Bread – killing us softly…

Along with most cereals,  I would contend that bread is one of the worst things that anyone can choose to eat, short of known poisons like arsenic.

It’s a shocking idea, isn’t it?

One of the main problems is that our modern breads are baked to be light and fluffy, and they are almost all universally awful in their ingredients. Let’s start with a little myth-busting: despite what we’ve been taught, there isn’t really much difference between white and brown bread. Think of brown bread as white bread, dyed brown, with added bits. They are both nutritionally dead in terms of their vitamin and mineral content and are composed of nothing but empty calories, despite the advertising propaganda about ‘being fortified’.

A better distinction is between the loaves of bygone centuries and the attractive, addictive, sugary, junk food that passes for a bloomer, bap or baguette today.

Although bread used to be a traditional part of the diet of some very healthy cultures, we need to recognize that it was a very different creature indeed to the one that smiles so innocently at us from the supermarket shelves today.

Modern bread is a substantially different product to that which your grandmother would probably have eaten as a child. 70 years ago it contained much less gluten and more fibre, it didn’t instantly turn to sugar as soon as it reached the stomach – and it even had some beneficial nutrients floating around in it. The dark, heavy, grainy, dense loaf of ‘Blacke Bread’ that Chaucer knew in the Middle Ages is even more different again to the modern bread with which we are all so familiar.

Traditional bread making in Europe used to be an extremely time-intensive activity that involved the soaking and fermenting of whole grains over several days. This allowed for the breakdown of harmful phytic acids that otherwise prevent the grains’ consumption by animals and humans in its natural state. It also began the essential process of digesting gluten and other, hard-to-cope-with proteins into simpler components that the body can assimilate properly.

It was well understood that all this work was a necessary evil if humans were to successfully benefit from the consumption of this useful foodstuff.

The commercialization of food, as usual, changed all this. In a headlong rush for profit, the traditional bread making process was thrown out of the window in the early 20th Century. Proper preparations methods were disguarded in favour of faster production times and lower overheads. Cheaper grains with a higher percentage of gluten were cross-bred, new ingredients like vegetable oil and preservatives were used and more sugar and salt were included in the recipes.

It was only in the 1960s though that bread took a really serious turn for the worse with the development of the ‘Chorleywood Process’. This new industry standard meant that loaves could be produced more cheaply without having to wait the best part of a day for the yeast to ripen and rise. This meant that there was now no time for the neutralisation of the proteins most likely to trigger bowel disease and other auto-immune and inflammatory conditions.

Ingredients were cheapened, corners were cut, and hundreds of previously unrequired additives now had to be added to the mix to give the bread the familiar look, taste and feel that the consumer expected.

These bread additives were derived from substances that no human would normally eat, but we were told they were safe – until scientists told us, one-by-one, that they weren’t fit to be put in food.

Almost at the point of despair, the industry found a new category of ‘improvers’ – additives based on industrial enzymes. These ‘natural’ sources of biological catalysts, obtained from cereals, mould, bacteria and even animal guts, now routinely go into bread. Today, enzymes are the dirty little secret the baking industry is very reluctant to talk about.

This is how the label on a modern bag of  ‘wholemeal’ bread reads:

Wholemeal Flour, Water, Caramelised Sugar, Yeast, Fermented Wheat Flour, Salt, Vegetable Fat, Wheat Protein, Emulsifiers: E472e, E471, Soya Flour, Flour Treatment Agent: Ascorbic Acid

[Source: the back of any bag of bread]

Doesn’t look very good, does it?

Indeed, many of these ingredients aren’t very good for us at all. Elsewhere I’ve written about the dangers of sugar, vegetable fat, soya and e-numbers, all of which are present here, but in fact the ingredients listed above aren’t the whole ‘roll’ call by any shot. The string of additives now used in baking is so long and scary that the bread industry has been given special dispensation to simply use terms like ‘flour treatment agents’ and ‘emulsifiers’ to cover their tracks and avoid the risk ruining a whole ‘slice’ of the economy by having to list them.

You can see why I feel we should no longer describe bread, as the Bible does, as the “staff of life”.

One of the most recent concerns over bread is the discovery of the formation of an industrial chemical called acrylamide by the industrial baking process. Swedish researchers in 2002 were shocked to discover this substance in many commonly-consumed processed products at levels 500 times over those recommended by the World Heath Oranisation for drinking water. Acrylamide forms in certain foods – like chips, crisps, breakfast cereals and breads – during cooking. It is associated with food containing starch being cooked at very high temperatures, and may be identified in the future as being as inimical to human health as tobacco. It is part of a family of chemicals that is recognised as being capable of damage to the nervous system in both animals and humans. Acrylamides also may also be human carcinogens; that is to say, they encourage the growth of cancerous cell in the human body.

As dramatic as this sounds, this is not rampant scaremongering but rather a finding that has recently been confirmed by the work of scientists in Norway, Switzerland, USA and the UK.

Although the British Media hasn’t really picked up on this brewing scandal yet, the UK Food Standards Authority has recognised the potential in this issue to give ‘Big Food’ the pariah status that Big Tobacco has won for itself with its shoddy practices

Certainly the food industry takes the threat of acrylamide to its survival seriously. In an attempt to deal with this issue a few years back, some and added yet another ingredient, an enzyme called Acrylaway, to their food to counter-act the potential for class-action lawsuits in the future.

On their website [hyperlink] the makers of Acrylaway say they offer a “natural solution to a natural problem’

I’ll let you be the judge of that – but ‘natural’ must be one of the most abused words in the English language…

Fortunately for them, having been allowed to play by a different set of rules to the rest of the food industry, the bakers don’t have to declare any of this on their shiny, attractive bags.

My own experience in helping clients clean up their diets has shown that when people start cutting this sort of modern processed garbage out of their diets they notice immediate and noticeable results. Some lose bloating in the stomach region straight away, others lose 3-5 pounds in only a few days, and more still report having much higher levels of energy.

I have seen it happen so many times, and often without any other changes in diet or exercise accompanying it, that it’s my first recommendation for anybody looking to make positive changes to their diet.

Suffers from IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) frequently report the cessation of all symptoms when discontinuing bread and/or gluten in their diet. There is much to suggest that those with auto-immune disease can benefit enormously by forsaking breads and cereals, giving the lining of their guts a chance to repair themselves from constant attack by indigestible proteins.

You might wonder whether there will ever be a time when we can go back to buying bread baked with a minimum number of ingredients made from pre-soaked, fermented, low-gluten grains according to a traditional recipe. Frankly, it’s highly unlikely in today’s commercial climate.

Of course you could make your own bread. It’s a time consuming process to do properly – but worth it if it’s the only thing that will stop you reaching for another bag of Kingsmill off the shelf. Even more worthwhile would be replacing your Sunblest nastiness with a homemade bread that contains no grain at all. Two healthier alternatives can be made at home from coconut and/or almond flour. There’s even such a thing as spinach bread, but it’s not to everybody’s taste.

Beware of commercially bought, gluten-free bread, however. Despite the absence of the wheat and gluten, and the use of arguably ‘safer’ alternatives like rice flour and potato starch, the other ingredients usually included should not make anybody’s nutritional wish list. For starters, avoiding sugar, vegetable oil [link here to veg oil article] and commercial salt remains an unlikely possibility.

So unless you’re prepared to become a born-again baker, my best advice for you is to banish the word ‘bread’ from your mind forever, or assign it its status in your mind as a nostalgic, historical relic from a by-gone era. Sad as it is to say, a dependency on the idea and the substance of modern bread is a major stumbling block to advancing further down the road to better health.

More than ever, we need to get past the idea of ‘food products’ and get back to the idea of home cooking and real, honest food that once grew or roamed in the wild. Every time we look for a convenient modern substitute we relinquish our power to choose our food consciously, responsibly and knowledgeably, and instead put our health and our money back in the hands of the industrial corporate entities who continue to abuse our trust so flagrantly.