How it all started
Bread has been a staple foodstuff for thousands of years. And it hasn’t changed a bit; it is still an essential part of our daily diet. Pitas, fluffy buns, cornbread, or baguette. Rye, white or black. Even better, mixed bread, for mixed health messages. In all shapes and sizes.
Though we wish to avoid taking a strict approach to this endlessly delicious topic, from a health perspective, things seem much less bright. Having said that, it would be very unfair to confuse and equate them all.
There are good, better, and the worst bread options.
White bread and how it’s made
White flour is produced by the refining process when germs and brans (the most nutritious outer parts) are removed from the grain. The flour is obtained only from the middle of the grain (endosperm), which has the highest amount of starch and is low in nutrients.
Reduced to simple starch, that is, chains of glucose (sugar) molecules, such food is quickly converted into simple sugars in the bloodstream, triggering the insulin response that regulates glucose levels.
The dietary fiber content of refined wheat flour is almost 4 times lower than that of the whole grain.
The article Complex Carbohydrates on this website discusses why regular consumption of simple carbs and starch can have bad and lasting effects on our health. And, on the other side of the spectrum, why eating whole grains with high fiber content, is good for preventive health and can be a simple way to manage different types of digestive disorders.
What type of bread we should and should not be eating?
To satisfy recommended nutritional needs in respect of fiber (30 g a day), current dietary advice is to choose foods rich in fiber, that is, wholegrain starchy carbs, with reduced amounts of salt and sugar and other additives, or preferably without it.
We can keep consuming bread, pasta, and rice, but in order to make the food truly functional, long-term metrics suggest to reduce simple carbs in our diet.
In other words, we can continue eating bread, or even better making our own, but enriched with a range of healthier ingredients – pulses, vegetables, and seeds – and other bioactive substances. Because, diet rich in fiber, especially soluble fiber, facilitates digestion and preserve gut health. It also contributes to the feeling of satiety, thus helping us to manage weight.
But, we need to keep in mind that whole-grain carbs are still – carbs!
Overeating on starchy and sugary foods provoke insulin response in our blood in a bid to regulate glucose levels and may lead to insulin resistance over time. The poor eating habits pooled with other factors, such as sedentary lifestyle and alcohol and nicotine consumption, harbor the risk of getting type 2 diabetes and other cardiovascular disorders.
Also, there is accumulated evidence from a range of studies showing that gluten-containing foods (including wheat barley and rye), stimulate “pleasure” centers in our brain, with the potential to cause addiction.
Seeds and fibers in bread recipes
Accordingly to one study from the University of Life Sciences in Lublin, Poland, adding pumpkin pulp to wheat flour enriches the bread with (natural) angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and other highly nutritious active compounds. These substances are said to be potentially cardioprotective.
Interestingly, bread can be fortified with milled Fenugreek seeds (a member of the Leguminosae family); this medicinal foodstuff is known for its hypoglycemic and hypocholesterolemic effect and is an excellent choice for the diabetic patients. (Journal of Food Processing & Preservation, Aug 2017, Vol. 41 Issue 4).
Grape seeds, oat, and rye flour can also be mixed with flour because of their beneficial biological activity include antioxidative properties (thanks to gallic acid, catechin and more).
Black flour contains both germs and brans, which means that it’s high in fiber.
The experiment of the French physiologist Francois Magendie (1783-1855) showed that the dog fed only with white bread and water collapsed and died within few weeks, while the other one fed with the black bread and water, remained alive (what the savage, merciless scientific experiment!).
In that way he proved that so-called “empty calories” from white bread, boosts energy levels almost instantly; but lacks nutrients, essential for life.
However, given that whole grains bread has a high content of potassium and phosphorus, it might not be a dietary recommendation for individuals who need to avoid phosphorus and potassium foods, like patients with advanced kidney disease, for example.
Bread Making & Dough Chemistry
To produce industrial or homemade bread we need some basic ingredients: flour, salt, sugar, yeast, and water.
Bakery yeast is actually the only “live” ingredient here. Yeasts are single-celled organisms that belong to the family of mushrooms. White wheat flour is made up of starch (70%), protein (10-15%), and some fiber. Starch is a mixture of amylose and amylopectin polysaccharides and they represent long chain glucose molecules linked by glycosidic bonds.
From flour proteins, only gliadin and glutenin are important for the dough, because, when mixed with water, they form a large protein network, known as gluten. Gluten has a mesh-like structure that is very important – it retains the bubbles of released carbon dioxide, formed during the fermentation process.
Glucose and maltose yeast make carbon dioxide and ethanol. Gases are spreading, which is manifested by the “growth” of the dough, thus extending the gluten network.
The network provides elasticity and shape of the dough, while gases give porosity. (Disulphide bonds create such a network. These are free covalent bonds between two sulfur residues from the cysteine amino acid.).
In order to make the dough evenly grown, the ingredients must be equally represented in all parts of the dough, and this is accomplished by kneading.
When all the ingredients are evenly mixed, they should be left to “rest”; at the same time, yeast works at its fullest (being the only living organism and the most active ingredient in the dough).
The role of yeast is to produce CO2 gas as much as possible, in order to make the dough rise gradually, and this is achieved by the metabolism of glucose as a result of enzymatic processes within the dough.
Next, yeast cells are “eating” glucose, and as the final products of fermentation, carbon dioxide and ethanol are produced, with carbon dioxide bubbles remain trapped in the gluten-free network. During baking, together with ethanol, CO2 completely disappears.
However, not all free sugars are metabolized by yeast, but a substantial part is subjected to the Maillard reaction. It represents a spontaneous, non-enzymatic reaction of amino acids and reducing sugars at a temperature of greater than 140 ° C causing the browning of the bread crust.
Luckily, we don’t have to excel at chemistry to make a delicious loaf of bread, what we really need is patience & passion for… kneading!
Unlike homemade recipes, industrial baking involves adding a range of ingredients – stabilizers, enzymes, emulsifiers, dough softeners, salt, preservatives, sweeteners, and other taste-improving agents, like other highly-processed foods.
However, there are currently many areas of research that focus on new technologies, such as nano-encapsulated bioactive compounds that can be added to wheat to improve its nutritional profile and enhance its health properties (and substitute potentially harmful chemicals in industrial bread).
Despite all the evidence linking long-term consumption of too much starchy refined food to impaired ability to regulate glucose level in the bloodstream, the demand for white bread and other white wheat products has grown steadily in recent years.
Oven-baked bread recipes have become increasingly popular, such as those with no salt, and no sugar, using only whole grain wheat, little yeast, seeds, and water. And, most importantly – no additives. At least we know what is made of. Just think of bleach that is regularly added to industrial wheat to make it whiter! (though, they claim to do it in accordance with the regulation of application and dosage).
Given that bread is regularly consumed by the most adult population, making our own bread is not too much to ask for when we think of preventive health.
So, the ideal situation would be – whole-grain, mixed, preferably homemade.
However, this is probably the least likely scenario for most people.
But, what we can do is to stop at a local bakery to buy fresh loaves, where we can ask what types of additives they use and inform on salt and sugar content.
Anyway, as we all worry not to run out of it at the end of the day, it may mean only one thing – it is going to stay a staple food for years to come, for the reason bread-motivated think is persuasive enough. Which, of course, doesn’t contradict the evidence we have presented here (that not all loaves of bread are created equal in terms of health outcomes).
They argue that Bread stands for togetherness, the traditional dining table, and the culture of eating and living together. Shared values and built ties – the practice that will never go out of fashion. And that is exactly the reason why it has survived so many hardships. Only to become a symbol of human endurance and resourcefulness like no other food in human history.
P.S. Check food labels to verify the content of additives, keep active, and stay sober.