Going With the Grain for Good Health
When I was growing up in the 1960s, I thought the breads my grandparents served—dark, coarse pumpernickels and ryes "to sop up the sauces"—were peasant food, the last vestiges of their hard lives in Russia. Like most American children of my generation, I considered soft, white Wonder Bread one of the wonders of the New World.
We know better now, of course. Today Americans enjoy a bounty of fresh-baked, whole-grain breads from health-food groceries, bakeries and food co-ops. Even Interstate Bakeries, the maker of Wonder Bread, has opened the San Francisco French Bread Company to try to capture some of the health-conscious artisan bread market.
The Right Stuff
But how do you choose among the bewildering variety of products on the shelves? Rule number-one: Avoid processed, refined white flour. Mills that refined white flour enabled mass production of bread during the Industrial Revolution, but the process has a downside. It removes the bran and most of the germ, stripping the grain of its fiber and nutrients.
Avoiding white flour is easier said than done, however. As Jayne Hurley and Bonnie Liebman point out in the Nutrition Action Health Letter, breads that claim to be "whole wheat" often have more white flour than whole grain flour—with coloring added to give it a whole grain look. "You"ll also find that most rye, pumpernickel and oatmeal breads are largely white flour," they say. They suggest looking for bread that lists 100 percent whole grain flour as the first ingredient.
Package claims like "organic," "natural" and "stone-ground" don't necessarily mean that bread is whole grain, either. "Enriched wheat flour" is another deceptive term; although the nutritional content on the label may look impressive, that's because vitamins and minerals have been added to replace those that were stripped away in the refining process.
A wide variety of whole grain breads are now available. Whole wheat, ground from the whole wheat berry, is high in nutrients and includes the fibrous bran. Whole grain rye is nutritionally similar to whole wheat. Whole oat flour, which imparts a sweet flavor to bread, is high in water-soluble fiber and nutrients (but also higher in sodium and unsaturated fat than most grains). Other whole grain bread flours include amaranth and quinoa, both rich sources of protein and calcium; barley; crunchy millet; and B-vitamin-rich brown rice.
Whole grain breads also have the advantage of generally having a low glycemic index. In Eating Well for Optimum Health, Dr. Andrew Weil recommends low-glycemic foods. High-glycemic foods, he says, "cause episodic bursts of high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) and corresponding bursts of insulin secretion." The magazine Taste for Life suggests this metabolic roller coaster may increase the risk for adult-onset diabetes.
Health journalist Melissa Diane Smith writes in Going Against the Grain, "Whole grains cause lower blood sugar responses than refined grains. This is largely because of the fiber they contain, which slows the dip and absorption of glucose into the bloodstream." Manna Breads, available from Nature's Path, are one low-glycemic choice. Made from organic sprouted grain rather than flour, they contain up to 100 percent more fiber than whole wheat breads and are naturally high in vitamins and minerals.
Bob's Red Mill offers an impressive variety of 36 different baking flours. The company's slow, traditional stone grinding process is said to "preserve valuable nutrients." Also, Pacific Bakery sells organic, whole grain, stone-ground and hand-kneaded breads that are yeast-free, since some people believe yeast can aggravate allergies. Gluten-free breads are also offered by numerous companies for people with that allergy.
A healthy bread should generally be high in fiber and low in sodium and fat. According to Hurley and Liebman, for a bread to make the claim that it may reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers, it must contain at least 51 percent whole grain, have at least 1.7 grams of fiber per slice, be low in fat, and have less than 480 mgs of sodium per serving.
Here in the United States, one of the world's breadbaskets, wheat is the third-biggest crop after corn and soybeans. But conventional wheat-growing has had devastating effects on the environment. That's because most wheat farmers rely on agricultural chemicals to produce a consistently productive crop. "To make good wheat," adds Daniel Leader, owner and baker of Bread Alone, an artisan bakery in New York's Catskill Mountains, "you need to rotate crops. Most big wheat growers don't do that. Many still use a lot of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides."
To support a healthier environment, look for breads made from 100 percent organic flour. Organic grain farming is not only better for the soil but is a more viable economic proposition for many farmers. Wheat prices are so low that most conventional growers lose money on every bushel they produce. Organic wheat growers, however, report receiving a 40 percent price premium.
The food that has staved off hunger for millions of people around the world is basically a simple product. "A good bread should have flour, water, salt and yeast," says Leader. "If you see a lot of ingredients beyond that, then you've got something you don't need."
ELAINE ROBBINS is a freelance writer in Austin, TX.