Friday 24 May 2019

Baking bad: Why does the humble loaf get such a bad rap?

Do you smother a slice with butter in the morning or has the low-carb trend banished bread from your table? Julia Molony explores why the one-time staple might be toast

Trays of bread in a bakery (Stock)
Trays of bread in a bakery (Stock)
We have a love/hate relationship with bread - but are we giving it a bad name for no reason?

Julia Molony

The humble loaf. When did it become such a divisive foodstuff? The idea of breaking bread used to be a shorthand for bringing people together. Now when the subject of bread comes up around the dinner table it's more likely to turn into a bun fight.

Observe a group of health-conscious women, young and old, out for dinner, and you can bet that at least a proportion of them will be avoiding making eye contact with the bread basket. Alongside juicing and daily meditation, going bread-free has become a contemporary lifestyle aspiration. Which goes some way to explaining why the hashtag #lowcarb returns over 12m posts on Instagram.

Every day half a million loaves of bread are baked in Ireland. On a weekday 30pc of us tuck into toast for our breakfast and 40pc do so on weekends. And yet the proportion of our daily calorie intake provided by carbohydrate and starchy food has dropped year on year, from 58pc in 1948 to 47pc in 2007. More and more of us are renouncing bread in the belief that it is bad for our health. Over the last couple of decades, low-carbohydrate eating plans for weight-loss such as the Atkins, Paleo, Keto and Dukan have gained traction, and messages derived (or in some cases misconstrued) from these, that carbs are "bad" and high-protein foods "good" have filtered into mainstream culture. In addition, as many as 20pc of us are now regular gluten-free shoppers, motivated by the belief that by buying gluten-free products we are making the healthy choice, despite the fact that only 1pc of the population suffers from clinically apparent coeliac disease.

But is bread's bad rap justified? Last month, the results of a long-term observational study were published in the medical journal The Lancet which reported that people who go low-carb might be reducing their lifespan by as much as four years. "Our data suggests that animal-based low carbohydrate diets, which are prevalent in North America and Europe, might be associated with shorter overall life span and should be discouraged," said the study's lead Dr Sara Seidelmann.

"No qualified dietitian or nutritionalist will tell you cut carbs out of your diet," says Dr Mary McCreery, a clinical nutritionalist and dietitian and spokesperson for National Bread Week, which starts today. "All the worldwide guidelines, science, health government bodies will say that we need around the 50-55pc carbohydrate in your diet." This is about 5pc more than most of us are currently consuming.

And yet, experts remain divided on just how much pride of place bread should take in a healthy balanced diet. For registered dietitian, Aoife Deane, who is based in Cork and London's Harley Street, the problem is not bread itself, but the way some of us consume it. When we talk about bread, we tend to think of a nice slice of wholemeal. But it's not just the native loaves - the soda breads and the granary slices, she lists off "ciabattas, paninis, pizzas, naans and other wheat-based things like wraps and stuff like that" that many of us default to when we're feeling hungry.

The question she urges us to ask ourselves, "if you are mostly eating bread, what are you not eating?" She sees clients whose typical diet in a day might include "a wheat-based cereal in the morning, with toast. Then a sandwich for lunch, and a pizza with a garlic bread side for dinner". The result, she says is "an entirely bread-based day, with very little else".

She is not against bread. On the contrary, she says that "having a piece of wholemeal bread - that's a great complex carbohydrate and makes a healthy snack, as long as we are not having loads of it every day."

Even "white bread can have its place for people who are unwell, or people who have low-fibre needs. There's calcium, there's phosphorous, there's iron, there's magnesium, there's B vitamins. There is a lot in it," she goes on. "It generally all depends what the person is eating the rest of the day. I think the main thing is having too much of one thing, and the problem is then the exclusion of other things out of the diet because of that food."

She's concerned too about the amount of processing and preservatives that go into the production of some kinds of industrially produced bread. Deane's food philosophy is very much based on favouring foods that are perishable.

"Perishable foods can be more filling because they have a higher water content. They are either going to be a fruit or veg with loads of fibre, or they are going to be a protein food like dairy, meat or fish. Then you've got bread which is in the middle, but also can be very processed (compared to, say quinoa or brown rice) such as very, very white bread with very little fibre, very little water, very little protein. Some types of bread you could keep them in the packet and they would outlive us all," she says.

Salt is also a concern, especially for those with pre-existing health conditions such as high blood pressure. The World Action on Salt Global Bread Survey 2018 published earlier this year found that some bread has as much salt as seawater.

Though it's not something broadly acknowledged within nutritional science, Deane says that from her experience in practice as a clinical dietitian, a lot of people don't get on well with a high-bread diet. "Obviously there are people who are diagnosed as having coeliac disease, but sometimes it isn't really recognised that a lot of people just don't feel well after eating a lot of bread. I think sometimes dietitians and the medical community do ignore that," she says.

She acknowledges that what she's saying is controversial, but for her it makes intuitive sense when you look at Ireland's dietary history. "We didn't really start eating wheat until after the famine. Before that, she says "our main cereal or grain was oats. It was only post-famine that wheats came into circulation. In the scheme of evolution, that's very recent."

Our bodies, she surmises, haven't adapted to easily digest bread. She believes that further research will vindicate her position. "I do think there is more research to come in terms of the effect of wheat on people... it wasn't something included at all in my dietetics degree or masters, but we all know how many people are affected when they eat too much bread in terms of feeling bloated or sluggish and things like that."

Dr McCreery, however, argues that with more and more people giving up bread wholesale, there is reason to be concerned about the impact that decision will have on their health.

"By cutting out carbohydrates not only are you decreasing the main energy-giving foods but you are also decreasing a huge bulk of nutrients also from it," she says.

On bread, she is unequivocal. "It is a myth that bread is bad for you. How can a food that contains so many nutrients be bad for you? It just doesn't make any sense to me," she says.

Among the vital nutrients we risk missing out on if we give up bread are B vitamins, including folic acid which is known to help prevent certain birth defects of the brain and spinal cord and is therefore especially important for women of childbearing age, and vital for those who are planning a pregnancy. Much of the bread on the market today is fortified with folic acid.

"In total, between wholemeal and white bread, we're getting 11pc of the contribution to folate in Irish adults. That's a significant contribution," says McCreery. "But if women ate more bread they're going to get more folate."

Bread is also a surprisingly rich source of iron, and at current consumption levels "provides 14pc of the iron content of the Irish adult, which, McCreery points out, is "higher than meat and fish dishes. It naturally occurs in wholemeal bread, and by law, anything that is removed in the refining of it, it has to be added back in again," she explains. So "the iron content of both white and brown bread is similar, but it naturally occurs in the wholemeal bread and it is added back in to the white bread."

As for its effect on blood sugar, "all breads are high GI but that's not necessarily a bad thing," she argues. "You are going to get your energy straight away from a high GI food. If you are coming in from work and you need an energy boost, a slice of toast is a perfect snack because it's going to give you that energy boost that you need that has very few calories. The best diet to date that we know of is the diet that has the balance of the major nutrients; the carbohydrates the protein and the fat. "Nature has a way of looking after us," she says. "If you get the balance of the major nutrients correct, the micronutrients tend to look after themselves."

Knead to know: what are the healthiest breads?


* Spelt bread

High in fibre (3g as opposed to the 0.9g found in a piece of white sliced pan) a slice of spelt bread contains 118 calories, 4.7g of protein but a relatively high 2.5g of fat.

* Brown soda bread with sunflower seeds

It boasts a healthy 2.5g of fibre, and 2.9g of protein. Each slice contains about 80 calories.

* Average brown bread

Your daily slice, so long as it is wholewheat, contains almost 2g of fibre, 2.9g of protein and a negligible

0.74g of fat.

* Brennans Chia loaf

As well as providing fibre the chia loaf boasts a modest amount of the essential fat Omega 3 (0.13g per slice).

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