What's Wrong With Industrial Bread?

5 reasons to ditch store-bought, and start baking your own.

February 11, 2014

Bread: It's the staff of life. It's biblical. It evokes images of wholesomeness and simplicity. And it's become one of the least healthy "health" foods being peddled to grocery shoppers everywhere, thanks to how bread is made by modern-day food processors.


It's not just weird additives. Here are five ways that industrial farmers and food processors have taken the most basic of foods, removed the nutrition, and sold it to the public, all while compounding dire, chronic health problems.

Hybrid Wheat Has Less Nutrition, But Dominates The Bread Market
Let's start with the wheat itself: While no commercialized varieties of genetically modified wheat are being grown currently, the crop has been cross-bred and hybridized to the point of being practically unrecognizable when compared to the ancient varieties of wheat grown by the first farmers. Modifications have been made to help modern wheat resist pests and drought, and to increase its yields, but as Michael Pollan writes in his book Cooked, the crop has also been bred to contain whiter, larger endosperms—the part of the wheat that's least nutritious but most useful in making refined white flour (it also contains the most gluten)—and smaller germs and bran husks, the parts of a wheat berry that contain the most nutrition but also taste bitter and go rancid quickly. This new hard-kerneled wheat is also easier for roller mills to handle than the softer wheat varieties.

"Whole Wheat" Bread Has The Same Impact On Blood Sugar As Cupcakes.
Once that Franken-grain gets from the farm to the miller, it's ground down into ultrafine particles that industrial bakers find much easier to work with than the larger flour particles produced by traditional stone mills. But grinding it that fine also pulverizes the fiber, writes Anne Alexander in the best-selling book The Sugar Smart Diet, and fiber slows your body's absorption of carbohydrates, which has a beneficial impact on blood sugar levels. This pulverized flour is "digested about as quickly as white flour, table sugar, or high-fructose corn syrup," she writes. "This means that they can spike blood sugar and insulin levels, leading to hunger and prompting you to reach for more of these foods. You're caught in an unending cycle of cravings and consumption." In fact, industrial whole wheat bread has a higher glycemic index (72) than table sugar (59), which means it causes greater blood sugar spikes, whereas whole-grain bread made with stone-ground flour has a glycemic index of 52.

The Extreme Effect On Blood Sugar Isn't Just From Lack Of Fiber.
Read the ingredients list on any bread package, whole wheat or otherwise, and you're likely to see any of the 40-plus names of sugar, whether honey and molasses or plain old table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. Yes, one reason it's there is to satisfy the sweet tooth, but that new hard-kerneled wheat variety now favored by food processors has the downside of having a more bitter-tasting bran. Whole wheat bread processors simply mask that added bitterness with added sugar, Pollan writes.

Modern Bread Is Made Too Quickly
Making bread with a sourdough starter—flour mixed with water that is fermented by beneficial bacteria in the air—was standard practice before industrial bakeries came along. The process can take up to 18 hours, and that's not counting the time it takes to get a good starter going (which can take up to five days). But good things come to those who wait: "Studies of sourdough bread fermentation using lactic acid bacteria confirm that gluten is predigested by the bacteria during fermentation, making it easier for humans—even those of us who are sensitive to gluten—to complete the digestive process," writes cardiologist Arthur Agatston, MD, in his book The South Beach Diet Gluten Solution. However, thanks to commercial yeast varieties, bakers don't need to wait 18 hours for a loaf of bread to ferment. They can mass-produce loaves in a matter of minutes. But without the benefit of bacteria predigesting the gluten, modern bread puts a strain on the body's ability to handle gluten, he writes. Is it any surprise, then, that as many as 1 in 100 people now suffer from celiac disease, in which their bodies can't digest gluten, or that a growing portion of the population is considered "gluten sensitive," not suffering from true celiac disease but suffering all manner of side effects like stomach upset, migraines, and fatigue when they eat gluten?

Bread Loaves Are Laced With Cancer-Causers
As if all the abuse taken by the wheat in your bread isn't enough, the additives used in commercial bread making aren't helping the wholesomeness of what you're getting. Recently, Subway made headlines when the chain announced the ingredient azodicarbonamide would be removed from its breads. The chemical, also used in the rubber and plastics industries, breaks down into urethane, which poses a small but significant cancer risk, even at levels the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers safe. But many major bread makers continue to use caramel coloring to give whole wheat breads a golden hue (which no longer comes from the new super-white grains favored by processors) and dark pumpernickels their characteristic chocolate brown color. Caramel coloring is created when sugar is heated with ammonium compounds, and the process creates a cancer-causing by-product called 4-MI, which exists in products at varying levels. The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest is pressuring the FDA to ban both ingredients.

If you're wondering whether it's possible to even get wholesome bread any more: it is! Here are a few ways to find it:

• Opt for 100-percent whole-grain sourdough breads. They may be easier to find at your farmer's market or from a local baker than at a big-chain grocer. Read the ingredients to be sure the bread was made from stone-ground flour and doesn't contain added sugars or other additives.

• Learn to make sourdough! If you have the time, baking your own allows you to control all the ingredients. Our Nickel Pincher has a good primer on how to make a basic sourdough starter. She's even outlined instructions on gluten-free sourdough if you can't tolerate any gluten.

• When making your own bread, look for whole wheat flour varieties advertised as stone-ground or stone milled.

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