Bread is a staple food in many countries and has been eaten worldwide for thousands of years, however, at the same time, it is one of the most controversial foods in the Western world. By some, it is said to be a nutritious source of fiber and essential nutrients, while others suggest it is the cause of weight gain and disease, so which is it? Is bread good for you? Or is bread bad for you?
It should be said that no individual food alone will make you healthy or unhealthy. When it comes to your diet and your health, everything is about context; the type of food that you eat, the format in which you eat it, the amount that you eat, and the frequency at which you consume it, in addition to many other lifestyle factors. Therefore, in order to determine if bread is good or bad for you, we need to consider, the type of bread, how it was made, the ingredient it contains, as well as how much and how often you are actually eating it.
Is Bread Bad For You?
Nutritionally speaking, bread is a source of carbohydrates, and, depending on the type of flour used to make it, bread contains varying amounts of complex carbohydrates, simple carbohydrates, fiber, and nutrients. Because there are so many different ways to make bread, it is important to understand that not all types of bread are created equal, and it all begins with what the bread was made with.
1. Consider the Type of Flour Used
A grain of wheat contains three edible parts: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. The bran contains antioxidants, B vitamins, and ﬁber and helps to protect the seed until it is ready to grow; the germ contains B vitamins, some protein, and minerals, and stimulates the growth; and the endosperm contains starchy carbohydrates, proteins, and small amounts of vitamins and minerals and stores the energy that the plant uses as food. When a grain of wheat is ground into flour, it is broken down into tiny pieces and the bran, germ, and endosperm are separated in the process. From here, these different parts can be separated, or combined, to make different types of flour and this can have a large impact on whether the bread is healthy or not.
Whole Grain Flour vs. Refined Flour
Bread can be made from both whole-grain flour and refined flour. The difference between whole-grain flour and refined flour is simply that the entire grain (bran, germ, and endosperm) was used to make whole-grain flour, while only the endosperm was used to make refined flour. Nutritionally speaking, whole grain flours are slightly more nutrient-dense, because they still contain the bran and germ, however, refined flours are not always a poor choice. Bread made from refined flour simply means that only the endosperm was used to make the flour, however, it is how this flour is treated after milling, and what is added to it, that will determine if it remains a good choice or not.
Sprouted Grain Flour vs. Regular Flour
In addition to what part of the grain was used to make the flour, another factor to consider is how the grains were treated before they were actually milled. By sprouting grains, such as wheat berries, prior to milling, you are able to unlock more of the grain’s nutritional benefits. The sprouting process, much like the fermentation process in baking, helps to mitigate the grain’s antinutrients, such as phytic acid and gluten, which helps to ensure the grains are more easily digested and their nutrients are more bio-available once consumed. Generally speaking, only whole grain flours are made from sprouted grains as the bran, germ and endosperm must be intact in order for the grain to sprout.
Unbleached Flour vs. Bleached Flour
Another factor to consider is how the flour was treated after it was milled, as refined flours are often treated by bleaching, either with chlorine or benzoyl peroxide, once they have been ground. Not only does bleaching add a chemical layer to the flour, but it also damages the starch and protein content of the flour. Although the bleaching process results in a whiter, finer-grain flour with a softer texture, which makes for a lighter and fluffier bread, some of the nutritional value is lost in the process.
Wheat Flour vs. Other Grains
In addition to traditional wheat, bread can also be made from many other grains including rye, kamut, spelt, oat and millet, just to make a few. Much like wheat, these grains can be made into whole grain flour or refined flour, as well as be bleached or unbleached. It is important to understand that these flours are simply made from different grains, they are not necessarily better or worse than wheat flour. Although wheat flour is the most common bread flour, these other grain flours can be found on their own in bread, as in the case of rye bread, but are more commonly found together in multigrain bread, where the grains are combined to make a bread out of multiple types of grains.
2. Consider the Way it was Made
Once you’ve considered the type of flour used to make the bread, the next step is to consider how the bread was actually made. There are essentially two primary ways to make bread; the traditional method or the commercial method.
Traditional Bread Process
In the traditional bread process, flour and water are combined to create a ‘starter’ that reacts with wild yeast and lactobacilli bacteria present in the air, which is left to slowly ferment. This starter, or natural leaven, is then paired with additional flour and salt and used to make the dough rise. The rising alone is a multi-stage process that can take hours, and by the time the loaf goes into the oven, it can be up to three days in the making. The initial starter is then kept alive through ongoing feedings for the purpose of leavening additional bread dough in an ongoing manner, and it is the actual process of natural leavening with wild yeast that defines a loaf as sourdough. Not only does this traditional process of making bread only involve three ingredients, but the natural fermentation process helps to pre-digest the grains to make them more easily digested and their nutrients more bio-available once consumed. In fact, it is the bacteria present in the fermentation process that helps to mitigate the negative health impacts of the bran, germs, phytic acid, and gluten present in the grains.
Modern Commercial Bread Process
The second most popular method is the commercial bread method using baker’s yeast. Because the process of making bread from traditional methods is so time-consuming, up to three days in the making, in the late 19th century baker’s yeast was developed to help speed up the fermentation process of the flour and, therefore, large-scale industrial baking soon flourished. Although the invention of baker’s yeast did help to speed up production time and reduce costs, the lack of natural fermentation does not allow for the same nutritional benefits. Without the natural bacteria present in the dough, the anti-nutrients present in the grains are not broken down in the same manner. Therefore, when baker’s yeast is being used to prepare bread, sprouted grain flours is a more ideal flour to use given the sprouting process has already helped to mitigate the negative impacts of the anti-nutrients.
3. Consider the Ingredients
Although real bread is only made with minimal ingredients; flour, water, and salt, most of the bread found in our grocery stores today contains much more than that. Not only will bread made with refined flour contain added vitamins and minerals (which is required by law in Canada), but many commercial breads will also contain added sugar, vegetable oils, flavors, and additives to help preserve their texture and keep them shelf-stable. Although enriched flours are not something to be overly concerned with, the unnecessary additives and preservatives are certainly less than ideal. If you’re not sure what your bread contains, just read the ingredients because you might be surprised at what you find.
So, is bread good for you?
Walk down any grocery store bread aisle and you will notice that there are dozens of different options to choose from, however, once you’ve considered the flour used, how it was made and the ingredients it contains, separating the good bread from the bad bread is actually quite simple. When it comes to bread, the healthiest options are:
- Sourdough Bread: This is unquestionably the healthiest and most natural form of bread. Made with only 3 ingredients and naturally fermented, sourdough is easily digested and a source of nutrients.
- Sprouted Grain Bread: Because the flour is made from sprouted grains, sprouted grain bread is more easily digested and nutrient-dense than commercial bread made of refined flour. Sprouted grain bread typically also contains fewer additives and preservatives.
- Whole Grain Bread: If you are unable to find sourdough or sprouted grain bread, whole grain bread is the next best option. Whole grain bread contains more nutrients than bread made from refined flour, however, always read the ingredient and pick the option with the fewest additives and preservatives.
But, doesn’t bread make you fat?
The simple answer to this question is; no. No individual food is solely responsible for weight gain or weight loss, rather, it is a cumulative effect based on diet, exercise, and lifestyle factors. Although bread has been demonized for being high in carbs, it is important to understand that, gram-per-gram, bread contains the same amount of calories as protein, and whether you are eating 50 grams of carbohydrates from bread, potatoes, or oatmeal will likely not make a difference. Weight gain is impacted by the total amount of calories you consume, in addition to other lifestyle factors, not solely by how much bread you ate.
Is eating bread every day bad?
Unless you have an allergy or intolerance to grains or gluten, generally speaking, there is no downside to eating bread. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can eat as much as you want, as with all foods, too much of a good thing can still be a bad thing. However, when consuming high-quality bread such as sourdough or sprouted grain bread, bread can serve as a good source of energy, source of fiber, and source of nutrients in a healthy diet.
The Bottom Line
Bread is nothing to be afraid of. As with all food, quality matters, and focusing on real food forms of bread is vital. Sourdough and Wonder Bread are not created equal and it is always important to keep that in mind when discussing food. No one individual food will make or break your health (or your waistline), so when it comes to bread, read the ingredients, opt for sourdough, sprouted grain bread, or whole-grain bread, and enjoy it in conjunction with a diet of real food and an active lifestyle.