It used to be such a simple question - white or brown bread? Now there are so many options, so many different types of bread and so many stories, questions and theories on what type of bread to avoid, which to eat more of and, in fact, whether we should eat bread at all, sometimes it is easier just to avoid it. Here we'll help you to navigate some of the confusion so you can get back to enjoying this staple of our diets once more.
Let's start at the very beginning . . .
Bread is one of the oldest prepared foods that has been enjoyed around the family dinner table for hundreds of years. But its significance goes a lot deeper than simple taste and nutrition with both religious and cultural values attached to it. Christians remember it in the Lord's Prayer: "Give us this day our daily bread." We use it to refer to food generally as in "to put bread on the table", and "the breadwinner" refers to the household's main economic contributor. We even judge progress referring to major developments as "the greatest thing since sliced bread".
Bread is part of who we are. So what changed?
The major advance that changed the way bread was made was the development of the Chorleywood bread process in 1961. This machine allowed for intense mechanical working of the bread dough. This dramatically reduced the time taken to produce a loaf of bread because the fermentation period was condensed. It was a great win for manufacturers and in some ways for consumers as well as it allowed for quick, low cost bread to get to consumers.
So why did things change? Well, this process basically steals one of the core secrets of great tasting bread - time. Fermentation is the almost magic process that allows the raw dough to rise into a beautiful fluffy loaf of bread. It also contributes to the incredible flavours and that gorgeous smell. Yeast, the core ingredient that drives the fermentation process, needs time to do its work, consuming sugar and excreting carbon dioxide to really make great, tasty bread. Have you seen the old bakers kneading the bread over and over? Proper pizza makers do it too with pizza dough. This allows the yeast to mix with the air and for the fermentation to continue, making the bread more elastic as more gluten develops.
For many bakers who swear by the traditional methods of making bread, the dough is allowed to ferment for anywhere from 12 to 20 hours before it is put into the oven. For the supermarket chains and some hot bread shops, fermentation may only be allowed to happen for less than an hour before the dough is cooked. Imagine the taste and nutrition lost in that process!
So how did they put the taste and fluffiness back in?
A basic loaf of bread has four key ingredients - flour, yeast, water and salt. So why does the ingredient list on the label have so many more? To replace the taste and fluffiness that disappeared due to the reduced time allowed for fermentation to work its magic, various chemicals have been added to the recipe over time. Many of these chemicals were known as "improvers" - so called because they aimed to strengthen the gluten, strengthen the dough, improve handling abilities, improve the taste and delay the bread going stale. All aimed at creating that impossibly soft white stuff which means 'bread' to most consumers these days!
But consumers got smart and seeing the list of chemicals that sounded a bit like a chemistry test on the label turned people off bread. So the supermarket chains and fast bread bakeries starting replacing the chemicals with enzymes because they didn't have to declare them on the ingredients list. In the UK and Australia, many of them still don't have to be declared on the labels because they are considered to be a "processing aid" rather than an ingredient. A processing aid is a substance that disappears in the production process and so, since it is technically not present in the final product, the logic is that we don't need to know about it.
Baking's 'big secret'
Enzymes! Sounds like something I don't want in my bread!
Enzymes have been described as "baking's big secret" by the leading British organic baker, Andrew Whitely. There are enzymes for all different purposes, for example, to mimic the soft bread full of air pockets that we've come to expect but which has been lost due to the shorter fermentation time, and to keep the bread "fresher" for longer, ensuring that when we squeeze the loaf in the supermarket we believe it is freshly baked.
Not telling us that enzymes are used, even though technically they are dissolved in the cooking process (although there are arguments that some trace may be left behind), gives us several concerns:
Enzymes may come from a number of sources, one of which is the pancreas of pigs. Although arguably no trace of this would exist in the bread, many vegans and vegetarians and indeed anyone interested in the humane treatment of animals would surely want to know that it had been a part of the process; and
It may mislead consumers who assume that, without any indication on the label to the contrary, yeast is the core ingredient responsible for their bread rising. But if an enzyme is added, it would have contributed significantly due to the shorter period allowed for the fermentation process.
It all sounds so complicated. Why eat bread at all?
Bread is a great source of fibre and grains if you eat the right type. But we've all started eating less of it. The decrease in bread consumption started as a result of the Atkins Low-Carb Diet craze of the 1980s. People feared that carbohydrates were contributing to their weight gain and flocked to reduce their bread intake.
Then came the rise in gluten intolerance sending people running from sandwiches for their lunch. It has been suggested that our modern form of speedily made bread may be contributing to the wave of "gluten intolerance" in the Western world. The long fermentation process of traditional bread helps to make the gluten in bread more digestible. With the shorter fermentation period now, the gluten protein is often left in a concentrated lump that is more difficult to digest, leading people to believe they are gluten intolerant because they are left feeling sick after eating bread.
Overall, our bread consumption has dropped from 15.3 servings a week in 2009 to 11.9 in 2011, according to a recent Go Grains Health and Nutrition Survey.
There must be reasons why bread has been so close to our hearts and a staple of our cultures for hundreds of years. It all comes back to the question of which type of bread should we eat. The impossibly white kind is probably not the best! But wholegrain bread has been suggested to play a role in cancer prevention, as well as supporting weight control. (Note this is weight control - how we maintain our ideal weight once we achieve it - not weight loss).
As with most foods, incorporating a moderate amount of a good, well made sourdough or wholegrain bread into a balanced diet, will enhance our nutrition, not detract from it. It's likely that the increase in health and nutrition-conscious consumers will see us head back towards the simple, lovingly kneaded loaves of bread enjoyed by our ancestors.
Maybe I should just bake my own?
This trend is already starting with home style bread makers surging in popularity. And who wouldn't want the mouthwatering aroma of fresh bread baking in their homes! But be aware that most pre-made mixes still shorten the fermentation period and many also contain some of the additives mentioned earlier. If you can make it from scratch with wholesome ingredients (preferably wholegrain), enjoy connecting with the dough while you build your muscles kneading it and giving it time to rest so the yeast can do its job and allow all those delicious flavours and textures to naturally develop, then you'll sure be rewarded.
Can you smell it? Now, close your eyes, take a deep breath. Can you smell the freshly baked bread, that enticing aroma tickling your nostrils and teasing your taste buds? Is your mouth watering for a lovely, thick chunk of bread, straight out of the oven, the butter melting into its warm softness? Go on, you know you want it! Bread is part of our past, our present and no doubt our future. Let's go back to the old fashioned yummy bread and enjoy it.
For more information:
The Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council (formerly Go Grains Health and Nutrition) is a great source of information on the benefits of grains and whole grains in particular - http://www.glnc.org.au/
The Independent in the UK ran an interesting article about Andrew Whitley, Britain's organic bread expert and his views on enzymes and other additives to bread. It was written in 2006 but is just as relevant today. There are also some wonderful recipes for baking your own bread - http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/features/the-shocking-truth-about-bread-413156.html
Andrew Whitley has also written a book called Bread Matters published by Fourth Estate on September 4 2006.
Rebecca Ordish is a freelance writer with an interest in wellness and positive psychology