Is Bread Healthy? The Latest Finding
I grok that a lot of people have dropped bread from their diets, but forget about them for a couple of minutes while we look at the un-wholiest of breads: white bread.
People who care about how they fuel their bodies are always puzzled over why it remains the bread of choice among the great unwashed. We all know that whole grain breads are more nutritious, but few people seem to give a damn and instead opt for the pale stuff.
There appears to be a simple reason for it, though, and it has to with ferulic acid, a polyphenol found in whole grains.
You know how the smell of certain white breads baking in the oven can evoke memories of happy times, of family and comfort, of Becky Sue wearing red gingham while kneading dough, a dusting of flour on her rosy cheeks?
It's because white bread, primarily the crust, gives off great-smelling chemicals, chemicals that smell like caramel, flowers, and even corn chips.
Not so with whole wheat. Its chemicals smell earthy, malty, and with a hint of cucumber, and it's all because of the ferulic acid that's contained in the bran of the wheat bread.
Specifically, the ferulic acid in wheat bran blocks the production of 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline, the molecule responsible for the hugely appealing "browned" smell associated with white bread. But once you remove the bran, as you do in the production of white bread, you eliminate the ferulic acid and allow the less appealing chemical smells to dominate.
So, it's perfectly understandable that people would choose something that smells like caramel and flowers over something that smells like the can of earthworms Pa dug up before headin' to the fishin' hole.
Manufacturers could conceivably remove ferulic acid from whole grain bread so that it, too, smelled wonderful, but the polyphenol, despite its killjoy chemical actions on smell, is a hugely beneficial polyphenol, and removing it would be a nutritional mistake.
But ferulic acid isn't the only valuable polyphenol found in whole grain breads. There are, in fact, many. But bread in general, even refined bread, also provides several coveted vitamins and minerals which may cause deficiencies in non-grain eaters.
But let's get back to the anti-carb people who have besmirched the memory of Becky Sue by avoiding bread entirely because of a fear of blurred muscle definition. These people are asking for nutritional trouble.
Whole grains are pretty much a polyphenol delivery system. The ferulic acid affects a slew of physiological functions. It has anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, anti-cancer, anti-arrhythmic, and anti-thrombotic activity. It also exerts anti-diabetic effects and immunostimulant properties. All of that's lost if you avoid whole-grain breads.
Other polyphenols you kick to the curb by avoiding whole grain bread include parabiosanoic acid, protocatechuic acid, gallic acid, vanillic acid, syringic acid, and erucic acid. Individually and collectively, they fight chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, and bowel cancer. They also possess many of the same "anti" functions as ferulic acid.
These polyphenols exist in large quantities in grains, and they're indispensable to human nutrition. They also exist mostly in the surface and outer shell of grains, the ones that are jettisoned when they make white bread.
However, even avoiding refined and enriched grains like those used in white bread can have significant nutritional repercussions.
The latest National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) (conducted between the years 2009 and 2016) failed to generate much buzz when they revealed that Americans are deficient in several nutrients.
What was a little more eye-opening, though, was the discovery that those Americans who stayed away from grains, both whole and refined, were far worse off than the run-of-the-mill nutritionally deficient Americans.
Let's start with the most boring of all nutrients, dietary fiber. Normally, only about 3.8% of Americans meet the adequate intake (AI) for dietary fiber. But when various factions in the NHANES removed 25, 50, or 100% of grains from their diet, fiber intake grew exponentially worse: 2.6 +/- 0.3, 1.8 +/-0.2, and 0.7 +/-0.1%, respectively.
To put it in less statistical terms, Americans who eliminated all grains from their diet were only getting about .7% of the AI for fiber. These are the people who Ex-Lax counts on to meet their quarterlies.
Now take a look at folate (vitamin B9) intake. Normally, 11 and 13.8% of younger and older adults, respectively, fall short in recommendations for this important vitamin, but it's far worse in those who avoided refined grains – approximately 43% and 56% of them fell short in recommended folate intake. While the percentages differed slightly, the findings were similar for magnesium and iron.
Clearly, there's an important role for bread and grains in general, whether they be barley, oats, rye, whole grain cereals, and crackers, be they unprocessed or even processed. Sourdough fits the bill nicely. Hell, even whole wheat pasta works.
A lot of people dumped bread from their diets because of that Wheat Belly guy. He wrote that bread made with modern wheat is full of gliadin, a supposedly addictive protein that turns normal humans into bread-seeking zombies.
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 Mr. Wheat Belly, the type found in bread is converted into sugars very quickly, and eating it enough times causes a person to turn into a Type II diabetic whose life consists of mainlining sugar donuts and crunched up Metformin tablets.
The science doesn't seem to back him up. 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 good and smells so good (in bread lacking ferulic acid, of course).
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.
I want to remind you that the NHANES stats, as comprehensive as they are and have historically been, are from the years 2009 to 2016, which was before the current "keto" craze. They, along with the Wheat Belly people, have probably sunk those lack of fiber, iron, magnesium, and folate stats further, to Stygian depths.
You probably noticed that I put "keto" in quote marks. That's because hardly anyone who thinks they're on a keto diet really is. Consider that a traditional keto diet requires that 6% of calories come from protein, 90% come from fat, and only 4% come from carbohydrates.
Do you know anybody, especially any kind of athlete, who's following a sadistically restrictive diet that comes close to achieving any of those percentages? I didn't think so.
At best, most keto practitioners – those doing it to lose fat instead of treating their epilepsy – are practicing Keto-Lite, which, like lite beer, is a pathetic approximation of the real thing. At best, keto practitioners are on a low-carb diet, which isn't magical either.
ANY diet that forces you to pay attention to what you're eating, or any diet that goes to great lengths to eliminate any food group, will result in appreciable fat loss.
My point is this: A pox on all the Wheat Belly people and faux keto people who together make an anti-bread sandwich. A pox on all you people who think that eating bread, for whatever reason, is unhealthy.
The whole grains used to make bread may well be indispensable to good health, polyphenol-wise, and the stats show that eliminating bread from your diet entirely, even the fortified or enriched breads, contributes to nutritional deficiencies.
So, eat your bread. Maybe even, occasionally, your refined grain white bread.
- Papanikolaou Y et al. The Role of Fortified and Enriched Refined Grains in the US Dietary Pattern: A NHANES 2009-2016 Modeling Analysis to Examine Nutrient Adequacy. Front Nutr. 2021 Sep 6;8:655464.
- Tian S et al. Functional Properties of Polyphenols in Grain and Effects of Physiochemical Processing on Polyphenols. Journal of Food Quality. 2019 May;2019(3):1-8.
- Zdunska K et al. Antioxidant Properties of Ferulic Acid and Its Possible Application. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2018;31(6):332-336.
- Luoma TC. Luoma's Big Damn Book of Knowledge. Fakku Publishing. 2020:22,43,75,186,332.