Is bread healthy? – It’s complicated

Gluten, phytic acid, fructan can all cause various problems, intolerances and even disease. Commercially produced bread also can also lead to insulin spikes. But there is a way to make and eat bread that can solve most if not all problems, and it tastes even better than the unhealthy version!

Most of us have grown up with the concept that bread is not healthy, white bread, that is. That if we want to be healthy we should choose wholegrain or “brown” bread over white. Bread has long been the bad boy in most diets, viewed as a source of unnecessary extra calories, it is usually absent from calorie restricted diets. In more recent years this concept has been taken one step further. Bread contains gluten and anything with gluten is to be avoided at all costs. Well, it might surprise you to know that based on the most recent studies the above is not true, not entirely, at any rate. It’s complicated.

Before I tell you the truth about bread we should take a quick look back at history.

The different types of bread over time

In ancient times most people used to live on a diet based on what the land around them provided. Fresh fruits and vegetables were not always plentiful in all parts of the world and at all times. Also, not everyone could afford to eat well. For most people, regardless of social status, bread constituted a diet staple. The type of flour used varied according to the region, but they all had one thing in common, the flour was unrefined. In other words, bread was what we now call wholegrain bread (which is not to be confused with wholemeal or brown bread). This meant that the entire grain was used, bran and germ, not just the endosperm (the inner part).  This meant a higher fibre content, as well as being much more nutritious due to a much higher content of vitamins and minerals in unrefined flour.

Back in the old times bread used to be one of the foods, alongside hard cheeses, carried by travellers during their journeys. Both kept relatively well for days, were easy to lug around and provided enough nutrition for basic survival. 

It was not until the late 19th century that white, unrefined, flour made an appearance on the tables of the rich and nobility.  It became the new trend as it allowed them to distinguish themselves from the peasants working the fields and the poorer classes. White bread, which was softer in texture, then became a status symbol since white (refined) flour was more expensive and less easy to find. With the beginning of the 20th century it became more affordable and people started to buy more. It was with the advent of the industrial production of bread that things really took a turn for the worse, especially in terms of nutrition.

Industrialised bread-making

The old-fashioned method of making bread was simple. There were two options, people either had flat bread (which was often dense and thick) or they used natural fermentation as a leavening agent, a.k.a as sourdough. A sourdough starter was made with equal parts of water and flour (nowadays some might use some salt, too) which was allowed to ferment slowly to allow the formation of natural yeast, bacteria and enzymes, which in turn would release the lactic acid (the same bacteria found in yoghurts) which is what gives it the sour flavour that sourdough is known for.

Naturally leavened bread (or sourdough) uses live, naturally existing (good) airborne bacteria and yeasts, which digest the starches in the dough releasing COβ‚‚ as a by product. Gluten traps the COβ‚‚ and causes the flour to rise and have a softer texture. This process takes time, and the longer it is allowed to ferment the more gluten is broken down in a process called Hydrolisis. Phytic acid present in flour, is also broken down.

Why phytic acid and gluten are “bad”

Phytic acid is a substance found in wholegrains and beans as well as most nuts and seeds. It binds with vitamins, magnesium and calcium and, once bound, the body is unable to digest this mixture. It is estimated that 80% of the nutritional value is lost as a result.

Although phytic acid in itself can be useful for people who have excess calcium deposits in soft tissues, which may be the result of a diet too rich in poor quality dairy products and refined foods, excess deposits can lead to vascular plaque and arthritis, and a host of degenerative diseases. However, in terms of the nutritional value of bread, eating bread in which most of its vitamin and minerals have been stripped down, makes little sense.

On a side note, if you want to consume wholegrains and nuts without intestinal problems, soaking these in water overnight, or for a minimum of 4 hours, removes the phytic acid and allows your body to better absorb the iron, zinc, magnesium, phosphorous and all other nutrients.

Gluten, on the other hand, is a group of proteins, called prolamins and glutelins, which is naturally found in various cereal grains. It is useful in that it acts as a sort of glue in the dough, holding it together. Anyone who was tried to slice a loaf of 100% sourdough rye bread will know how difficult it is to get a clean slice, without the bread crumbling. Due to this property, it is also used in non-food products. However, it can cause intestinal inflammation and can even lead to leaky gut syndrome.

It should be noted though, that even though many people think they are gluten intolerant, the truth is that only 1-2% of the population are actually gluten intolerant, some are actually suffering from coeliac disease (which is a serious condition), others have non coeliac gluten sensitivity.  According to the Huffington Post 86% of Americans who believe they are gluten intolerant are not intolerant.

In fact, more recent studies have shown that people who experience symptoms such as problems digesting bread, bloating, inflammation and candida (a yeast based condition), are actually reacting to something else.

Fructan intolerance

This something else might be fructan, a type of sugar. (The scientific definition of fructan is: oligo- or poly-saccharides that include short chain fructose units with a terminal glucose molecule).  Fructan molecules attract more water into the intestines, which can lead to bloating and diarrhoea, and eventually to IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). Fructan is present in foods such as artichokes, leeks garlic, onions, spring onions, as well as wheat. Researches at Monash University in Australia were the first to develop the low FODMAP diet which is designed to reduce the intake of fructan to manage these symptoms and IBS.

Sourdough bread which has undergone the fermentation process does not contain fructan.

The invention of chemical yeast

Going back to the history of bread making, apparently it was a French scientist, Louis Pasteur, who invented chemical yeast just over 100 years ago. It is this yeast, which began to be used in the 1960s with the rise of industrialised production of bread, at the same time people started moving away from traditional bakeries. Why? Sourdough is a relatively slow process which also requires constant attention. The sourdough starter needs to be kept alive, and to do so it requires “feeding” every day. Chemical yeast is quick and requires no, or almost no time, to rise. In the age of industrial commercial production for the masses, time is money.

In so doing, bread was transformed from a highly nutritional food to a food providing little to no nutritional value and a host of side effects.

Interestingly, as studies have begun to appear in increasing numbers, and with food intolerances on the rise, plus the health food wholegrains movement, it has now once again become “cool” to eat wholegrain brown sourdough bread, the way our ancestors used to. We have come full circle, as it were. Or have we?

New legislation on sourdough

As always, the food industry has quickly taken steps to feed this growing demand. Now we don’t just see the “gluten free” label liberally attached to anything from bottled water to chocolate, but we have also seen an increase in the number of breads being called sourdough. But beware!  There is sourdough and there is “sourdough”.

Current new legislation introduced in Spain in 2018 establishes that a bread can be labelled sourdough when as little as 15% of the mass of the loaf is actually made using sourdough starter. Similar laws have been introduced in other European countries. However, according to a BBC article published earlier this year (October 2018) indicates that one out of five so called sourdough loaves sold in supermarkets are NOT made the traditional way and contain additional ingredients or additives.

So, one step forward and two steps back. This does nothing to clear the confusion for people who truly want a traditionally made sourdough loaf.

The health benefits of REAL sourdough bread

Let’s recap why real sourdough bread is good for you, regardless of the flour used (wheat, spelt, kamut, buckwheat, rye etc)

-          It is almost completely, or completely gluten-free (depending on type of flour and how it is made);

-          Phytic acid is broken down allowing a better absorption of all vitamins and minerals;

-          Fructan is not present, making it easier to digest;

-          Sourdough has a much lower GI (glycaemic index, ie sugar) than other breads, so there is no insulin spike making it suitable for diabetics (it also makes you feel fuller for longer);

-          It lasts much longer (up to one week if stored properly) than commercially produced bread;

-          It has a unique taste.

Even people with a minor gluten intolerance can tolerate sourdough bread, and for those on a low GI diet (like myself), the best choice is rye sourdough bread which is often called German style bread as it is so popular there.

So, as you can see sourdough is a nutritional food which does not need to be put on the bad foods list during diets. In fact, it has become so popular that there is even a Sourdough Library in Belgium, established by Karld de Smedt, the head of the Centre for Bread Flavour.

The Sourdough Library

The story of the library is worth mentioning briefly. It started when a Syrian baker contacted Smedt. He asked him to document and preserve his sourdough starter which he had been using for decades to make his famous chickpea biscuits. When his sons took over, they wanted to use commercial yeast and he was afraid that the original recipe and taste would disappear.  Smedt then started collecting other starters from around the world in his library and kept feeding them with the same flour sourced from their place of origin in an attempt to retain their original and unique character and taste.  Interestingly, what has emerged is a whole study into sourdough where microbial ecologists are trying to understand the relationship between the environment, the flour and the baker (and the bacteria naturally occurring on his hands) and how this affects their uniqueness. It appears that even using the same baker and ingredients, the characteristics of the sourdoughs have changed over time.

Is bread healthy?

In answer to the original question whether or not bread is healthy, the short answer is simple. Unless you suffer from a real health condition such as coeliac disease, yes, wholegrain, real 100% sourdough bread made with the traditional slow leavening method is highly nutritious and will not impair your diet or affect your blood sugar levels. The healthiest of all is considered rye sourdough. So, go ahead and indulge in some bread over the holidays and stop counting the calories, count the slices of goodness instead!

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