Ah bread. For some it’s a love that can’t be denied. For others it might as well be a four-letter word. Over the past 20 years, bread has become so nutritionally polarizing it could get its own dietary designation: vegan, vegetarian, carnivore, bread-eater.
If you’re a proud breadivore (or breaditarian?) your choices have also gotten a bit more complex. No longer is bread just white or brown. Now there’s gluten-free bread, pitas, wraps, tortillas and something that’s sprouted? What the heck does that even mean?
In an effort to help make living healthy a little simpler, here is your bread breakdown, so you know the difference (or lack thereof) and can choose your loaf with a lot less confusion.
Poor white bread. We love you and yet we publicly shame you. How did white bread go from being a symbol of wholesome Americana to a nutritional pariah?
Unlike whole wheat bread, which includes all three parts of the wheat berry: the outermost layer (bran), the innermost layer (germ), and the starchy part in between (endosperm), white bread includes only the endosperm. This means white bread has less fiber, vitamins and minerals.
For most people this is a bad thing, but for people with digestive issues like IBS, Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis this can be good. Less fiber means white bread is much easier to digest. On the other hand, it also means white bread breaks down into glucose more quickly and can spike your blood sugar if eaten on its own.
Another bummer is that the flour used in white breads can be bleached with chemicals such as potassium bromate or chlorine dioxide gas. If you’re going to go for white bread try to buy organic and top your toast with some grass-fed butter or organic nut butter to help keep your blood sugar stable.
Whole wheat can have more fiber and other nutrients than white bread. However, many bread brands that market themselves as “whole wheat” are mostly white flour. How can you tell? Check the label. If the first ingredient is “wheat flour” or “enriched bleached flour” that means mostly white flour was used. When shopping for whole wheat bread, make sure the label says “100% whole wheat” or “whole grain” and the first ingredient on the label is whole wheat flour or 100% whole wheat flour.
Stone grinding is the traditional way of making grain into flour, where the wheat grain is ground in between two flat stones. Before the Industrial Revolution this was the only way to make bread. Some claim that since the stones are cold, the nutrients in the grain aren’t “cooked away,” but the bread still has to endure high heat when it is baked. There’s no evidence that stone-ground wheat is any more nutritious than wheat milled with rollers. However, the word “stone-ground” could indicate a greater level of care around the manufacturing process and thus, higher quality and fewer ingredients, but the only way to know is to check the label.
You might have noticed this type of bread popping up on more and more grocery store shelves and in more and more of your friends’ conversations. But sprouting is not a new fad. It’s an ancient way of preparing grains that dates all the way back to biblical times.
Remember in grade school when you planted seeds in a cup and waited until they sprouted? It’s the same thing here – sprouted grains are soaked in water until they begin to grow a sprout. Why bother? Because all plants contain protective chemicals called “antinutrients”. These can make it hard for the body to absorb the vitamins and minerals naturally present in the grain, seed or plant.
Sprouting is also said to activate enzymes, which help break down starches in the grain, lowering the carbohydrate content, increasing protein content and making the grains easier to digest. In 2008, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) actually ruled that sprouted grains are more akin to vegetables than to whole grain.
All good things, but does it really make that much of a difference compared to un-sprouted grains? According to the good people at UC Davis, not really. But if you find that you experience gas and bloating after eating regular grains, why not try sprouted and see if they work for you.
Gluten-free bread can be a great option for people with celiac disease or gluten-sensitivity. But just because it’s gluten-free doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Since there’s no gluten – a central component to what makes bread, bread – manufacturers have to do some fancy cookwork, which often times means adding in bizarre ingredients, bulking agents, shelf stabilizers and other artificial additives. Check the label and be wary of too many crazy words.
Rye is a grain that’s similar to wheat and does contain gluten. In terms of nutritional benefit, some research has found that rye may have a slight advantage over wheat. One study found mice consuming the whole grain rye lost more weight, had slightly better insulin sensitivity, and lower total cholesterol, compared to those eating whole grain wheat. If your interest is peaked and you want to give rye a try, just make sure the first ingredient on the label is rye flour, not wheat flour or enriched flour.
Although it may look quite different from white bread, pita bread is essentially the same as white or wheat bread it just has less leavening (the stuff that makes bread fluffy).
The real San Francisco treat! Sourdough bread is primarily known for its distinctive taste (that goes so well with a steaming hot bowl of chowder) but like sprouting, the souring of dough is actually a traditional practice that enhances the nutritional value of the bread.
A true sourdough bread is leavened with a sourdough “starter”. The starter is made from flour and water that has been left to sit out for several days. During this time the wild yeasts and lactobacilli bacteria naturally present in the flour ferment.
The fermentation makes the vitamins and minerals in the flour more digestible, while lowering the sugar content – which could be helpful for people with blood sugar control issues. Additionally, research shows that sourdough preparation significantly lowers gluten content, so this type of bread could be an option for people with gluten sensitivity.
The bacteria-yeast combo also helps predigest some of the starches in the grains, which means less digestion for you. This could be why some research shows sourdough bread to be better for people suffering with digestive issues like IBS, and many claim eating sourdough doesn’t come with the oh-so-attractive bloating and gas that often follows a delicious bowl of pasta.
Although the baking process kills most of the live bacteria, some research shows that even dead bacteria can offer health benefits similar to live probiotics in foods like raw sauerkraut and kimchee.
Better nutrient absorption, easier digestion and less gluten. Sounds like a dream come true. But before you toss your rice cakes, be aware that most commercially made sourdough breads are not fermented. They just taste sour thanks to flavoring agents. If you want to be sure your dough is legit, the ingredient label should list a sourdough starter. If you’re dining out, ask how they make the bread.
These can be made of either corn, flour, or a combination of both. 100% corn tortillas are gluten-free, and generally have fewer calories, less fat and sugar, and a lot more fiber. Unfortunately much of the corn used to make processed corn products like tortillas, tortilla chips, corn oil and corn syrup can be GMO. When shopping for tortillas, try and look for an organic brand like La Tortilla Factory. These are made of only corn and water.
The only difference between a flour tortilla and a wrap is clever marketing. They’re the exact same thing. Although they’re often portrayed as a healthier alternative to bread, these wraps can be massive, packing upwards of 300 calories and 10g of fat – and that’s not counting all the tasty toppings you put inside.
WHICH ONE IS BEST?
There’s no clear nutritional winner, although sourdough and sprouted breads certainly have some possible merits that could be worth exploring. If we had to pick a loser it would probably be the flour tortilla followed by white bread. Wump wump. But as an occasional treat these are perfectly fine.
Generally when picking a vehicle for your deli meats (or veggies) it’s a matter of personal preference and, we’ll say it one more time for the people in the cheap seats, reading the label. You want to make sure your bread of choice has at least 3-4g of fiber and does not include an ingredient list as long as your arm. Other things to watch out for: artificial dyes, added sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and any other 14-syllable words you can’t pronounce.
Know any die-hard bread lovers? Share this with them!