What You Don't Know About Bread

Should you be eating bread? Yes. (Really.) Here's why and some guidelines to follow.

1 – Bread has gotten a bad rap.

Blame it on Facebook nutritionists (the new breed of supposed experts who get the bulk of their knowledge about nutrition from Facebook links), but bread is hugely misunderstood.

Consider the words of Bruce German, a food scientist at UC Davis: "If I gave you a bag of flour and water you could live on it for a while but eventually you would die, but if you take that same bag of flour and water and bake it into bread, you could live indefinitely."

The fact is, bread is a healthy way to access a wide variety of nutrients. You just have to know what to look for.

2 – Bread is an extremely complex food.

According to Terry Graham, professor of nutritional science at the University of Guelph, the properties (nutritional value, glycemic index, prebiotics) of bread change, not only with the ingredients, but how it's made, how it's baked, and how it's served.

3 – The Wheat Belly guy deserves a kick in his wheat butt for demonizing "modern" breads.

William Davis, the author of Wheat Belly, is like the guy in high school who, after being turned down for a date from the head cheerleader, rips apart her reputation by telling everyone that she's a skank and a ho and that she's what made America fat.

Davis, for one thing, said that bread made with modern wheat was full of gliadin, a supposedly addictive protein that turns normal humans into bread-seeking zombies who will stop at nothing to gnosh another bagel.

He also wrote that the amylopectin (a type of glucose) in wheat is different from the amylopectin in other carb-rich foods like potatoes and vegetables. According to Davis, the type found in bread is converted into sugars very quickly and eating it often enough causes a person to turn into a Type II diabetic whose life consists of mainlining jelly donuts and Metformin.

Here's the deal: Those supposedly addictive gliadins are present in all grain lines, and some seeds of ancient grains contained more gliadin than modern lines. Besides, the human gut doesn't appear to even absorb the opioid protein fraction of gliadin. If you're "addicted" to bread, it's because it tastes so damn good.

As far as amylopectin, the type or amount in wheat isn't any different or more prevalent than that found in any carb food. So phooey on the Wheat Belly guy.

4 – Whole grain breads reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

As detailed in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the eating habits of 42,850 men between the ages of 40 and 75 were charted for 14 years. Those that had three servings of whole grains in their daily diet had a lower risk of coronary heart disease, probably as a result of eating all that extra fiber and shoring up their blood profiles.

5 – Whole wheat bread may help people maintain a health weight.

Another study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition charted the dietary habits of 74,000 females between the ages of 38 to 63 for 12 years. Those women who ate whole grain foods like 100% whole wheat bread had 49% less risk of weight gain, probably as a result of increased satiety and lowered blood sugar responses.

Granted, anyone who was really serious about losing an appreciable amount of body fat would probably choose a lower-carb diet, but the takeaway point of this study should be that bread isn't necessarily the fat bomb that people think it is.

6 – Even white bread can be good for you.

Okay, not usually. It's largely devoid of nutrients and it shoots insulin levels through the roof when consumed by itself, but it does, according to a paper in The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, boost the growth of good gut bacteria.

Subjects who ate white bread had higher levels of lactobacillus, a bacterium that wards off digestive disorders. Apparently, the bacteria feed off the fiber and starch in the white bread.

Granted, few of us will eat white bread when given the choice between it and something more nutritious, but it's a crime against God, nature, and humanity to make a grilled cheese sandwich or a BLT with anything but white bread. The fact that it feeds beneficial bacteria should ease your conscience when you eat one of these culinary delicacies.

7 – Follow the 50:1 formula.

When shopping for bread, make sure that for every 50 calories in a slice, there's at least one gram of fiber.

8 – Don't be fooled by "wheat bread."

Wheat bread is made of wheat flour, another name for refined white flour, or flour that's been stripped of its fiber-rich bran and nutrient rich germ. Of course, like white bread, this type of bread will at least feed the lactobacilli in your gut, so it might not be a complete waste.

9 – Look for "whole" grains when buying bread.

These breads are made from unprocessed kernels. This includes whole wheat bread.

10 – Check the label or stamp.

Loaves labeled "whole grains" aren't necessarily free of refined flour. Look for a "100% whole grain" stamp.

11 – Don't confuse "whole grain" with "multi-grain."

Various grains in multi-grain bread are often processed. Check the label.

Grilled Cheese

12 – Screw the high or relatively high glycemic index (GI) of most breads.

Hardly anyone outside some characters in Dickens' Oliver Twist eat plain bread. While the GI of plain bread may be high, just about everyone heaps something on top of it, whether it be turkey breast, roast beef, or Elvis' favorite, peanut butter, bacon, and banana, preferably sautéed to crispy up the bread.

Putting any of those toppings or spreads on bread dramatically slows the speed at which bread is digested, along with ameliorating the blood sugar response, so the GI of bread is probably overblown.

13 – If you're still freaked out about the high GI of bread, it's time for some simple kitchen chemistry.

If you keep your bread in the freezer and then, when you want to make a sandwich, toast it, you dramatically lower the GI. The freezing and toasting alters the molecular structure, and GI is all about molecular structure and how hard/easy it is for it to be broken down by mechanical (chewing) and enzymatic processes.

14 – Keep in mind that it only takes 4 ingredients to make bread.

In an ideal world, you'd only see four ingredients on the label: flour, yeast, water, and salt. Of course, sugar might get a pass, as long as it's no higher than three or four on the list of ingredients (sugar feeds the yeast and helps the bread rise).

Unfortunately, manufacturers often add all kinds of crap to bread, including a dough "conditioner" named azodicarbonamide, which is also a chemical used to make yoga mats. Even supposedly natural "caramel coloring" is created by heating ammonia, a process that also makes it become carcinogenic. The fewer the ingredients, the better. Read your labels.

15 – It ain't the bread, it's the machinery.

You may have noticed the term "stone ground flour" affixed to the labels of certain breads. That's a good thing.

The earliest breads were hand ground by rocks. This produced a coarse, whole grain bread that looked like it was made from the stuff you find on the bottom of a birdcage. This process was refined around 800 B.C. by the Mesopotamians. They stacked two flat, circular stones on top of each other to grind grain. These stones were kept rotating, either by animals or a young Conan the Barbarian.

However, the bread was still fairly coarse, so it took longer for the digestive system to break it down and thus elicited a low to moderate blood sugar response. Perhaps not so coincidentally, metabolic diseases like Type II diabetes were virtually unknown.

Enter the modern industrial age and steel milling wheels. Since the use of ultra-smooth steel allowed the grinding wheels to sit much closer together, they produced ultra-fine flour. In an effort to make the flour even finer, manufacturers started to sift the flour to remove the bran and the germ.

These breads were so fine, so free of coarse particulate, that your digestive system didn't have to break a sweat to absorb them. You could have snorted the flour like cocaine and it still wouldn't have gotten into your blood stream faster. These breads caused blood sugar levels to dramatically rise. And again, perhaps not so coincidentally, metabolic diseases like Type II diabetes became rampant.

It's not as big an issue today, because thanks to the Earl of Sandwich, modern man doesn't generally eat bread without toppings or spreads that lower its GI. Still, generally speaking, it's best to look for minimally processed bread that looks like a woodshop teacher's smock.

16 – Ezekiel Bread is pretty good stuff.

Ezekiel bread is made from sprouted grains and one slice contains 80 calories, 4 grams of complete protein, 3 grams of fiber, and decent amounts of various nutrients. Most of the recipe actually comes from the Bible (the Book of Ezekiel), but it's likely the manufacturers ignored the Biblical instructions that call for it to be baked over a dung fire.

While Ezekiel Bread is the darling of Paleo people and anti-glutenites in general, it still contains gluten, albeit only that which is contained naturally in its ingredients; no additional gluten has been added. And, additionally vexing to Wheat Belly people – if they knew about it – is that it also contains some of that gliadin that's supposed to cause men to steal and women to sell their bodies for an angry fix of ciabatta bread. None of that should matter to most people, though.

Despite its appealing nutritious qualities, Ezekiel bread makes for a crappy grilled cheese sandwich. It's best eaten toasted, with peanut butter and a hint of jam.

17 – Skip the gluten-free bread.

There's no clinical evidence that non-gluten diets have a performance edge, but even so, millions of people avoid gluten and opt for gluten-free bread, among other non-gluten items.

Sure, gluten-free bread doesn't contain wheat, rye, or barley, so it doesn't have any gluten. Instead, it contains cornstarch, rice flour, tapioca starch, and potato flour. Unless you have celiac disease and absolutely can't tolerate gluten, avoid it. It tastes mediocre and it's lacking in a lot of nutrients.

18 – Oat bread is okay.

It's got twice the protein of whole wheat and it's slow digesting. It also tastes pretty good and, unlike most nutritious breads, can be used, with approbation, to make grilled cheese sandwiches and BLTs.

19 – Rye bread has its charms.

Rye bread has been shown to increase insulin sensitivity and, accordingly, decrease hunger. Try Orowheat Jewish Rye. It marries extremely well with organic peanut butter.

20 – Just the flax, mam.

Both fish oil and flaxseed oil contain omega-3 fatty acids, but only fish oil has EPA and DHA. Flaxseed, instead, contains the omega-3 fatty acid alpha linolenic acid, or ALA, of which a small percentage is converted into EPA, and an even smaller amount into DHA. In other words, if omega-3s are your goal, go with the fish instead of the flaxseed bread. However, flax bread is perfect for vegans.

21 – Sourdough bread is kind of the doughy version of sauerkraut.

Sourdough bread is made by mixing flour and water and allowing the mixture to ferment. When it turns sour and gassy, it's used as leavening to make dough rise. Then, a little bit of unused dough is saved to make leavening for the next batch.

Millions of yeasts and billions of lactobacilli go to work on the dough. The result is an incredibly complex bread that contains a ton of nutrients including B1-B6, B-12, vitamin E, selenium, manganese, calcium, etc., in addition to complex proteins and fatty acids. Furthermore, sourdough pretty much shoots down any reason people might have for not eating bread:

  • The gluten it contains has been broken down by the bacteria into its constituent amino acids.
  • The bacteria have produced acetic, propionic, and lactic acid, which have reduced starch availability, thereby lowering the GI and improving glucose metabolism in general.
  • The acetic acid also acts as a bread preservative.
  • Sourdough bread has a nominal amount of phytic acid, thus allowing your gut to absorb most of sourdough's nutrients.

22 – Stand by for purple bread.

Scientists are currently working on a bread that's laced with anthocyanins, the purple or blue pigments in plants that have been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, in addition to having a whole host of other health benefits.

Related:  The Not-So Ugly Truth About Gluten

Related:  How Many Carbs Do You Need?