products. Wholegrain bread should contain the entire edible grain (including the germ, endosperm and bran) from cereals and related plants.
Wholemeal is a type of unrefined flour that again contains the entire grain. By law, if your loaf claims to be wholemeal then it must be made using wholemeal flour. But this law doesn’t apply to how the flour is created in the first place. Brown bread may be wholegrain/wholemeal, but it could also be white flour that hasn’t been bleached.
Regardless, wholemeal/grain bread score lower on the GI (about 72 out of 100) and usually contain more fibre and vitamins and minerals. So, in that respect, they are possibly better options.
Ultimately, it all comes down to how much bread you eat. And also what issues you may or may not suffer. Just don’t give up on what could be a healthy and nutritious food without checking all the facts first.
Our advice is:
- Don’t self-diagnose for a gluten intolerance – go see your doctor and get it done properly
- For most people, a little bit of bread is a good option, especially artisan or sourdough bread.
- Wholemeal/wholegrain offers more nutrition than white and scores lower on the GI index
- A supermarket bakery is possibly better than packet bread
- Commercially-made bread is not the healthiest bread in the world
- Cheap, white sliced bread is poor quality food
Keep up the fight and win the inch war
Paul and Ann
Related reading: The problem with diets
- Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity among Patients Perceiving Gluten-Related Symptoms
- Scientific American: Humans feasting on grains for over 100,000 years
- Daily Mail: Are supermarket bakeries just loaf-tanning salons
- The impact of freezing and toasting on the glycaemic response of white bread.
We (Paul and Ann, Get Physical Ltd) are not doctors, nor are we licensed medical professionals. This website and blog is not here to diagnose any medical condition or replace your health care provider.