Bread and superbread

Can bread really make you brainier?
 
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  • Updated:15 Sep 2006
 

01 .Introduction

Bread_Loaf_iStock

In brief

  • Claims that certain breads keep you regular, are good for your heart, or make your kids brainier are mainly marketing hype.
  • The healthiest breads are those made from whole grains — plain old wholemeal and multigrain.
  • Knowing if bread is in fact wholemeal is not as simple as reading the label.

See our latest article on wholegrain breads.

Please note: this information was current as of September 2006 but is still a useful guide today.


Breaking the bread myth

It used to be there was white bread and brown bread. Now there’s high-fibre white bread, bread with low GI, bread with soy and linseed, bread with extra calcium, bread with omega-3s to name a few. They make some big health claims and come with a price tag to match.

But are these superbreads really worth paying extra for? Are they as good for you as the labels and ads claim?

What we tested

We took a close look at their ingredients and the science (if any) behind the claims for:

whole grains

dietary fibre

low glycaemic index

omega-3s

soy, linseed and phytoestrogens  

What we found

The healthiest breads are still those made from whole grains, such as wholemeal and multigrain.

However, some of the ‘wholemeal’ breads we found in the supermarkets were in fact made from a mixture of wholemeal and refined white flour, and the manufacturers don’t tell you how much wholemeal flour you’re getting.

For most foods, manufacturers are now required under the Food Standards Code to state the percentage of any ingredient that’s mentioned in the name. We’re taking it up with the state and territory health and food agencies responsible for enforcing the code. Bread is a staple food and consumers are entitled to know what’s in it.

While the health claims of some of the other ingredients, such as omega-3, are backed up by science, you may have to eat a lot more than a few slices a day to get the claimed benefits.

 
 

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02.Whole grains and dietary fibre

 

Whole grains

The claims

  • “Wholegrains … provide a whole range of benefits for our wellbeing, including the protective benefits of dietary fibre, phytochemicals and antioxidants.”
    - COUNTRY LIFE BAKERY Biomax
  • “Wholegrains are less processed and contain a variety of beneficial nutrients.”
    - BURGEN Rye
  • “Contains wholegrains to help maintain a healthy heart and digestive system.”
    - TIP TOP 9 Grain

The facts

  • There’s very good evidence that eating whole grains in bread and cereals helps protect you against heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer.
  • ‘Whole grains’ doesn’t just mean the little bits in multigrain bread that can get between your teeth. The whole grains can be milled into wholemeal flour or processed in other ways that retain the nutritious bran and germ.
  • The vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other phytochemicals that are concentrated in the outer layers of the grain are mostly lost when it’s milled to make white bread flour.

The verdict

  • Bread made from whole grains is the best you can eat, and the evidence matches the claims.
  • However, some of the ‘wholemeal’ bread we found in supermarkets was made from a mixture of wholemeal and refined white flour.

Dietrary fibre

The claims

  • “Fibre helps keep you regular and helps maintain a healthy digestive system.”
    - TIP TOP Up Calcium & Hyfibe
  • “… to help maintain a healthy digestive system.”
    - TIP TOP 9 Grain
  • “Beneficial for maintaining good digestive health.”
    - BURGEN Rye

The facts

Experts recommend that we aim to eat at least 30 g of fibre a day. Nearly all the special breads we looked at give you plenty of dietary fibre. But it doesn’t all come from whole grains. We found breads with the most fibre have it boosted with various supplements. Some of these supplements don’t contain insoluble fibre, the kind associated with keeping your digestive system healthy.

  • Psyllium husks (COUNTRY LIFE BAKERY Performax, MOORES Rye and Wholegrain Low GI). Psyllium’s rich in soluble fibre and there’s strong evidence it can protect against heart disease. But you’d need about 10 g a day to see a significant benefit, much more than you’d get in a few slices of these brands of bread. It would be cheaper to buy psyllium separately from the supermarket (about $4 for 200 g).
  • Guar gum (BAKERS DELIGHT Hi-Fibre Lo-GI, TIP TOP Up Energi, WONDER WHITE + Calcium, WONDER WHITE Low GI and WONDER GOLD + Iron). Also called ‘vegetable gum (412)’, it’s a form of soluble fibre that’s used a lot in processed food as a thickener. There’s strong evidence that it can protect against heart disease (if you eat enough of it) and it lowers the glycaemic index when it’s added to bread.
  • Inulin (COUNTRY LIFE BAKERY Biomax) is extracted from chicory roots or made synthetically from ordinary sugar (sucrose). It counts as dietary fibre under the Food Standards Code but there’s little evidence that it provides the same health benefits. It may reduce your risk of bowel cancer, but only if you eat a lot more of it than you’d get from regularly eating a few slices of bread. But it’s a prebiotic (meaning that it can boost the numbers of useful bacteria in your gut).
  • Hi-maize is a much-promoted ingredient of WONDER WHITE breads. It’s made from a special variety of maize that’s rich in resistant starch — a form of starch that’s not broken down by our digestive enzymes. It has some of the health attributes of dietary fibre and counts as dietary fibre under the Food Standards Code. So if your kids really won’t eat wholemeal bread it’s better for them than regular white bread.

The verdict

  • Bread with these supplements is probably better for you than white bread with a lot less fibre of any sort, although you don’t get the other health benefits that come from whole grains.
  • However, much of the evidence for the health-promoting properties of dietary fibre comes from studies in which the fibre was in the form of fruit, vegetables and whole grains — not supplements like the ones added to these breads.

03.Low glycaemic index

 

The claims

  • “Low GI for sustained energy.”
    - TIP TOP Up Energi
  • “For slow energy release and increased feeling of fullness.”
    - BURGEN Mixed Grain
  • “Digested slowly to give sustained energy.”
    - MOORES Rye and Wholegrain Low GI
  • “The carbohydrate in [COUNTRY LIFE BAKERY] Performax (GI 38) is digested and absorbed gradually in contrast to the rapid absorption of regular wholemeal breads (GI 77).”
  • “It’s the low GI that really satisfies, with the sustained energy to help your kids work and play.”
    - WONDER WHITE Low GI

The facts

Most of these claims are little more than marketing hype.

If you have diabetes or pre-diabetes there’s growing evidence that you should be considering GI as a factor in making healthy food choices, but for generally healthy people research hasn’t yet shown significant health benefits.

Low GI doesn’t necessarily mean ‘healthy’: potato crisps have a low GI and so does chocolate cake.

The verdict

If you’re concerned about GI, you might just as well buy ordinary multigrain bread — it has a lower GI than most of the brands of bread we found making special GI claims.

The claims

  •  “Omega 3 DHA helps to promote healthy brain development and function … helps maintain heart health … helps to develop and maintain our eyesight.”
    - TIP TOP Up Omega 3

  • “… includes soy and linseed which contain omega 3 ALA to help maintain a healthy heart.”
    - TIP TOP 9 Grain

The facts

There are two types of omega-3 fats: those derived from plants (mainly ALA) and those from fish (mainly EPA and DHA).

There’s very good evidence that the omega-3 fats from fish can reduce your risk of heart disease. Expert opinions differ a little, but typical recommendations are 300 to 500 mg per day of EPA/DHA.

There’s also evidence EPA and DHA are important for the development of the central nervous system in babies, before and after they’re born, and suggesting that if women eat fish rich in EPA and DHA when they’re pregnant and breastfeeding, it helps the baby’s development.

Other studies suggest you might increase your child’s IQ by 0.8 to 1.8 points, but you’d need to increase your intake of DHA by 1 g (1000 mg) per day. To get that much DHA from TIP TOP Up Omega 3 bread you’d need to eat four whole loaves of it.

Omega-3s may also assist in the development of good eyesight in babies, but there’s no evidence that they help to maintain good eyesight for the rest of us.

There’s no evidence you get the same health benefits from ALA. This fat may help to prevent heart disease, but none of the other claimed benefits are proven and you need to eat even more of it (800 to 1100 mg per day).

The verdict

TIP TOP Up Omega 3 bread contains fish oil (using technology developed by the CSIRO) but other breads that make omega-3 claims only contain the omega-3 fats from plant sources.

Most people get plenty of ALA from cooking oils and spreads but on average we’re not getting enough EPA and DHA. The TIP TOP bread makes a real contribution, but a sandwich made with tinned salmon (40 g) and ordinary bread would give you about 600 mg of EPA and DHA, more than a day’s quota in one hit. And there’s little evidence that even that much will make your child brainier.

05.Soy linseed and phytoestrogens

 

The claims

  • “Soy and linseeds contain phytoestrogens, reported to be beneficial for women’s wellbeing.”
    - MOLENBERG Swiss Bake.
  • “For women’s wellbeing … including soy and linseed that are beneficial for women’s health.”
    - BURGEN Soy-Lin.

The facts

Phytoestrogens are substances found in some plants, such as soy and linseed, which mimic the hormone oestrogen.

The theory is that they relieve the symptoms associated with menopause, such as hot flushes, and protect against heart disease and some cancers, including breast cancer.

The verdict

There’s no consistent evidence that soy phytoestrogen extracts or soy products reduce the severity or frequency of hot flushes, and no evidence at all that linseed helps to relieve menopausal symptoms.

There’s also little evidence that phytoestrogens lower the risk of heart disease or breast cancer. So there’s no point buying soy and linseed bread unless you just like the taste.