Is bread healthy? A comprehensive guide (Part I)

Is bread healthy? A comprehensive guide (Part I)

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It's become very popular to bash bread and gluten. But is this notoriety deserved? Is it ever okay to eat bread?

Unfortunately, these days bread often refers to some mass-produced, infinite shelf-life, flour-based abomination that scarcely deserves its name. We definitely shouldn't eat that, but then again we shouldn't be eating any hyper-processed, chemical-laden, artificial modern foods.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Bread exists on a wide spectrum of quality, and avoiding all bread because supermarket bread is terrible for you is like saying all cats make bad pets because lions are unsafe to keep indoors.

It's pretty obvious to say this chemistry experiment is bad for you. But is the same thing true about high quality, traditional bread?

If we're going to discuss whether you should eat bread, we should at least give bread the benefit of the doubt and discuss whether quality bread is healthy.

But what makes bread high quality or not? For such a simple food, there's a lot that goes into a breadmaking. In this article, I will first describe all the parameters that affect bread quality along with their health implications. Then, once we've constructed this ideal loaf of bread, we'll be equipped to decide if it's healthy or not.

Background

When I was six months old and my mom started feeding me solid food, I stopped growing. Despite the doctor's insistence that this was "perfectly normal" (pro-tip: it's not), my mother was determined to find the cause.

After an elimination diet of foods she had been feeding me, she discovered that bread was the culprit of my stunted growth. Thus she determined that bread, and therefore gluten, was bad for me, and I was not allowed to eat it throughout my childhood (except for times that I "broke the rules", binged on bread at a friend's house, and invariably became sick).

A second chance

After I grew up and started caring about my own health, I was able to fix a lot of the health problems I had as a kid through diet. So I revisited the problem of gluten.

I'm quite disciplined about food and cutting out unhealthy things isn't too hard for me. But bread tastes great. For better or for worse, most people love it. It's hard avoiding the foods you like to eat, no matter how determined you are. Did I really have to not eat it–ever?

After all, most of what we call civilization has been built on the backs of people who ate bread. There are numerous examples of robust, healthy people from history who used bread as a primary component of their diet.

For example, in his account of the conquest of Gaul (aka France), Julius Caeser considered grain for breadmaking so important to the health and success of his army that he required it before facing any enemies, saying that only after "having provided [grain]... he began to direct his march toward those parts... the Germans were". He mentions grain 86 times in the book, and this diet enabled them to stand up to their most stalwart enemy at the time, the Germans.

These guys ate bread, and they seemed to be quite competent and healthy...

As another example, consider the people living a pre-modern lifestyle in the remote mountains of Switzerland that were studied in the 1920s:

The nutrition of the people of the Loetschental Valley, particularly that of the growing boys and girls, consists largely of a slice of whole rye bread and a piece of the summer-made cheese, which are eaten with fresh milk of goats or cows.
-- Price, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, Ch. 3

Furthermore, the children were observed to

play and frolic bareheaded and barefooted even in water running down from the glacier in the late evening's chilly breezes, in weather that made us wear our overcoats and gloves and button our collars.
-- Price, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, Ch. 3

There are countless other examples from history of people who ate bread and were not sickly nor deficient.

I, and the increasing body of people who follow a gluten free diet, are largely descended from those people. But celiac disease, which is an autoimmune condition involving gluten hypersensitivity has been dramatically increasing over the last 70 years, as has non-celiac gluten sensitivity. So what about the bread was making us sick, while our ancestors seemed to be healthy? Maybe it was worth giving the bread a second chance?

Trying to figure this out led me to a protracted study of the theory and practice of bread making. From that experience, I determined that it was largely the quality of the bread that determines its health implications, and it's this understanding that I plan on systematizing and sharing in this article.

The six parameters of bread-making

I will now discuss the six factors that go into making a loaf of bread, each of which has a significant influence over the health implications of the final product. When we're done, you'll know exactly what characterizes high quality bread, and you'll be able to appreciate how much difference there is between the highest and lowest quality bread.

[For the sake of brevity, I won't go into full depth on each point, as the minutiae of breadmaking can be read about elsewhere. My goal is simply to establish an accessible reference point for the basics of good bread and how they influence health.]

1. Ingredients List

Bread has three ingredients: Flour, water, and salt. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. You will find plenty of examples of "bread" at the supermarket with ingredient lists longer than this article, which include toxic oils, sweeteners, preservatives, and other chemicals. These are all bad for obvious reasons.

Pictured: the ingredients list of something that is not real bread.

People were making bread over camp fires with hand ground flour 5000 years ago and their bread was just fine. The best bakers in the world only use three ingredients as well. Don't let anyone convince you that bread needs more ingredients than these–it's just an excuse to sneak more unnecessary chemicals in there.

Would you trust this guy's recipe, or the one used to make your supermarket's chemistry experiment of a loaf?

There's a small exception to be made when these extra ingredients are part of a particular artisinal recipe, such as adding caraway seeds (traditional in central Europe), or fruit, etc.

However, the main point is this: bread has three ingredients, and for anything else that's added, you should be asking "why?" Most of the time, it won't be a worthwhile answer.  

I've put together a handy chart to help you visualize this better:

The further away from the origin (the point on the left), the better quality the bread

2. Sourdough vs. yeast

The astute reader might be questioning the above by asking "isn't yeast a necessary fourth ingredient?" Yes, bread does need yeast in order to rise. This is called "leavening", and it's fundamental to the idea of bread. But is yeast a necessary ingredient?

You've probably heard of sourdough bread. If not, you can read all about it elsewhere. Just know that sourdough bread uses a "sourdough starter" in the leavening process. Sourdough starter is a mixture of flour and water that has been colonized by many strains of wild bacteria and yeast.

Normal yeast, when added to bread, produces CO2 bubbles which cause the bread to rise.

However, when sourdough is used, the diverse array of wild microbes have a more complex reaction with the flour, fermenting the starch, metabolising the proteins, producing lactic acid and CO2, and doing a bunch of other stuff we don't fully understand.  

But isn't starter a fourth ingredient? No. To make a sourdough starter, you leave flour and water in a jar for a week, adding new flour and water every day. Over time, the wild microbes from the air will colonize it, and since we didn't add them ourselves, they're technically not an ingredient.

So what are the advantages of the sourdough process?

1. It's as old as bread itself.

They didn't have commercial yeast 5000 years ago, so the first leavened bread (aka bread as we know it) ever made was a form of sourdough, which probably happened when some neolithic farmer accidentally left dough out a little too long and discovered bubbles forming, and realized it was delicious.

A photo of one of my first sourdough starters. Note the bubbles.

Because this is the original form of bread-making, if humans evolved to to digest bread at all, we have the best shot at doing so with the type of bread we've been eating the longest.

2. The microbes have a beneficial effect on the digestibility of the bread

The sourdough fermentation process is very complex and could have entire studies dedicated to it (in fact it has). There is so much variance in the microbial activities that scientists do not fully understand what they do. However, we do know the following about sourdough fermentation:

These are insane results, because they address three of the biggest issues that occur when eating conventional bread– a high glycemic response, gluten intolerance, and nutrient malabsorption issues. So many of the problems that many people have with bread would legitimately be improved by just switching to sourdough.

Certainly not everyone can or should eat it, but it's a big improvement over yeasted bread. It's not even a sacrifice– sourdough bread is a superior tasting food compared to typical bread.

Let's add one more axis to our bread graph now:

So far, our perfect loaf of bread has only three ingredients, and is sourdough fermented

3. White flour vs. whole wheat

Bread is made from flour, and flour comes from wheat. What is wheat made of?

Wheat is of course a seed, common to a genus of grasses known as triticum. These seeds have three components:

  • Germ: where the baby plant lies dormant until germination. It contains polyunsaturated fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals.
  • Endosperm: energy stores for the baby plant (similar to an egg white). It's primarily starch with a little protein and mostly devoid of nutrition
  • Bran: the hard outer shell of the seed. This part contains more fatty acids, fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals.

In order to make flour, wheat seeds are simply milled between two grinding stones into a fine powder.

Or, at least that's how whole wheat flour is made (get it– it's the whole wheat seed). In contrast, most flour in use today is white flour, or "refined" flour, which involves removing the bran and germ before milling (among other processes).

Refining flour in this way requires sophisticated machinery, which is why it wasn't commonly done until the end of the 19th century.

Why remove the germ and bran though? Two reasons, and the first is preservation. The astute reader will note that the polyunsaturated fats which are contained in the seed oxidize rapidly when exposed to air. Once the flour is milled, that oxidation starts immediately, and it causes the flour to go bad. Bugs, rats, and other unsavory characters then show up, spoiling the flour.

People had dealt with this problem for millenia by just milling the flour shortly before baking, but in the emerging industrial world of trains, urbanized cities, and economies of scale, it was not cost effective nor efficient to distribute fresh flour. Thus, by producing white flour, they were able to increase its shelf life indefinitely, making it much more convenient.

The second reason is taste preference: white flour is used to make white bread, and for many people, white bread is more appealing– it's lighter, fluffier, more sturdy, and has a more subtle flavor compared to wheat bread. It was also a status symbol, as back in the day, refined flour was more expensive. White flour and white bread thus appealed to peoples' status consciousness and taste preferences.

Admittedly not the best example, but you can clearly see that my white bread on the left has much bigger holes, and is lighter in texture. The whole wheat bread on the right is very dense, and much more crumbly.

What are the problems with white flour then?

  • Little to no nutritive value. With the bran and germ removed, all the vitamins are gone and the only thing left is starch and some protein (namely, gluten). Obvious, but there are also a number of rat studies that demonstrate this in vivo. In one, rats fed a white flour diet had lower mineral intakes and grew to be significantly smaller than those fed whole wheat.
  • No fiber and therefore higher glycemic load. Starch is processed more quickly without fiber, spiking your blood sugar and insulin higher than if the bread were made with whole wheat. This is of particular concern if you're trying to lose weight.  
  • Added chemicals. White flour also tends to be "enriched", whereby artificial versions of the nutrients that were taken out are added back in; and "bleached", where it is chemically processed to be whiter in color. Probably not a good idea to be eating bleach (or rather bromine). Getting plain whole wheat flour of course avoids additives.

In case that's not convincing, remember that the primary reason white flour became popular was because other critters wouldn't get into it and cause it to spoil. But if rats and fruit flies know that it's not good to eat, shouldn't you?

Sadly, these health implications were more subtle than the problem of bugs crawling around your whole wheat flour. Thus, society chose convenience over health, and the modern era of ubiquitous white flour was born.

Fortunately, our supply chains are more efficient and we can avoid the spoilage problem, so using whole wheat flour is a viable option today. Now we can add one more attribute to our perfect loaf:

Next piece of the puzzle: good bread is made with whole wheat flour, in addition sourdough fermentation and few ingredients.

However some of you may be objecting right now because: whole wheat products, in general, don't taste that great.

But rest assured, all whole wheat is not created equal. In the next section, we'll discuss why most whole wheat you're familiar with results in bread that is dry, chalky, and bad tasting, and I will describe a much better tasting way of obtaining whole wheat.


This was going to be one article, but I want to keep these readable and I would be doing an injustice to the subject to truncate it.

So stay tuned for part two, where I'll cover the rest of the perfect loaf attributes, discuss whether you should eat it, and how to find good bread.


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