This article is a continuation of a previous article I shared with you on this topic entitled, The Grain Dilemma. In it I introduced the idea that having a diet high in carbohydrates, namely grains, may not necessarily be as healthy as once touted. In North America, far too much of the typical diet is based on simple carbohydrates, particularly wheat. Most people consume breakfast cereals, toast or breads of any kind, crackers, muffins, cookies, and baked goods without much thought.
Although grains can have their place in a healthy diet, one must be vigilant in which form, how they are prepared, and in what quantity. In this article I will talk about bread, once considered the staple of life for humanity and now an over-processed and often chemically treated product. Just read the label on your current loaf at home and you might be surprised at how many ingredients are unfamiliar (or un-pronounceable!). Commercial bread-making does not have nutrition as its top priority, but rather to make a product the most efficiently with little rising needed, and with the longest shelf-life. You would also be hard-pressed to find commercially made bread that does not have sugar added in some form: glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, or less obvious forms of sugar such as maltodextrin, or dextrose.
A Historic Journey of Bread
How is it possible that bread can be considered unhealthy? First of all, our ancestors (and even people today from more traditional cultures) soaked, sprouted, or fermented their grains before making them into the foods they consumed. What our ancestors knew instinctively and science has proven today, this process allows phytic acid to be broken down, allowing grain to be more digestible. Untreated phytic acid, found in all grains and many other foods, has the potential effect of blocking the absorption of minerals like calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, and copper. It has been shown that a diet too high in processed grains can lead to bone loss, tooth problems, and general mineral deficiencies.
Up to the 1950s, the main technique for bread-making was using sourdough leavening. This is a form of fermentation, using naturally occurring yeast and lactobacilli. It was a time-consuming process no doubt, taking 12-24+ hours to make with kneading and rising done a few times. With whole grains used, the end result was a hearty but fluffy bread, with much of the phytic acid broken down. In contrast, factory bread takes less than 5 hours to rise, and depending on the amount of chemical leavening agents used, can even be done in 2 hours.
By the 1700s, white flour was produced more readily and it was considered a sign of wealth or high status if one could afford the fluffier whiter breads. Peasants had to eat the dark and heavier breads – which of course we know today is far healthier. Commercial bread-making took a leap forward in 1961 when large-scale mechanical dough kneaders were invented that not only reduced fermentation time at the expense of nutrition, but could use inferior quality grains as well. These types of machines are still used today around the world to create the vast majority of bread that you see in the supermarkets today.
Refined & Over Processed
Another huge discrepancy in the way in which we consume our bread is that much of it is overly processed due to the preparation of the flour. Wheat flour comes in many forms – white, enriched, unbleached, or whole. Ironically, unbleached flour may sound healthier, yet it still has the germ and bran removed and the flour is allowed to whiten naturally through exposure to the air (white flour is simply bleached artificially). Even whole grain cereals or breads are a processed food, so don’t let the label fool you. In Canada, whole wheat can and often means that white flour is used in the product with some of the bran added back in. Unless the label says whole meal flour, you are not getting a product made of the entire wheat kernel ground up as is. However, you will be hard-pressed to find this since fresh milled wheat starts to oxidize and go rancid in a matter of days, so for obvious reasons not used by commercial bread makers. Many people eat light rye bread thinking it is healthier, but again a careful look at the ingredients lists wheat flour either as number one or two on the list.
Thirdly, wheat as we know it today has been drastically altered since the 1960s. Through repeated hybridization, wheat grown today looks nothing like it did in our parents’ time. It has been altered into a dwarf variety (a shorter stalk holds more grain) and has a higher yield per acre, a shorter growing season, is more pest and fungi resistant, and also contains more gluten. The latter trait is a boon to bakers, since this produces the fluffiest of baked goods, but as I mentioned in my previous article, is one of the main contributors to ‘leaky gut syndrome’ and various negative health effects as a result. It is also the prime reason why our parents or grandparents never had to worry about gluten-sensitivity (and the host of health problems that come with it) to the extent we now do today.
White Flour = White Sugar
Fourthly, a whopping 77% of all grain consumed in Canada (similarly in the US) is in the form of WHEAT. Given that most of this is of the enriched variety found in breads, baked goods, or white flour that has been fortified for cereals means that one is simply eating white flour. White flour alone is considered nutritionally void and hence it is the law in Canada that all wheat flour sold or used in processing must have certain nutrients added back in (hence the word ‘fortified’). It is now known that once digested, white flour is the equivalent of eating white sugar.
On a final note, refined carbohydrate digestion has the effect of not only raising insulin levels, but also triglycerides. In recent decades the current trend was to avoid fats and instead replace with carbohydrates. Remember the low-fat craze that started in the ‘80s? This mistaken advice has paradoxically contributed to the epidemic of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes that we see today. It isn’t necessarily dietary fat that makes us fat, but unhealthy carbohydrates and processed calories of any kind. And those refined carbs are what took the place of the fat to make foods fall under the “low-fat” labels. The collective symptoms of high blood pressure, high triglycerides, a large waistline, and high blood sugar, has been given the label metabolic syndrome by the medical community. One of the root causes of metabolic syndrome is eating a diet that is excessively high in refined carbohydrates.
In the end, all carbohydrates, just like all fats and all proteins, are not created equal and you must consider the actual food you are eating in order to accurately rate its risks or benefits. This is what will be the biggest determining factor in whether you are helping or hurting your health. In this case, when it comes to bread, know that you have many choices today, where you can choose the riskiest, refined and processed ones or you can choose the least riskiest and most wholesome ones.
Here is a further article to help you make the best choice, Bread: To Eat or Not to Eat and How to Choose the Best One and a quick summary video below.