By Emily Rhodes, MPH, RD, Food and Nutrition Writer, eSavvyHealth
Did the MD’s get it right when they said to avoid all white foods? While that may be a significant oversimplification to proper nutrition, it certainly can hold up, especially when it comes to bread. Let’s review how wheat can be transformed into an ultra-processed food, different forms of bread, and how to pick the best varieties for optimal nutrition (don’t worry, sourdough enthusiasts, we’ll touch on that, too).
White bread is a staple in many households, but not many are aware of the intricate process that transforms grains of wheat into the fluffy loaves we find on grocery store shelves. The journey begins in wheat fields, where farmers cultivate wheat varieties rich in gluten, a protein that gives bread its structure and elasticity. Wheat has a large genetic diversity; for example, there are more than 25,000 varieties of common wheat (accounting for 95% of wheat produced), which are adapted to different environments. The most common wheat varieties are a result of selection for desired characteristics such as higher yield, breadmaking quality, efficient use of nutrients and resistance to agricultural stressors. (1)
Here’s the process:
- Harvesting and Milling: Wheat undergoes harvesting when the grains are fully matured. Once harvested, the wheat kernels go through a milling process, where they are ground into flour. During this process, the outer layer of the wheat kernel (the bran/fiber) and inner germ are often removed to produce refined white flour.
- Dough Formation: The flour is then mixed with water, yeast, and other ingredients, depending on the specific recipe.
- Kneading and Rising: Kneading the dough helps connect the network of gluten, providing the bread with structure and chewiness. The dough is then put aside for a while, as the yeast ferments its sugars. This produces the gas carbon dioxide, which causes the bread to rise and creates the airy texture characteristic of bread.
- Baking: The risen dough is baked to a golden-brown hue. The heat transforms the dough into the final product, ready to be sliced and packaged.
While gluten is a crucial component in bread production, it has become controversial in recent years. Some individuals suffer from gluten-related disorders, such as celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder characterized by an adverse reaction to gluten, damaging the small intestine lining and hindering nutrient absorption. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity involves gastrointestinal and other symptoms triggered by gluten consumption in individuals without celiac disease. While it may be transient, current evidence has established gluten sensitivity as a true condition, but there has yet to be a standard diagnostic test or treatment.(2)(3)
It’s no surprise that white bread is not considered a health food, as it involves increased processing. Think of it as being ‘pre-digested;’ It would be much more challenging for the body to digest a whole food product, as opposed to a food product that has been stripped of much of its original elements, including and perhaps most importantly, fiber. Find out more about the benefits of fiber and how food manufacturers ‘add back’ fake fiber to improve the nutritional profile.
This refinement contributes to white bread’s high glycemic index, the measure of how a food increases blood sugar. That means that the body can break it down more rapidly, inciting sugar spikes and also leading to overeating. White bread is also low in nutrients, considering that vitamins and minerals are removed during processing. And ultra-processed forms generally contain additives, added sugars, and preservatives. See more here.
These breads found in the grocery store are less processed than white bread and can offer more nutritional bang for their buck:
- Whole Wheat Bread: Unlike white bread, whole wheat bread retains the bran and germ, providing more fiber, vitamins, and minerals. It offers a heartier texture and a richer nutritional profile.
- Multigrain Bread: This type of bread incorporates various grains, seeds, and nuts, offering a diverse nutrient profile. However, it’s crucial to check labels, as not all multigrain breads are made with whole grains.
- Sourdough Bread: Sourdough undergoes a fermentation process using a ‘starter’ that breaks down gluten and phytic acid, potentially making it easier to digest for some individuals. It often has a tangy flavor and may be a suitable option for those with mild gluten sensitivities. As a fermented food, sourdough offers nutritional benefits not found in other breads, and there’s evidence that it is somewhat less likely to cause blood sugar spikes than other breads.(4)
- Sprouted Bread: Sprouted bread is a type of bread made from whole grains that have been allowed to germinate or sprout before being milled into flour and used in the bread-making process. The grains commonly used in sprouted bread include wheat, barley, spelt, and sometimes other foods like lentils or soybeans. The sprouting process may enhance nutrient availability and reduce the presence of certain antinutrients, substances that can inhibit nutrient absorption. Additionally, some people find that sprouted bread is easier to digest, and it may be a suitable option for those with mild gluten sensitivities, as the sprouting process may break down some of the gluten.
Choosing whole grain or multigrain breads over refined options is essential for promoting optimal health. Ignore front-of-packaging claims, and just go straight to the ingredients to determine if it’s the best lightly processed option. Whole grains are rich in dietary fiber, which plays an important role in maintaining digestive health, regulating blood sugar levels, and supporting heart health. Many of the healthiest varieties of bread will be found in the freezer aisle since they lack chemical preservatives. The ingredients lists for these two products shows how different foods can be still be called “bread””
Wonder Bread: Enriched Wheat Flour, Water*, Sugar, Soybean And/or Canola Oil, Yeast*, Salt, Defatted Soy Flour, Wheat Gluten*, Calcium Propionate, Sodium Stearoyl-2-Lactylate, Sorbic Acid, Vegetable Monoglycerides. *Order May Vary.
Ezekial Bread: Organic Sprouted Wheat, Filtered Water, Organic Sprouted Barley, Organic Sprouted Millet, Organic Malted Barley, Organic Sprouted Lentils, Organic Sprouted Soybeans, Organic Sprouted Spelt, Yeast, Organic Wheat Gluten, Sea Salt.
In the quest for optimal nutrition, understanding the manufacturing process of white bread, the action of gluten, and the diverse bread options available can empower consumers to make informed choices. Opting for whole grain or multigrain varieties and prioritizing fiber-rich options can contribute to a balanced and nourishing diet. While the notion of avoiding all white foods may be an oversimplification, choosing wisely in the bread aisle is a step toward embracing the benefits of real and wholesome nutrition.
Emily Rhodes, MPH, RD is a Registered Dietitian and Clinical Nutrition Manager at Keck Medicine of USC in Arcadia, CA. You can find her at the barn or in the grocery aisle reading a label.
- de Sousa T, Ribeiro M, Sabença C, Igrejas G. The 10,000-Year Success Story of Wheat! Foods. 2021 Sep 8;10(9):2124. doi: 10.3390/foods10092124. PMID: 34574233; PMCID: PMC8467621.
- Catassi C. Gluten Sensitivity. Ann Nutr Metab. 2015;67 Suppl 2:16-26. doi: 10.1159/000440990. Epub 2015 Nov 26. PMID: 26605537.
- Demirkesen-Bicak H, Arici M, Yaman M, Karasu S, Sagdic O. Effect of Different Fermentation Condition on Estimated Glycemic Index, In Vitro Starch Digestibility, and Textural and Sensory Properties of Sourdough Bread. Foods. 2021 Mar 1;10(3):514. doi: 10.3390/foods10030514.