In the beginning of Les Miserables, hero Jean Valjean is arrested for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. Like Jean Valjean, humans have subsisted on bread for hundreds of years. Yet now, many condemn bread as a high-glycemic, ultra-processed, gluten-containing, insulin-spiking white carb. Did bread really transform from Staff of Life to Stuffed with Chemicals? Here are my thoughts about eating and buying bread that’s both delicious and nutritious.
Wheat-based bread contains gluten, which is simply a combination of 2 precursor proteins. Gluten gives bread structure and strength — the ability to form a network that eventually transforms wet dough to airy loaves.
In his new book, Cooked, author Michael Pollan devotes 84 pages to the transformation of seed into bread, introducing some thought-provoking subjects we should all be “Wonder-ing” about when we eat bread.
Pollan notes that mass-produced supermarket breads are never touched by human hands. While traditional hand-made breads take a half a day or more to produce, mass production has condensed the timing to just a few hours. Cooked compares commercially produced breads (even “wheat” bread) to a hand-made loaf. As you might imagine, a whole-grain handmade loaf made from stone-ground flour is higher in fiber, slower to digest, lower on the Glycemic Index, and higher in B vitamins and many unknown compounds found in the original wheat berry.
Commercial wheat is commercially milled—for the most part the mill keeps the inside “endosperm” seed, while the bran and germ are discarded for other uses. Pollan explains the somewhat ridiculous system of modern commercial bread production as follows:
- Whole seed milled
- Bran and germ discarded, inner endosperm kept
- Inner endosperm ground very finely
- Vitamins lost when bran/germ were discarded added in again, in form of powders
- In some “white fiber” breads, other forms of powdered fiber added back in
- Various dough conditioners/stabilizers/shelf-life extenders added
- In contrast, “stone-ground” whole wheat flour contains all the original parts of the seed—the bran, germ and endosperm. This flour and its resulting bread have a complex, interesting, slightly nutty or fruity flavor.
I toured Great Harvest Bakery in Thousand Oaks, CA, where owner Jim explained the process of how they make their stone-ground flour. Here is a photo of their wheat berries. Jim explains that Great Harvest is part of a co-op that gets their seeds from Northwestern Montana. Try asking the manager of your local Vons or Ralphs where the flour originated for their aisle of 50 breads! Great Harvest mills the wheat daily on site—see the photo, here. Their mill uses granite stones that need to be closely watched to prevent overheating, which can result in undesirable flavor changes in the stone-ground flour. All of the breads at Great Harvest contain ingredients you would find in a typical kitchen—flour, salt, yeast, honey, maybe some sesame seeds.
I visited two other local bakeries that use stone-ground flour—Wild Flour in Agoura and House of Bread in Chatsworth. My Wild Flour Bakery loaf contains: stoneground whole wheat flour, water, honey, salt, yeast, white flour, sugar. My House of Bread loaf contains: 100% whole wheat flour, water, honey, yeast and salt. (And yes they all tasted great!)
At Costco today, I found a loaf of “whole grain white bread” that counts azodicarbonamide, ammonium sulfate, calcium peroxide and datem as part of its 30 or so ingredients.
Bread is a miracle of chemistry and biology, a complete and wondrous transformation. But supermarket bread filled with dough conditioners and chemicals to increase shelf-life for a year or more? Not the best choice for health or great taste.
If your bread contains anything you can’t pronounce, or any ingredient not normally found in a home kitchen, consider trying a fresh bakery loaf with fewer ingredients. “But it will turn moldy on my counter in a few days,” you say. The solution is to FREEZE your bread! Fresh baked loaves won’t last as long on the counter, it’s true, but freezing them preserves flavor almost perfectly.
Gluten/Wheat Belly/Weight Loss
Let’s address the gluten-intolerant elephant in the room! People with celiac disease must avoid gluten, and some others feel better when they eliminate gluten even if they do not have a diagnosis of celiac. Pollan suggests looking at the alteration of our food supply, rather than just demonizing gluten itself. Compare bread your great-grandmother baked to the Costco loaf I saw today, or compare it to Cheez-Its or an Uncrustable. I think that blaming gluten for all our ills is too simplistic (unless of course you have celiac disease!).
Regarding weight and gluten, most of the slices I tried (and I tried MANY in the past 2 weeks) have about 100 calories and about 3 grams of fiber. If someone is successfully losing weight after eliminating wheat products, they are also LOWERING THEIR CALORIE INTAKE!
I’m not trying to convince anyone they must eat bread—in fact I encourage people to stick with any nutrition plan that makes them feel good and brings them success. It’s just important to differentiate between a locally-made whole-wheat stone-ground bread and an Eggo.
Regarding carbs in general, many people find success in having the starchy carbs earlier in the day, then switching to low-carb veggies at night.
6 Steps to Better Bread
- Try to buy bread with minimal ingredients. All ingredients in a fresh bread loaf should be those you could easily find in your own kitchen (flour, honey, salt, baking soda, etc.)
- Check around for a local bakery, then stock up. Most farmers’ markets also have fresh bread vendors.
- Leave a few days’ worth of slices out, and freeze the rest.
- Buying white or sourdough? Your local bakery will also have delicious varieties of these.
- Picky family member who only wants white bread? Buy some whole-wheat to make French toast (for the best French toast, take the slices out the night before and leave out to stale). Keep offering and enjoying the whole wheat yourself.
- Buy Stone Ground flour to use in baking (Bob’s Red Mill makes it). Just to note, there is no government regulation (called “standard of identity”) for stone-ground flour. You can read more here: http://www.npr.org/2013/03/01/173242994/seeking-a-grain-of-truth-in-whole-grain-labels
Experiment with making your own bread, either in a bread machine or with the use of a stand mixer!