What's in your bread and why does it matter?
This isn’t a discussion about white and whole grain flour. You've read a dozen times that the latter is more nutritious and therefore the better option. We're bringing real bread, made with minimal ingredients, to the table.
Have a quick look at the label of a "healthy" commercial version, Sunshine's Enriched Softmeal® Wholegrain bread:
Enriched High Protein Wheat Flour, Purified Water, Wholemeal Wheat Flour, Granulated Cane Sugar, Vital Wheat Gluten, Vegetable Shortening (Palm), Oat Fibre, Baker's Yeast, Sorbitol, Vacuum Salt, Dough Conditioners [Emulsifiers, Enzymes (Amylase, Hemicellulase, Lipase)], Calcium Propionate, Soya Flour, Calcium (Calcium Sulphate, Calcium Carbonate), Ascorbic Acid, Niacin (Vitamin B3), Iron, Thiamine (Vitamin B1), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2)
There's a host of ingredients you may not recognise – we don't, not off the top of our heads. But how bad are they for our bodies, or is the concept of real bread yet another byproduct of woo-woo wellness? We sought out the experts to find out more.
First, let's define real bread
Bread only needs four ingredients: Flour, water, salt and yeast. It doesn't require any additives or processing aids, and made that way, it wouldn't last an entire week left out on your kitchen countertop. Commercial loaves do, with no sight of mould.
The issue with mass-produced bread
Wholemeal, multigrain and "enriched with vitamins and minerals" all sound virtuous but these fortified loaves found at the supermarket are still ultra-processed, right up there with sausages and instant noodles.
It's a process however, that Dean Brettschneider, baker and founder of artisan bakery, Baker & Cook understands. "There is a market segment that needs to buy bread for a certain amount, and if you’re producing a loaf for $3, or $2, it’s economy of scale."
"When it comes to ingredients, the problem when you’re trying to produce 8,000 loaves in an hour with no real humans touching it, you have to manipulate your ingredients," he says. "I don’t have a negative view of commercialisation but sometimes the facts aren’t told to consumers."
Commercial breads are made with emulsifiers and stabilisers, sometimes added sugars, to improve the texture, flavour and shelf life. It's also the very reason why they last so long on your kitchen countertop, even in Singapore's humid weather.
How harmful are these extra ingredients?
“The types of additives used in bread have functional properties such as stabilisers to improve the elasticity of the dough, emulsifiers to improve gas retention, preservatives to prevent mould and bacteria,” she says.
“There is a misconception that additives are bad for us just because they are unnatural. However, these additives are of food grade and are considered safe for consumption and in many ways they help to preserve the integrity of the bread and prevent harmful pathogens from growing.”
Why some commercial breads have a "Healthier Choice Symbol" on them
In Singapore, a specific logo is used on packaged food products, indicating that they are healthier options.
“The Healthier Choice Symbol (HCS) programme has several criteria before a product can be awarded the logo," explains Reutens. "The criteria are total fat, trans fat, sodium, dietary fibre and the percentage of whole grains."
"It does not consider the ingredient list, rather the overall nutritional value of that product. This makes sense because we eat food, not single ingredients, therefore the use of the HCS is validated.”
Still, some of us don’t want additives in our bread
Real Bread Campaign is a UK-based, international organisation whose mission is to raise awareness of the issues around additives and hidden processing aids, as well as share the benefits of locally-baked bread.
The campaign's coordinator, Chris Young tells us they believe that "the so-called fortification of flour is a scattergun sticking plaster approach, which fails to address the underlying reasons for some people living with, or being at the risk of, nutritionally deficient diets."
"Various questions hang over the need for, and efficacy (perhaps even health risks) of the addition of some of these ‘fortificants’.”
Brettschneider likens commercial bread to processed sausages. "You get a good meaty sausage from a butcher, made in the back of his butcher shop, and then you get a highly processed meat sausage from a packet. The two are very different products. One’s not very good for gut and the other is very good for your gut."
Sourdough, the healthiest choice?
Both RBC and Brettschneider wholeheartedly say it is. Sourdough is one of the oldest form of grain fermentation and traditionally relies on wild yeast and lactic acid bacteria (also found in yoghurt, kefir and kimchi) to leaven the bread.
“Sourdough is good for you on many benefits, but one of the main benefits is that it’s able to be broken down in your stomach very easily,"says Brettschneider.
Its nutritional profile resembles that of other traditional breads but sourdough has additional properties that make it more nutritious. The fermentation process improves the bioavailability of fibre and minerals like magnesium and zinc. Whilst whole grain breads also contain these minerals, the presence of phytate – a substance found in plant seeds – reduces your body’s ability to absorb them. The lactic acid bacteria found in sourdough degrades the phytate, increasing mineral absorption. It, along with fibre, also acts as a prebiotic food.
Supermarket bread isn't harmful per se and these days, often enriched with essential vitamins and minerals. It's no surprise that lots of people would be inclined to the more affordable option.
“From a pricing perspective, a loaf of ‘real bread’ can range from $5 to $10 or more per loaf. Commercial bread can be as low as $2 per loaf which is way more affordable,” says Reutens. The use of preservatives does not make the bread less healthy therefore if you prefer to spend less on bread and still get good quality nutrition, why not?”
Young maintains that everyone has the right to choose to eat real bread, made without the use of any additives and using techniques that help to improve people’s diets in general.
There are also better supermarket options these days. Baker & Cook now sells sliced sourdough bread at grocery stores. They are made using, as Brettschneider stresses, exactly the same recipe as the ones in the shop, and with the bakery's natural, 100 percent wild yeast. The loaves are fermented for 13 hours, giving each one texture and flavour. "It’s open, it’s got holes in it, it breathes almost."
“If I explained to someone, your loaf of bread that you buy from the supermarket, from a mass manufacturer goes through all those processes and has all these additives, someone might say, I'll buy the $7 loaf of bread."