Often demonised by carb-avoiders, bread can get a beating in the health stakes, but the humble loaf is staging a comeback. Here’s the lowdown on everything from sourdough to “protein” bread

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From low-carb diets to  general gluten avoidance , bread has been much bashed of late, but given that it’s been a staple food for over 12,000 years, can bread really be that bad for us? Dietitian and author of The Low-Fad Diet Jo Travers  describes the demonisation of bread as one of her greatest frustrations:

“I get very fed up with people who are down on bread. A lot of clients come to me in clinic and say things like “I have toast for breakfast, which I know I shouldn’t”. There is nothing wrong with bread unless you have a wheat or gluten allergy. It upsets me that people are made to feel so guilty about the food that they eat. We need to eat all the time in order to survive so if we feel guilty about it it can lead to a very miserable life.”

Quite. Most of us, unless medically prohibited, know the joy that surrounds the arrival of the bread basket, but it is also true that some varieties of bread are better in terms of taste and nutritional profile than others, plus the food industry doesn’t always use the best means to go about producing loaves at a rate of knots. As the UK’s most wasted food, choosing quality over quantity has never been more important, but where to start when you’re faced with a wall of sandwich loaves and “enriched” varieties? We called on co-founder of  Modern Baker  Leo Campbell and his team of health-conscious artisan bakers to debunk some bread myths and ensure you know your rye from your gluten-free.

Bread: the breakdown

Let’s get something straight. The best bread you’ll ever taste is made from just three ingredients: flour, water and salt. That’s it. Not even yeast is required, just a sourdough starter made from flour and water. Add a few seeds or nuts to the recipe, or some olive oil, perhaps some fruit, and it’ll become more interesting. That’s the way it was for 30,000 years, until mid-way through 20th century. So why do we have so much variation in our bread nowadays and how can we sift out the wheat from the chaff … or can we? With very little regulation in the UK, unlike say in France, knowing your breads has never been more important.

As with so much else to do with food preparation, the real secret is to teach yourself, along with rest of the family, to do it at home. That way you get incredible taste and the best of the health benefits of bread (that’s the premise of Modern Baker’s new healthy baking book). Obviously setting up a bakery at home isn’t always practical, so until then, here’s a snapshot of the different varieties of bread on the market, and what they bring to the table.

White bread

The epitome of industrial food. After the war the UK government commissioned food scientists to develop a process of making bread quickly, using low-protein UK wheat. Now 80 per cent of Britain’s bread is made using the Chorleywood Process, which eradicates any bio-chemical (natural) processes and bangs a loaf out in under an hour, but said bread will be awash with emulsifiers, lab-made enzymes that don’t need to be shown on-pack, and other chemicals. All that, plus uber-high volumes of refined flour, is a digestive recipe that if invented now, might find a liberal democracy rejecting it as food. Eating it results in a digestive glucose release matched only by a Mars bar and contributes absolutely nothing to gut health.

With ‘fluffy’ considered a quality, the UK is hooked on white bread, so much so that it’s become a competitive supermarket issue, with prices hitting a recent low of 50p! That said, sales of it are in decline as consumers question its flavour and nutritional qualities.

White bread is used mainly for sandwiches and toast – a staple of kids’ lunchboxes. Its principle saving grace is that it’s cheap. That low price point also means, however, that 35% of it is never used and ends up in the bin.

Brown bread

There is no legal definition of brown bread in the UK- it’s more of an old-fashioned phrase, “would you like that on white or brown”, than an actual category of bread recognised by bakers.

The general perception is that ‘brown’ is better than ‘white’, because it hints at less refined ingredients such as bran. It has also lead to a widespread use of malt powder and other ingredients being added to white bread, along with a name invented by the marketing department, to make the loaf ‘browner’, with the intention of it appealing to customers wanting to be ‘healthier’.

Brown bread is always a feature at the village fete or church hall buffet- smoked salmon sandwiches with brown bread always lends an air of middle-class sophistication!

Wholemeal bread

This is where is gets confusing. There are three phrases that are easily and frequently interchanged, wholemeal, wholegrain and wholewheat. Without getting technical or legal, they essentially amount to the same, and there is no meaningful legislation to define one from the other. The general thrust of all three is ‘less refined flour’. What matters is that all these, along with multigrain, are hinting at very different fibre levels to classic white bread. The presence of decent fibre levels is genuinely important: fibre slows down rate of glucose release in the small intestine, as well as contributing to gut health- the gut is desperate for fibre.

Wholemeal tends to have much a much earthier flavour than white bread, but is often rejected by children accustomed to fluffy white. Wholegrain sandwiches are generally more expensive, though that’s not always justified.

Rye bread

Now we’re talking. Currently viewed as very northern European, rye was once by far the most common grain in the UK, falling victim to a fashion for white bread (white flour was the result of extra sifting to remove small, tooth-breaking stone chips from being ground between stone, and became aspirational as well as safer – but less healthy).

Another reason that rye isn’t that available is that rye flour does not like baker’s yeast, it only rises with a sourdough culture, due to enzyme issues, so it’s basically off limits for the major manufacturers, other than as a small percentage blend, whereas to enjoy rye for all of its rye qualities, it should be eaten full strength.

Healthwise, a genuine rye has fantastically high fibre levels and a newly recognised and very healthy class of polymers called lignins.

Surprisingly, rye is the easiest bread to make at home once you’ve mastered sourdough.

Flavour-wise, a good rye is nutty, earthy, complex and dense- a slow chew. It’s often paired with cheese, cured meats, pickles and savoury food, but in truth it’s as universal as most other breads, once you’re used to it.

Sourdough bread

Ahhhh, the ultimate in bread. Sourdough’s status is not that simple, however, once again due to the UK’s reluctance to enforce food industry rules. As there is no legal definition for sourdough in the UK, and the s-word on-pack is so appealing to consumers, it sells with a high margin, and the s-word is almost universally misused in the UK. To get the gorgeous complex flavours and the healthy benefits of long-fermentation using naturally occurring yeasts, there are no shortcuts. Time, space and skills are required, none of which are available in the mass market. As such, a complex ingredients market has developed to bypass the otherwise lengthy process, using the likes of vinegar and yogurt to create sourdough-like flavours and sourdough powders and liquids to avoid using natural cultures. It’s referred to by people who care as sourfaux.

Getting it right, achieving the best sourdough you’ll ever eat is a slow process (our fermentation period is 48 hours).  Most people have no idea that you can make sourdough at home, and once you have mastered the art, it’s easy, you just have to be organised.

A good, genuine sourdough bread makes the best toast and sandwiches in the universe, plus it’s wonderful with soup. If it’s made with high quality ingredients such as stoneground, heritage flours, it’ll also leave you feeling fuller for much longer. The complex flavours are derived from the acidity of the natural fermentation. If you’re healthy minded, and have latched onto using grass-fed, organic butter and the like, butter compliments sourdough like nothing else. Add farmyard cheese, salad leaves, some spring onion tops and a sprinkle of chia seeds, and you’ll have a better tasting sandwich than anything on the high street.

Gluten-free bread

Commercial gluten-free breads are among the worst culprits for containing ingredients you’d rather not consume: they are the very worst of industrial breads. You dodge the gluten, but consume a load of chemicals that potentially spike other issues. And for most taste buds, they taste grim too. We have customers who travel an hour or more to get crap-free, decent tasting, sourdough gluten-free loaves.

However, as with all other types of bread, it doesn’t have to be like that. For people who are not coeliac, just intolerant to gluten, finding a genuine long-fermented sourdough will give you a bread with a fraction of the gluten than a factory loaf, although you’re unlikely to find one in a supermarket.

"Protein" bread

The association of high protein diets  with muscle gain is making “protein” bread increasingly popular, so the temptation of large bakeries process their proteins, rather than leave them whole-ish, means that the protein just becomes yet another refined ingredient- not good.

Why white bread isn’t always bad news...

A final word from dietitian Jo on keeping an open mind in the bread aisle:

“White bread is a better source of iron  than wholemeal bread because the wholegrain part of the flour found in wholemeal bread interferes with iron absorption. So if you are anaemic, white bread is a better choice than wholemeal bread. If you are trying to lose weight and want to feel fuller for longer, wholemeal is a better choice. It’s so important to think about the context of food and nutrients rather than just blanket labelling them good or bad.”

The take home message? Go for unrefined grains in general (but as above, there are exceptions), buy the best you can afford (support your local bakers) and if you’ve got time to knead some up at home, all the better. Modern Baker: A New Way to Bake  has know-how and recipes to suit everyone from beginners to pro bakers if you’re keen to craft your own loaves, plus proving while you sleep and freezing what you don’t use minimises time pressure and food wastage. Save us a slice.

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