To combat the trend of falling bread consumption, commercial bread bakers have been looking to formulate and market a healthier bread. In that quest, they’re using bread buzzwords such as “stoneground,” “gluten-free,” and “whole wheat.”
Here are some common (and commonly misunderstood) bread buzzwords and what they really mean.
White vs. Whole-Wheat Bread
Time to flash back to biology class: Wheat, in its natural, fresh-off-the-plant form, contains three components: the germ, endosperm, and bran layer. The germ contains loads of vitamins and minerals, while the endosperm is packed with protein and carbohydrate. The bran layer (the rough stuff… think bran muffin) is full of fiberPutting the whole grain puzzle together: Health benefits associated with whole grains. Jonnalagadda, S. S., Harnack, L., Hai Liu, R. et al. The Journal of Nutrition, 2011; 141:1011S-1022S.. Whole-grain flours are made by grinding up intact wheat kernels; white flours have to be “stripped” of all the good stuff before they get sent to the grinder. To make white flour, manufacturers remove the germ and bran (along with 80 percent of the fiber and most of the nutrients), then send the stripped grains through the mill. White flours usually get a dose of B vitamins, folic acid, and iron during processing; this fortification process replaces up some of the lost nutrient content, but the flour is still missing many healthy compounds such as antioxidants and phytonutrientsPutting the whole grain puzzle together: Health benefits associated with whole grains. Jonnalagadda, S. S., Harnack, L., Hai Liu, R. et al. The Journal of Nutrition, 2011; 141:1011S-1022S..
The Whole-Wheat Hang-Up
Think you’re all set buying 100-percent whole-wheat bread? Not so fast. The FDA says that a grain-containing product labeled “100-percent whole-grain” must be made of germ, endosperm, and bran in proportions that equal those of intact grains. Food manufactuers exploit this loophole and often process grain as white flour, then add the germ and bran back in. Believe it or not, this still counts as “whole-grain” flourPutting the whole grain puzzle together: Health benefits associated with whole grains. Jonnalagadda, S. S., Harnack, L., Hai Liu, R. et al. The Journal of Nutrition, 2011; 141:1011S-1022S.. The reconstituted whole-grain flour often has dough conditioners and flavorings added, and probably loses some nutrients through processing too.
These buzzwords recall a simpler era in bread baking, when windmills would grind grain using compression from stones. But today, like the term “natural,” the marketing buzzword “stone ground” is essentially meaningless.
When you read “stone ground” on bread, it just indicates that a grain has been passed through a stone mill at least once during the manufacturing process. So if the first step in making Wonder Bread were a quick trip of the wheat through a stone grinder, it could be considered made of stone-ground flour. The FDA doesn’t police this phrase, so food manufacturers are free to use this as they wish.
Sprouted wheat breads are the darling of the health food set. All sorts of health claims have been made about sprouted grains, including increased digestibility, higher protein content, and more enzyme activity. Are any of these claims legit?
Several celebs have gone gaga for the gluten-free diet—including Lady Gaga herself—but following this dietary trend really isn’t necessary unless you have celiac diseaseNon-celiac gluten sensitivity: Clinical relevance and recommendations for future research. Mooney, P. D., Aziz, I., & Sanders, D. S. Neurogastroenterology and Motility : The Official Journal of the European Gastrointestinal Motility Society, 2013; 25:864-871.. Although many report being sensitive to gluten, a condition known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), scientific evidence isn’t up to speed on exactly why or how this occurs (or if it is even a real condition)Non-celiac gluten sensitivity: Clinical relevance and recommendations for future research. Mooney, P. D., Aziz, I., & Sanders, D. S. Neurogastroenterology and Motility : The Official Journal of the European Gastrointestinal Motility Society, 2013; 25:864-871.. Claims of weight loss and increased energy from going gluten-free abound, but these effects are probably due to increased diet quality (think more fruits and veggies, fewer processed foods) rather than the elimination of the gluten protein.
However, there are a bunch of different flour options when it comes to GF baked goods. Some, such as oat flour and chickpea flour, have relatively good nutritional statsNutritive value of oat flour and oat bran. Hahn JD, Chung TK, Baker DH. J Anim Sci. 1990 Dec;68(12):4253-60.. Others, like tapioca flour, are pretty much pure starch. Recognizing consumer demand, food scientists are currently hard at work to develop tasty, delicious, and nutritious gluten-free breads using some of the more nutritious flours and novel preparation methods. In the meantime, if you’re eating gluten-free bread, be a label-reader—watch out for long ingredient lists, additives, and low fiber contents.
“Fermented Breads” and ”Yeasted Breads”
Old-School Bread Baking
Baking yeast bread is one of those intimidating kitchen projects that seems like you’d need a full weekend to accomplish (although it’s totally doable to DIY, as well as cheaper, healthier, and not as time-consuming as you’d expect). At its most basic, making yeast bread involves mixing together flour, water, commercial yeast, and salt, letting the mixture rise, and baking the risen dough. During the rising period, the yeast gobbles up some carbohydrates in the flour and digest them via fermentation. The end products are alcohol and carbon dioxide—which add flavor and volume to the dough.
Sourdough bread making involves similar steps, but the process starts with a “sourdough starter” or “sponge,” which is a mixture of live yeast, lactic-acid producing bacteria, flour, and water. Bacteria and wild yeast from the environment settle on the starter and start to ferment away, producing a mini-ecosystem packed with flavor-making potential. Both yeast and bacteria increase the acidity of the dough, which fends off harmful bacteria and gives sourdough its characteristic tangy taste.
While it’s best to avoid the usual culprits when it comes to additives (hydrogenated oils, food dyes, and high-fructose corn syrup, to name some common not-so-healthy ingredients in highly processed foods), there are a few bread-specific additives to watch out for.
The first is the so-called “yoga mat” chemical of the infamous Subway bread controversy. Also used to improve the stretchiness of rubber products like flip-flops and yoga mats, this chemical—azodicarbonamide, abbreviated as ADA or ADC—is added to some commercial bread products as a bleaching agent and flour-improver. When heated, ADA forms two icky byproducts, one that’s known to cause cancer and one that might cause cancer.
Another problematic item on the ingredient list is potassium bromate, a chemical added to fluff up bread and give it a tender texture, which has also been shown to cause cancer in animals and may hurt kidney function in humansToxicity and carcinogenicity of potassium bromate—a new renal carcinogen. Kurokawa, Y., Maekawa, A., Takahashi, M. et al. Environmental Health Perspectives, 1990; 87:309-335.. It’s banned pretty much everywhere except in the U.S. and Japan.
Less scary-sounding but definitely unhealthy, added sugars such as dextrose appear in certain commercial breads. Dextrose contributes to the nice, toasty-brown color of baked loaves (and to Americans’ waistlines). Other names for sugar include sucrose or “evaporated cane juice.” There’s no need to completely eliminate added sugars, but limiting them is a good idea.
While commercial food producers splash all sorts of health-related claims on packaging, a lot of the front-of-package labeling is just to entice consumers. For your healthiest bread options, look for whole-grain breads with short ingredient lists (not too much longer than flour, water, yeast, and salt). Bonus points for buying from artisan bakers or making your own.
Fermented breads, a.k.a. sourdough made with a long fermentation time, could reduce blood sugar spikes or icky abdominal symptoms in some people. (Although keep in mind, portion control still key if you’re trying to lose weight or have blood sugar issues.) And sprouted-grain breads may offer some nutritional advantages above and beyond the basic whole-grain loaf, but eating sprouted bread isn’t likely to lead to significant improvements in health (though you’ll get hippie street cred). As far as gluten concerns go, if you have celiac disease (or suspect other sensitivities), look for gluten-free bread made from beneficial ingredients like chickpea or oat flour. But if you’re a-OK with gluten, there’s no reason to break up with everyone’s favorite comforting carb.