Is bread bad for you?

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1. Use your loaf

Bread has been a staple of the human diet since ancient times. Primitive people baked flat breads 12,000 years ago by mixing flour and water and baking them in the sun.

It’s the Egyptians who are thought to have discovered how to make risen bread with a starter made from wild yeast. Today, bread is sometimes demonised as a carbohydrate source that makes people fat, and is often the first thing thrown out by dieters. Some argue that industrial bread production means too many preservatives, additives and salt, making it unhealthy. But bread can be a good source of both carbohydrates and whole grains that are needed in a balanced diet.

Different breads have different properties. Instead of avoiding bread altogether, knowing what is in each slice and watching how much of it you eat each day is usually the healthier course.

2. What's in your bread?

Various types of flour are used in bread making. Wholemeal flour is made from whole wheat grains, while white flour is made only from the central part of the grain, the endosperm. Is one type of bread better than another?

Well, all bread is a great source of carbohydrates, the body's energy fuel. But the carbohydrates in wholemeal bread are digested more slowly than those in the more refined white bread, and so keep you going for longer.

Wholemeal bread usually also contains more fibre and nutrients like vitamin B, calcium and iron, which tend to be lost in the white flour refining process - although some of these ‘micronutrients’ must now by law be put back into white flour after milling.

Salt is needed to control yeast growth, make the dough more stretchy and enhance flavour.

And factory-baked loaves may contain additional ingredients such as sugar, oil, vinegar, preservatives and flour treatment agents; but you can leave these out if you bake your bread at home!

3. A tale of two loaves

When it comes to nutrition, which is better: homemade or shop-bought?

Nutritional values of home-baked bread vary considerably, according to baking temperatures, size of tin, and so on. Many home-baked breads may be similar in calories to average shop-bought loaves. This data is based on analysis at the time.

4. Which bread is best?

Graphic showing fat, salt and sugar in 100g of white bread, bagel and tortilla

5. Who should avoid bread?

Counting your calorie intake is a good idea if you want to lose weight. But of course it’s not just carbohydrates that pile on calories: it’s more likely to be the fat we add to the carbs that does that. So simply cutting out carbohydrates, especially the less processed ones like wholemeal bread, may not be the healthiest way to diet.

Some people avoid bread because they have an intolerance for wheat itself, or to a protein found in wheat and some other grains called gluten. A smaller number of people are allergic to wheat.

Wheat intolerance can give rise to bloating, diarrhoea and other digestive problems, and requires blood tests and internal examinations for a diagnosis. Allergic reactions to wheat can come on very suddenly and so are easier to identify.

Around one in 100 people in the UK have the more serious coeliac disease, an auto-immune disease in which gluten damages the small intestine and impairs the body’s ability to absorb food.

But bread can still be on the menu if you are coeliac, intolerant or allergic – it just needs to be made with wheat-free or gluten-free flours, such as rice, corn, potato, or polenta.

If you think you may have a problem with bread you should talk to your family doctor. Unless you do have one of these conditions, there is no evidence that eating bread by itself can cause bloating or other digestive problems.

6. What kind of bread eater are you?

Should you swap your favourite slice? Select one of the three options.

White

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Shop-bought white

Wrapped, sliced white bread is soft and longer-lasting. But try wholemeal for a healthier alternative with fewer additives..

Bagel

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Bagel

Bagels are tasty, chewy and increasingly popular. But they tend to be high in calories and sugar..

Wholemeal

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Wholemeal

A nutritious food that's high in fibre, vitamins and minerals. Try also granary and seeded loaves..