I’m sure most of us couldn’t imagine a life without bread: sandwiches, toast, bread baskets, bread bowls, and so forth. It is an integral part of our food culture and seems to be a major player in every meal. However, with the rise of low carb diets, the concept of “good carbs” and “bad carbs,” plus the new offerings of “whole wheat” everything, it’s easy to get confused about which breads are healthy and which are not.
All the bread I’ll be talking about here and pretty much all commercial bread is wheat bread, meaning it is made from wheat. Some people confused “whole wheat” with “wheat,” but all regular bread is made from wheat. The difference is the refining and manipulation of the wheat grain.
Wheat Background The wheat grain is made up of three parts: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. The bran and the germ are the outer, fibrous layers of the grain that contain nearly all the nutrients and fiber.
Bread Making in America However, in order to make white bread, these outer layers are removed, stripping the wheat of most of its nutrients. What’s left is the measly endosperm, containing no real vitamins or minerals. In order to replace some of what is lost, factories and bread manufacturers “enrich” their breads with arbitrary amounts of chemically synthesized vitamins. The fiber is not replaced. What is left is a product devoid of the natural nutrition of the wheat grain in order to make it more soft and fluffy. However, it doesn’t stop there. Commercial bread manufacturers then add a plethora of chemicals and additives in order to make the bread shelf stable and cosmetically pleasing. This refinement process, besides removing vital nutrients, makes bread very high on the glycemic index. This means it causes rapid blood sugar crashes and basically converts into your body as sugar. Refined bread is also higher in calories because the endosperm, the most caloric part of the grain, is most prominent.
Refined Bread… It’s Everywhere It is obvious to most of us that a piece of white Wonder Bread is refined and therefore not whole wheat and lacking in nutritional value. However, in America, virtually everything is “white” bread unless otherwise specified: french baguette, ciabatta, focaccia, tortillas, hot dog and hamburger buns, and crackers. Even breads labeled “whole wheat” usually contain white (refined) flour as well and are merely supplemented with some whole wheat flour. It is imperative to read the label and see “100% whole wheat flour” and no mention of “enriched,” “bleached” or “unbleached,” flour is there. To make it simple: if it doesn’t say “whole,” it has been refined. Even home-made breads or bread fresh from the bakery is made with white flour unless otherwise noted.
“Whole Wheat” and “Whole Grain” as a Marketing Scheme Whole wheat and whole grain have become terms that automatically mean “healthy” to most consumers. However, as stated before, many breads labeled “whole wheat” are mixed with a hefty amount of white flour as well. “Whole grain” is a somewhat meaningless term in the world of conventional bread; they may have added some “whole” grains (like rye) to the bread, but those grains could still be surrounded by white, refined flour. Again, check the ingredients, and when something claims to be “whole wheat,” truly investigate that is made only with whole wheat flour. Sometimes breads are even dyed to appear darker in color and look healthier.
How To Find A Good Bread After ensuring you find a bread that is made exclusively from whole wheat flour, there are other things to look for. Breads often include the harmful additives high fructose corn syrup or trans fats known as partially hydrogenated oils which should be avoided at all costs. I suggest avoiding added sweeteners like honey or molasses as well as they are not necessary for making a great-tasting bread. And, a general rule of thumb: don’t buy something with a lengthy list of ingredients you can’t pronounce. Things labeled “to retain freshness” is their kind way of saying chemical preservatives. None of these things make for a healthy choice. It is the easiest to find whole wheat breads devoid of these additives at health food stores or natural markets. Chain grocery stores do not make at easy, but at health food stores you’ll have a number of choices. Bread is not a food that was originally designed to stay fresh for a week at room temperature. Real bread made from the whole grain is so nutrient dense that it spoils easily and usually does better in the refrigerator. When you want a piece, simply toast it for a minute or two.
A Superior Alternative: Sprouted Grain Bread Sprouted grain bread is often made without flour. A number of whole grains such as wheat, barley, and spelt are sprouted by being submerged in water. The sprouted grains are then used to make a nutritionally superior bread to regular floured wheat bread without any additives. When these grains sprout, they produce a number of vitamins and minerals and are metabolized in your body more as vegetables than as bread or flour. My personal favorite is Ezekiel 4:9 bread, available at health food stores (and some really great chain grocery stores, too). It is almost always in the refrigerated section.
Ezekiel bread, which comes in a variety of flavors, combines wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and spelt. The combination of grains makes for the proper balance of amino acids to provide a complete protein. One slice has only 80 calories but 4 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber, which is more substantial than even the best whole wheat breads. Oh, and it tastes GREAT. It may be made from sprouted grains, but it doesn’t taste like a veggie loaf. It’s a rich, nutty, and bread-tasting. My favorite flavor is Sesame.
Hopefully that clears up some of the bread confusion!