Nutritional studies have proved the functional importance of bread in our daily diet, eaten at every meal and in sufficient quantities. Bread is the quintessential universal food, eaten at every meal as a spreading base (sandwiches, flatbreads or tortilla), as a plate (lavash bread or Ethiopian injera) or as a tasty complement to the meal. Bread is a major source of carbohydrates, mostly complex, bringing better satiety than refined products offered as an alternative to it.
Let’s take the case of breakfast, for instance: cereals full of simple sugars and saturated fat, and “breakfast” branded bread all have a much less attractive nutritional profile than that of bread in general.
As an age-old foodstuff which has passed down through the millennia on every continent, bread only requires extremely simple and healthy elements to produce: a cereal grain, water, salt, one or a combination of fermentation agents responsible for making the dough rise (baker’s yeast, natural sourdough), a little time and skill, and it’s done.
Indeed, bread doesn’t need much more than these four basic elements. Like those elements, it is profoundly wholesome, natural, beautiful and most of all healthy. It is an asset in terms of nutrition for people of all ages and activity profiles. Bread is recommended for all, with one requirement: vary your consumption; so as to always keep it enjoyable and adapted to your level of activity.
Bread is one of the sources of complex carbohydrates (starch), which are absorbed slowly and therefore guarantee satiety. Rich in fibers, quality vegetable proteins, minerals (potassium, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium) group B vitamins, and a low amount of lipids: bread is a complete foodstuff and a contributing factor to a balanced diet. Bread has a place of choice in our diet and its usefulness no longer needs to be proved.
Guidelines for a balanced diet
A balanced diet should aim to obtain, on average, 50 percent of daily energy through carbohydrates, twothirds being in the form of complex carbs, which fuel the human body.
Bread is made of 50 to 60 percent of complex carbs on average. It is a genuine ally in our diet, nutritiously dense, providing alimentary balance.
“L’Observatoire du pain” (France) recently conducted research and has published a study concluding that 89 percent of adults consume too few complex carbohydrates. Nutritional imbalance ensues, and may eventually cause health issues. This data is almost identical to that of other industrialized countries, where products tend to be more and more refined, causing a turn for the worse for public health.
Public health institutions and many nutritionists recommend a daily intake of 175 to 200 grams of bread, evenly distributed over every meal. There is absolutely no reason to diabolize bread.
The glycemic index (GI)
The GI measures the impact of specific types and quantities of food on the increase of the blood glucose level, compared to the index 100 for pure glucose.
The smaller the rise in blood sugar is after consuming one type of food, the lower its GI will be. This is highly relevant in terms of nutrition, as food with a low GI will induce less insulin secretion and better satiation.
How does this work?
A quick rise in blood sugar levels (notably with high GI food) eventually leads to weight gain. This is because the pancreas produces a high quantity of insulin in reaction to an inflow of blood sugar. The body is then forced to use glucose instead of fat as an energy source. As fat is no longer used as fuel, it is stocked and adheres to tissue.
Occurring frequently, fast rises in blood sugar will contribute to the disruption of the body’s responses and will lead to hyperinsulinism. We now know that the end result of those negative metabolic effects is the increase in obesity, diabetes, and many cardiovascular illnesses, all on the rise in our industrialized societies.
Contrary to popular belief, the GI of a traditional French baguette is not very high: between 48 and 56 depending on the baking processes and the flour selected. This places the baguette in the average (50<Gl<74) or lower (Gl<50) categories.
In comparison, corn flakes and rice paper (85), have a high GI in comparison to 60 for milk bread, 65 for whole wheat bread and only 32 for organic rye bread.
The baking process, the type of flour and the way it is extracted and also interactions with other ingredients are all factors which strongly influence the GI of bread.
A few words about the history of bread
In the olden days, when stone mills were used, wheat was ground into big particles. Even though it was then filtered, it was only roughly filtered, and the resulting flour was just as rough. At that time, bread had a GI of 60 to 65, which was quite reasonable.
That kind of bread (with TSO roughly milled flour) is all the more attractive as it was only made with natural sourdough, lowering then GI even more.
The people’s bread used to be made out of coarse flour that still contained all of the elements of wheat, hence its name, “whole wheat bread”. Since the particles were quite rough and the bread had high fiber and protein contents, helped by the presence of sourdough, its GI was even lower (35 to 45).
Knowledge of this information is the reason behind the current trend, especially in Europe, towards retro-innovation putting traditional processes back in the center of our food habits, from the agri-food sector and the wheat, flour, and bread industry in particular.
Bread or rusks?
What of all the relatives of bread sold in our supermarkets? Cereals shelves seem endless and the area selling toasted bread and other by-products are filled with a wide variety of choice. Are these products all worthy in terms of nutrition? Rusks, for example, are wrongly believed to be lighter than bread, implying that they are fit to be part of a diet, which is a mistake.
Indeed, rusks are lighter in weight than the same volume of bread, but they have more calories: 100g of bread brings 250 Kcal including 50g of carbohydrates, and the corresponding weight in rusks brings 380 Kcal with 70g of carbohydrates, an increase of 150 percent.
Again, the baking process of rusks and all other types of toasted bread lead to the breakup of starch molecules, hence a rise of GI compared to fresh, unheated and uncooked bread.
A short break for a good snack: sandwiches
Bread is rarely eaten alone, and the importance of the bolus on the GI of a single foodstuff is clear.
A sandwich made of protein, vegetables, and a little fat is a balanced snack with a good GI. Fibers and fat contribute to lowering the naturally high GI (80) of sandwich loaf slices baked using a fast process.
With or without gluten?
Contrary to what is generally believed, gluten-free products aren’t systematically health-friendly. They obviously are for people suffering from allergies and food intolerance, but the issue is totally different for anyone else.
Gluten traps a small amount of the starch (amylopectin), which reduces the bioavailability of simple sugars, consequently reducing the bread’s GI. The presence of gluten slows the activity of digestive amylase enzyme, limiting the uptake of glucose. A gluten-free standard white bread then shows a GI of 90, compared to a 70 for its equivalent when it is made from highly extracted wheat flour.
Bread, a source of fiber and protein
Because of their high water absorption potential, fiber plays an integral role in satiety and digestive control. They help improve intestinal transit and have a preventive action against many illnesses (cancer, cardiovascular illness). The recommended daily allowance in fibers is 25g for an adult.
All bread can be classified as “fiber sources” or even “fiber-rich”, with contents varying from +4/100g for a standard French baguette to +9/100g for wholemeal bread—the undisputed leader for fiber content. With an average consumption of approximately 190g/day, fiber intake varies from 7 to 18g and therefore covers anywhere from one-third to one-half of the recommended daily fiber intake.
regarding protein, bread contains around 9 percent proteins. These are vegetable proteins which have good digestibility properties and contribute to a balanced nutrition as well as to satiety. All bread are “protein sources”: a 200g portion of bread covers around 20 percent of adult protein requirements, which is far from negligible.
Bread: excellent minerality—a healthy complement
Bread makes a significant contribution to mineral and vitamin intake requirements. The amount a given mineral and vitamin depends on the extraction rate of the flour used. The higher the extraction rate (and consequently, the higher the ash content and the flour type, the more vitamins and minerals the flour will contain—precious residue from the grain husks.
Likewise, some bread is a “vitamin source”, holding vitamins B3, B6, and B9. Amongst minerals, iron content in certain loaves of bread (baguette, sourdough bread, bran bread, and organic bread) covers over 20 percent of RDAs (Recommended Daily Allowances). Manganese, phosphorus, potassium, zinc are also present in appreciable quantities in most bread.
Some bread champions exist: wholemeal bread, which covers 34 percent of RDAs in phosphorous per 100g, and is the only bread also to be a source of magnesium. The positive role of fibers in the prevention of atherosclerosis, colorectal cancer, myocardial infection or their role in cholesterol reduction, have been clearly demonstrated. The “bread matrix” is therefore clearly an ally for a balanced diet.
In the same way, less traditional bread made from sourdough (masa madre, San Fransisco sourdough bread, and natural sourdoughs), have an excellent bioavailability of minerals, as sourdough phytases (bacterial enzymes) inhibit the endogenous phytic acid which is naturally present in the flour.
The latter, forms a complex with calcium, magnesium, and zinc (divalent cations), thus blocking the availability and consequently absorption into the intestines. Sourdough bread making allows this obstruction to be removed, making sourdough bread a source of essential minerals such as magnesium and calcium, contributing to bone strength and muscular contraction.