The bread lie: what is the truth behind healthy bread?

Bread is often deemed “bad” and “unhealthy” as it is considered a high glycaemic index simple carbohydrate, which rapidly gives you energy, raises blood sugar and blood insulin levels and causes sugar lows which make you tired, emotionally low and hungry, increasing your weight with minimal nutritional benefit. However, bread is healthy. We need carbohydrates for energy and some bread such as unprocessed complex carb wholegrain, rye, spelt, pumpernickel, wholemeal and real sourdough bread are more healthy as they contain energy-sustaining fibre, protein and healthy fats, are mineral-rich and gut microbiota boosting. However, marketing companies know this, and they know that there is no legal definition for bread types and so we are often sold ultra-processed “healthy”, “artisan”, “baked in-store,” “seeded” or “wholegrain” loaves, that have no health benefit at all. So how do you know what to buy and how do you get past the manipulative food marketing?

bread-is-it-healthy-laura-campbell
Is bread healthy?

What is bread?

Bread is made of carbohydrates, protein, fat and fibre in different proportions depending on the ingredients. Carbohydrates contain energy which we need to make the energy to function and stay alive. There are many types of carbohydrates; from simple sugar carbohydrates like glucose, fructose and sucrose to complex carbohydrates like starch, cellulose and fibre. We respond to simple and complex carbs in very different ways. Simple carbohydrates give us quick and short-lasting energy, raising our blood glucose levels. This is great if you need a quick energy supply when exercising or working hard. Simple carbohydrates cause the hormone insulin to be released to counteract this raised blood glucose, storing any excess (if you have too much) energy in the liver and adipose (fat) tissues, reducing blood sugar and weight and causing energy lows, which make you tired, moody and hungry for more simple carbs. They also cause massive peaks in Dopamine, the pleasure brain chemical, which is why they taste so delicious to us.

Complex carbohydrates on the other hand, such as cellulose and fibre, have more complicated structures and so take longer to break down and give us a more sustained long-lasting energy source. They give you vitality for a long period, without the energy crashes which make you crave sugary things. Fibre is also prebiotic, which boosts the gut microbiota, helping (via the brain-gut axis), you produce more Serotonin (the mood stabiliser), which helps you regulate your emotions. The gut microbiota can also help regulate our immune Treg cells, helping reduce immune hypersensitivity and inflammation, intolerance and allergy. There are two types of fibre; soluble and insoluble fibre. The fibre in bread is insoluble, so slows digestion, keeping you feeling fuller for longer and so the more fibre in your bread the better.

Most bread also contains gluten as it is found in wheat, rye, barley and oats. This is a protein that binds the bread together. There is much zeitgeist hype around gluten-free benefits, with 30% of the population claiming to be gluten intolerant. In reality, it predicted by scientists (NHS England and Econopouly, B.F. and Jones, S.S., 2017), that only less than 0.1% of the population has this condition. Gluten is not bad for you unless you are intolerant. Otherwise, it is perfectly healthy and most gluten-free substitute loaves are ultra-processed with additives, and not healthy at all.

Some bread loaves also are made of nut flours or contain seeds and oats, which are proteins which help regulate your blood glucose levels, and keep you fuller for longer. They also contain healthy monounsaturated fats which help the brain (the brain is 60% fat) and heart. Olive oil bread such as focaccia Mediterranean bread, or those containing sunflower vegetable oils is also brain and heart beneficial.

Is bread healthy?

Bread health benefits depend on the ingredients, which is why it is SO important that you check the ingredient list before you purchase a loaf. Bread can be made of many different types of flours, oils, and yeasts and contain varying levels of flavourings, salt and additives. It can also be supplemented with fibre and protein in things such as seeds, oats, olives and grains. It can also be freshly baked, or baked and defrosted (which is what most “baked in store breads are”).

The healthiest bread contains the simplest ingredients. Ingredients you would recognise in your grandma’s pantry such as natural bakers yeast, flour and salt. Flour is made from many different things, from all-purpose durum wheat white flour used in baking and making pasta, couscous and some noodles to semolina wheat flour, bulgar wheat flour, spelt wheat flour, to rye flour used in sourdough and gluten-free flours like buckwheat, almond, banana, coconut, amaranth, cornstarch, rice flour (also used to make some noodles), hemp, quinoa, soy, tapioca, hazelnut, potato and many other flour types. Wheat flour exists in three forms starting as the wholegrain made of the endosperm, bran and germ. Wholegrain flour is made of the whole grain which has a high fibre shell called the bran (loaded with B vitamins fibre and protein), the inner endosperm (mainly starch and protein) the germ, or embryo (rich in essential fatty acids, protein, minerals, and vitamins B and E).

The health benefits of bread, and its effects on your glucose energy levels, mental health, blood cholesterol, microbiota and appetite, depend on the type of flour used and how refined and processed the flour used is, the additives, preservatives and other ingredients, and the way it is cooked. Most supermarket flour is ultra-refined and highly processed, removing all of the bran and endosperm. This refined flour causes massive spikes in glucose levels as it has a high glycaemic index. Wholegrain or wholemeal bread is less or unrefined, and so although it does cause blood sugar spikes, it is at a slower and longer-lasting rate, keeping you full of energy and satiated for longer. The problem is that there is no legal definition for wholegrain or wholemeal, and so often supermarkets sell breads with a mix of flours (to reduce costs), containing a small percentage of wholemeal or wholegrain flour, oats, seeds, spelt or nuts, but the rest of the bread highly processed wheat flour, as “healthy,” “seeded,” “artisan” wholemeal or wholegrain loaves. These loaves cause massive glucose highs and insulin troughs and leave you feeling tired, hungry and conned out of your cash.

Sourdough bread, a fermented bread, made with natural yeast, rye and often containing lactobacillus (the same beneficial bacterial as in yoghurts) gut microbiota boosting bacteria, also causes smaller glucose peaks that ultra-processed and refined equivalents. The issue lies that again there is no legal protection for the term Sourdough, and so often supermarkets and shops sell highly processed white flours containing a small percentage rye flour but no gut microbiota boosting live cultures as Sourdough.

So what bread should you buy?

You wouldn't purchase a dress online without looking at the description before you bought it. The food decisions you make each day are the single most important health decisions you make each day, and so it is essential you proactively and curiously check what you are buying before you purchase it. Check the labels and go for wholegrains, wholemeal, Sourdough, rye or spelt with the fewest ingredients possible (ideally with no preservatives or additives at all), ideally containing seeds or nut proteins and if you buy a Sourdough ensure there is natural yeast.

You can also jointhe charity Sustain, which is working hard on “the Bread Project,” to ensure that the supply chain bread con ends. They are doing this by working on the “honest crust act” which you can support on their website Sustain.

Bread is not bad. It is an essential dietary staple for many diets and can be incorporated into balanced nutrition. Sandwiches, toasties, bagguetes, croissants, pretzels, flatbreads, pittas, bagels, wraps, ciabatta, foccatia, naan and tortillas can all be incorporated into a healthy diet and should not be rejected or feared. They taste delicious and bread can help us nourish our bodies. What is important is that if you need to improve your physical and mental (refined carbohydrates can cause energy dips that make you anxious and emotionally liable) health, weight, glucose levels or heart health, or fertility, that you are aware of the impacts of different breads on your health and are not conned by suppliers into purchasing something that it not what it says on the label. Read the label and buy what you need for your own personalised healthy nutrition.

Copyright Laura Laurentia Campbell 06/06/2022

References

  1. Mondal, A. and Datta, A.K., 2008. Bread baking–A review. Journal of Food Engineering, 86(4), pp.465–474.
  2. Curtis, B.C., Rajaram, S. and Gómez Macpherson, H., 2002. Bread wheat: improvement and production. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
  3. Scanlon, M.G. and Zghal, M.C., 2001. Bread properties and crumb structure. Food research international, 34(10), pp.841–864.
  4. Sustainweb.org. 2022. #AnHonestCrust? | Real Bread Campaign. [online] Available at: https://www.sustainweb.org/realbread/bread_labelling/#demands [Accessed 5 June 2022].
  5. Econopouly, B.F. and Jones, S.S., 2017. The Rewards of (Gluten) Intolerance.Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/26362443 [Accessed 5 June 2022].
  6. Coeliac disease. 2022. NHS England. Available at https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coeliac-disease/#:~:text=Contents&text=Coeliac%20disease%20is%20a%20condition,diarrhoea%2C%20abdominal%20pain%20and%20bloating.[Accessed 5 June 2022].
  7. McCance, R.A. and Widdowson, E.M., 1942. Mineral metabolism of healthy adults on white and brown bread dietaries. The Journal of Physiology, 101(1), p.44.
  8. Liljeberg, H.G., Lönner, C.H. and Björck, I.M., 1995. Sourdough fermentation or addition of organic acids or corresponding salts to bread improves nutritional properties of starch in healthy humans. The Journal of nutrition, 125(6), pp.1503–1511.
  9. Fahmi, R., Blewett, H., Stebbing, J.A., Olson, N., Ryland, D. and Aliani, M., 2022. Acute effects of split pea-enriched white pan bread on postprandial glycemic and satiety responses in healthy volunteers — A randomized crossover trial. Foods, 11(7), p.1002.
  10. Graham, S., 2022. A treatise on bread, and bread-making. Good Press.

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Laurentia (Laura)Campbell

Laurentia (Laura)Campbell

Neuroscience, mental health and nutrition academic and writer. Life-experimenter, trying to add value with an insatiable appetite for actioning positive change.