It’s hard to believe you don’t need a doctor’s prescription to buy bread when you see claims such as: “5 ways to weight management”; “helps maintain a healthy heart”; “omega-3 ALA for healthy heart function”; “phytoestrogens help support women’s wellbeing”; “soy isoflavones to help support prostate health”; and “low GI for heart health”.
Often, though, these claims owe more to hype than science.
Omega-3s There are two types of omega-3 fats – those from plants (mainly ALA) and those from fish (mainly EPA and DHA). There’s now very good evidence that omega-3 fats from fish reduce your risk of heart disease, and probably provide many other health benefits as well. But you don’t get the same benefi ts from ALA from plant sources, such as linseed. This fat may also help prevent heart disease, but you’d need more of it to get some benefit – more than you’d get from a serving of multigrain bread containing linseed.
Phytoestrogens in some plants, such as soy and linseed, mimic the hormone oestrogen. They supposedly relieve menopause symptoms and protect against heart disease and some cancers, including breast cancer. In reality, there’s no consistent evidence that soy products reduce hot flushes, and no evidence at all that linseed relieves menopausal symptoms. High consumption of soy foods may lower the risk of breast and prostate cancers, but only by a little. For the small amount you’d get from a serving of multigrain bread there’s little point in buying soy and linseed over other grains unless you like the taste.
Glycaemic index (GI) is a measure of how carbohydrates aff ect your blood glucose levels. If there’s a rush of glucose into the bloodstream followed by a quick fall, the food is higher in the GI scale. If it gives a slower, gentler rise and fall in blood glucose, the GI is lower. Diabetics should consider GI, but for other people research hasn’t yet shown significant benefits – although low-GI foods may aid weight control. Some manufacturers make a GI claim on the label, but most multigrain breads already have a lower GI than either wholemeal or white breads.
Risks with salt
Eating too much salt is linked to increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Almost all bread contains some salt because without it bread doesn’t rise well or develop the right texture. But most manufacturers add more salt than is necessary.
Health experts have estimated that reducing salt in bread and breakfast cereals by just one-fifth could to a 23% reduction in strokes and a 16% drop in heart attacks.
Some manufacturers have reduced the salt levels in their bread, but there is still a long way to go. The industry recently agreed to cut salt back to 400mg of sodium per 100g in all bread by the end of 2013, but this is only 7% less than the current average of 430mg of sodium per 100g for multigrain bread – well short of the 20% reduction recommended by health experts.
In the 1960s, food technology took over from the baker’s craft and local bakeries disappeared. So, too, did fresh bread delivered daily to your door. Bread became a factory product – conveniently sliced, hygienically wrapped in plastic and complete with additives to keep it “fresh” for a week or sometimes even longer.
Factory-made bread is cheap and convenient, but manufacturers are increasingly aware that consumers may prefer the flavour, texture and aroma of traditionally baked bread.
Lawson’s claims its bread is “baked in the spirit and traditions of country Australia”, while Abbott’s Village Bakery nostalgically “remembers the days of simple, honest bread fresh from your local bakery”.
However, the rhetoric is way ahead of reality, because in our blind taste test, stripped of their faux brown paper packaging, these brands scored less well than many of those breads without pretensions of tradition.
Value of wholegrains
“Wholegrains” doesn’t just refer to the grains you can see in multigrain bread. “Wholegrains” means just that – every part of the grain, including the bran and germ. These parts of the grain contain the nutrients – fibre, vitamins, minerals and a host of antioxidants and other phytochemicals – that are proven to protect against heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. These nutrients are retained when grains are milled into wholemeal flour but discarded in the manufacture of refined white flour.
Unfortunately, most multigrain breads also contain nutrient-poor white flour. Even among the healthier breads in our taste test, 40% fall into this category. The amount of dietary fibre is a good guide to the level of wholegrains in your bread. As an indication, wholemeal bread made entirely from wholemeal flour contains about 6.4g of dietary fibre per 100g, while multigrain breads may contain less or more, depending on the white fl our content. So always check the nutrition panel on the packaging and choose brands with 6g or more of fibre per 100g.