Loafing Around

Is your daily bread all that it could be? Bronwen Gora discovers there’s more than one way to use your loaf.

Is your body at war with wheat? It might be because the “wheat” you’re eating is so far removed from the real thing that your body is rejecting it as an imposter. Almost all the bread we eat these days is baked with wheat that has been manipulated to make it easier to use. This wheat allows bread to rise more quickly and stand higher while using less flour, making it cheaper to make.

breadWhile the bread-making industry does not dispute this, one of Australia’s leading food researchers, Dr John Ashton questions the health benefits of modern milled wheat.

The bread industry claims one of the reasons modern wheat makes “better” bread is due to the fact its processing improves its gluten content. But according to Dr Ashton this means there is simply a higher level of gluten in the bread and gluten is a protein that our bodies don’t digest very well.

On the other hand, wheat in its natural state contains higher levels of globulins and albumens, which are water-soluble proteins that our bodies like and digest well.

“Wheat gluten may be exacerbating reactions in our bodies that lead to diseases such as diabetes and heart disease,” Dr Ashton says. “Wheat with higher gluten levels has a higher glycaemic index, (which means it’s more likely to lead to energy slumps and increased hunger) and there’s growing evidence that high GI foods promote weight gain. In other words, with the help of modern technology we have turned wheat, one of nature’s oldest and most important whole foods, into a precursor for disease.”

Bready or not

The Bread Research Institute confirms that wheat is indeed modified to produce bigger, lighter loaves, but the jury is still out on whether the gluten it contains affects us adversely.

“There’s no doubt that modern wheat milling processes give improved bread-making qualities,” syas BRI’s director of grain products Ken Quail. “They make the bread rise better. But there’s not necessarily more gluten – it’s better-quality gluten.”

If you’ve ever wondered why white bread isn’t considered as nutritious as wholemeal and wholegrain breads, it’s because it’s lacking in the vitamins of the grain’s outer husk. Some vitamins such as B1 (thiamine) are added, but Dr Ashton is concerned that Vitamin B6 is often not one of them.

“B6 is very important. The lack of which is linked to heart disease,” Dr Ashton says.

“Another fascinating thing people don’t know is wheatgerm is absent in white flour,” he says. Wheatgerm contains particluar compounds that inhibit the enzymes that break down collagen in our skin. Simply put, wheatgerm helps stop our skin from sagging and wrinkling.
“Wheatgerm is an anti-ageing factor in flour,” Dr Ashton says. “Yet it’s totally absent from many of our commercial loaves of bread.”

Wheat was as nature intended it to be until about 200 years ago when the grain fell victim to industrialisation. In the race to create a pure white bread in the most cost-effective way, the nutritious outer husks containing the bran and wheatgerm were removed. In the 1920s, manufacturers started bleaching bread with agents such as nitogen trichloride, and discovered how to boost the gluten content in the wheat in order to produce a bigger loaf.

The president of the American Chemical Society at the time proclaimed bread “will not support the life of weevils”.

But it was eventually discovered that this new white flour, stripped bare of nutrients, wasn’t all that great at supporting human life, either, according to US studies documented in Dr Ashton’s book, Perils of Progress (University of NSW Press).

Digging Deep

In response, manufacturers started enriching white flour with vitamins thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and iron.

Dr Ashton says he has concerns about some of the chemicals used in some flour mixes, such as the chlorine still used in cake mix, the long-term effects of which are an unknown.

“Chlorine will react with some of the fats used in cake mixing and create some nasty compounds,” Dr Ashton says.

But before you throw your bread in the bin, check the label. Loaves labelled with “wholewheat” or “wholegrain” will be considerably more nutritious than the alternative white bread. With wholegrain and multigrain products, you’re also getting the benefit of other grains such as rye, millet and sorghum.

Indeed, there is a way to get the daily bread that nature intended – it’s just that finding it in the 21st century takes a little more detective work.


Sunday Herald Sun, May 18, 2003, body+soul p10-11

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