Bread is in my top five favorite foods on the planet. At home, it’s often a whole grain or sprouted grain bread, or one of the nutrient-rich gluten-free varieties that I talk about below. But just as often, it’s a crusty sourdough bread or fluffy, doughy, freshly-baked pita bread, preferably dipped in good olive oil.
It comes as a surprise to some people that, as a registered dietitian, I incorporate bread as a regular part of my lifestyle. Some are pleasantly surprised, and some are, well, let’s just say… a bit judgmental. I don’t take it personally; it’s to be expected, really. From the lettuce-wrapped Unwich™ to a ‘cheeseburger-no-meat’ to the categorical declaration of ‘I don’t eat bread’, it’s not uncommon for people to experience a love-hate relationship with bread, or at least one with some degree of turbulence.
There may be a clinical reason, such as celiac disease, and they simply cannot tolerate gluten-containing breads at all. Others may not have a confirmed celiac diagnosis but feel that they experience a negative reaction when they consume gluten, ranging from GI issues to symptoms like joint pain or brain fog.
And some may be steering clear of breads in an effort to avoid what they believe to be genetically modified wheat. But this really shouldn’t really be a concern, as genetically modified wheat is not approved for commercial sale in the United States – it’s illegal to sell genetically modified wheat.
In my opinion, there’s little need for such bread angst. The reality is that bread in some shape or fashion can fit into pretty much any type of diet.
But let’s be very clear, there is a tremendous amount of variation among breads in terms of quality and ingredients. It’s not as simple as comparing one bread to another. Far from it.
There is the ever-pure sourdough bread, which doesn’t contain any added yeast – instead, it draws upon yeast from the environment to leaven the flour and water into a magical piece of crusty deliciousness.
There can be a significant difference in digestibility between ordinary commercially-available breads, and bread from European-style bakeries and artisan bread makers. Fermentation time is one of the key factors. Most commercial baking practices in the US only partially ferment the dough, adding commercial yeasts to speed up the process. Shorter fermentation time typically means a higher glycemic index, along with a greater amount of undigested gluten. Traditional bread-making processes ferment the dough for a long time, allowing the yeast and bacteria to activate enzymes that essentially “digest” the gluten for us.
Learn how to bake artisan-style bread that fits any nutritional need, and get your toolkit for baking grain-free, gluten-free breads here.
Whole grain sprouted breads like Ezekiel bread contain no flour at all – they are made entirely from sprouted grains. Sprouted grains are comprised of three main parts: the bran, germ, and endosperm. The bran is the protective outer skin, the germ is the inner embryo, and the endosperm is the starchy middle layer that supplies the nutrients to the germ. Sprouted grains are formed by soaking these whole grain kernels, allowing the inner germ to sprout.
These sprouted grains can pack a nutritional punch even greater than that of regular whole grains.
For starters, they’re lower in carbs. The starchy carbs in the endosperm are converted into energy for the germ to form the sprout, so the resulting sprouted grain has a higher ratio of protein to carbs.
Sprouted grains are also easier to digest, since their enzymes help to transform the endosperm’s starchy carbs into smaller, simpler components that are more easily digested.
Sprouting has been shown to increase the concentration of a grain’s key nutrients, including protein, fiber, antioxidants, B vitamins, vitamin C, and folate, and these nutrients tend to be more bioaccessible, meaning that they’re easier for our bodies to absorb and use.
And then, at the far opposite end of the spectrum, there’s an abundance of mass-produced commercially-prepared breads made with fast-acting yeast, along with add-ins that serve as dough conditioners and preservatives. The shorter fermentation time leaves gluten more intact, and consequently the breads can be more difficult to digest.
For those looking for a completely gluten-free bread, the products on shelves have become even more diverse. We’re presented with an ever-growing array of options – some are incredible, nutritionally speaking, while other aren’t so hot. In some cases, they’re even worse than traditional commercially available wheat-containing breads, lacking any semblance of nutritional value whatsoever.
When looking for a nutrient-rich gluten-free bread, start by looking for an ingredient list that’s as pure, whole and unrefined as possible.
Base Culture 7 Nut & Seed, for example, is made with wholesome ingredients like almond butter, eggs, almond flour, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, flaxseed, sunflower seeds, pecans and hemp hearts. The brand UnBread is centered on similar ingredient of almond flour, eggs, flax, coconut flour and extra virgin olive oil.
The stellar ingredient lists of these gluten-free brands stand in stark contrast to heavily processed gluten-free breads. The brand Carbonaut, for example, lists modified resistant tapioca starch as the first ingredient, followed by added isolated fibers like chicory root and modified cellulose, along with coconut sugar and xanthan gum. Not exactly a clean-label ingredient list.
One quick note on gluten-free breads: Manage expectations. If you’re trying a product like Base Culture or UnBread, go into it expecting that it’s going to be a little different. Don’t expect traditional crusty sourdough, and you’re less likely to be disappointed. And toasting these gluten-free breads goes a long way to boost texture and appeal.
Tune into Molly’s podcast with expert bakers Morgan Angelle of Bellegarde Bakery and Carolyn Ketchup of All Day I Dream About Food, sharing their wealth of knowledge on all things bread baking – and GF baking.
So – if you’re not a bread person, then you’re not a bread person, and it’s a non-issue. But if bread is one of those things you love (and chances are that it is, or you wouldn’t have continued reading this far), there’s no point in carrying around any bread-guilt, and certainly no reason to live in state of constant deprivation. Find a bread that fits within your nutritional parameters and works to truly satisfy a hankering for good bread.
One solution may be to find a wholesome option that you like – like Base Culture Gluten-Free bread, Ezekiel Sprouted Grain bread, or a whole grain sourdough bread (I love Bellegarde’s Country Loaf) – and keep this on hand as your go-to bread option at home. Then when you’re out, go ahead and indulge a bit, mindfully, in whatever the traditional ‘regular’ bread may be. There’s no need to vilify, no need to judge (ourselves or others). There’s truly something for everyone these days, a bread to suit every need.
Molly Kimball, RD, CSSD is a registered dietitian + nutrition journalist in New Orleans, and founder of Ochsner Eat Fit nonprofit restaurant initiative. Tune in to her podcast, FUELED | Wellness + Nutrition and follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at @MollyKimballRD. See more of Molly’s articles + TV segments at www.mollykimball.com.