Healthiest bread: which one is best?
Convenient, versatile and tasty, bread is a daily staple for many of us, but is it a healthy option? And which are the best loaves to eat? Nutritionist Kerry Torrens takes us on a journey through the baking aisle.
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Is bread healthy?
Bread is one of the oldest staples in the western diet. In its simplest form, it’s a flour and water dough, with or without salt, fermented with either a naturally occurring yeast and bacteria starter, or with baker’s yeast. Today much of the bread lining supermarket shelves is made on a mass scale and often contains additives to speed production, extend shelf life, improve flavour and texture and return the nutrients lost during processing.
So, with a seemingly endless choice of wholegrain, white or 50/50 loaves, to speciality breads like sourdough, focaccia and ciabatta, how do we make a healthy choice?
- White bread is made from processed flour which has been milled to remove the bran and germ of the grain, leaving just the starch-packed endosperm. This means all the fibre and much of the vitamins and minerals have been removed. The resulting flour has a fine, light texture and a longer shelf life. In the UK, any white or brown flour (not including wholemeal) is legally required to have calcium, iron, thiamine (vitamin B1) and nicotinic acid (B3) added back by the manufacturer.
- White, refined flour results in a bread which is quick and easy to digest. Eaten regularly and in high amounts, foods like this may lead to weight gain and an increased risk of metabolic conditions such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
- Wholegrain flour, on the other hand, includes all three parts of the grain – bran, wheatgerm and endosperm. This ensures the naturally-occurring nutrients of the grain are retained, along with the fibre. Wholegrain, wholemeal or wholewheat are all wholegrain products, but you may be surprised to learn that granary and wheat germ are not. Granary refers to a bread which contains malted wheat or barley flakes, and may or may not be made from wholemeal flour; whereas wheat germ is made from white flour to which 10 per cent wheat germ is added.
- Wholegrains, of which wholewheat, rye and spelt are all examples, are nutrient-rich and, when eaten regularly, may protect against chronic diseases. These diseases include heart disease and stroke, certain forms of cancer and Type 2 diabetes. It’s worth remembering that, slice for slice, when you eat wholemeal you’ll be getting more iron and twice the zinc and fibre than the equivalent white loaf.
- However, even wholegrain bread may contain 20 or more additives. These might include emulsifiers, flour treatment agents and dough improvers, as well as sugar or dextrose. These ingredients are typically added to improve the look, including the colour, texture and crumb of a loaf, as well as support the manufacturing process by improving dough stability and volume.
Our top picks for a healthier loaf
With dozens of loaves lining the shelves, which ones are likely to be healthier? Here are our top picks:
This is a bread made from a mix of sprouted wholegrains, typically wheat, barley, spelt and millet, as well as legumes, lentils and soya beans. The magic behind this loaf lies in its sprouting or germinating – this lowers levels of phytic acid, making it easier to digest and easier for us to absorb minerals like iron and calcium. Sprouting also starts the breakdown of protein and carbs, helping to minimise the effects on blood sugar levels. Ezekiel is a good source of protein, fibre, B vitamins and may supply as much as three times more folate than bread made from non-sprouted grains. Store this loaf in the fridge or freezer, not the bread bin.
Typically made from just four ingredients – flour, water, salt and a starter culture – sourdough is easier to digest and highly nutritious. It’s the starter combined with the long fermentation which holds the key to sourdough’s taste, texture and health credentials. The starter is a mix of flour and water, which is fermented by wild yeasts and lactic acid bacteria – this makes the sourdough rise. Traditional sourdough undergoes a slow fermentation process, the result of which is an increase in the bioavailability of the bread’s vitamins and minerals. This process also starts the breakdown of protein (gluten), making sourdough easier to digest. That said, sourdough made from a gluten grain is not suitable for those with coeliac disease. Although the beneficial microbes in the starter tend to be lost during the baking process, the fibre and plant compounds, called polyphenols, become more bio-available. These act as an important fuel source for our gut microbes, which makes sourdough gut-friendly. In addition to this, and unlike many commercially produced breads, sourdough has less of an impact on blood sugar levels.
A traditional German bread with a heavy texture and distinctive flavour. Made from wholegrain rye flour, pumpernickel is packed with stress-busting B vitamins, plant compounds called lignans, as well as fibre. Traditionally made from a sourdough starter and a coarse wholegrain rye flour, pumpernickel is rich in resistant starch which supports gut health and lowers the bread’s glycaemic index. Check labels, because many commercial varieties include wheat flour, molasses and yeast.
4. Rye bread
This bread is lower in fat and contains less gluten than wheat, which makes it a denser, heavier loaf. Studies support that bread made from 100 per cent rye has less of an effect on blood sugar than wheat breads, and as a result, keeps you fuller for longer. Like pumpernickel, rye bread is rich in lignans, plant compounds linked with a wide range of health benefits including a reduced risk of heart disease, menopausal symptoms, osteoporosis and breast cancer. Give it a go with our rye bread recipe.
5. Soda bread
A traditional staple in Ireland and made simply from flour, buttermilk, baking powder and salt. Soda bread is quick to prepare and is a low in fat, yeast-free option. If you are new to baking or short on time, our seeded soda bread an ideal loaf to bake at home.
What to look for when choosing a healthy bread?
- Choose bread made from an unrefined, wholegrain flour. Labelling can be deceiving, so even if your loaf is labelled multi-grain (made from three or more different flours), granary, 100 per cent wheat or organic, this does not guarantee that the bread is wholegrain, so always check the ingredient list to confirm this.
- Select a bread with minimal ingredients. The length of the ingredient list reveals a lot about the baking method and the processes used in manufacture. In simple terms, look for the shortest ingredient list with terms you recognise, and avoid breads with added sweeteners or vegetable oils.
- Use your loaf and know what you are looking for. Sourdough is a hot ticket right now, but if you don’t make your own or buy from an artisan baker, there are some things to look out for. In the UK, ‘sourdough’ is not a protected name, this means manufacturers can sell bread as sourdough despite it not being made using the all-important slow fermentation method. Some of these breads include ingredients like yeast, ascorbic acid, vinegar and yogurt in an attempt to mimic the flavour of sourdough, speed up production time and extend shelf life. If you want to enjoy the benefits of a true sourdough, check labels and avoid these ingredients.
One of the best ways to ensure your bread is a healthy choice is, of course, to make your own, that way you know exactly how the bread was made and the ingredients that were used.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a registered nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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