Bread Finally Getting the Respect It Deserves on the Nutrition Front

White bread may still be passé, but whole grains have given bread new status in the nutrition world in recent years.

| 24 May 2024 | 02:07

The next time you put two slices of bread together for a sandwich, say a silent thank you to the Greeks and Egyptians. The Greeks are the guys who the introduced wheat throughout the Mediterranean. But as early as 3,000 BC, Egyptians were crushing the grain to make flour, adding water to make a dough, then shaping and baking the dough into flat cakes used to placate the poor with “bribes of bread and games. The Roman poet Juvenal recorded this in his satires as panems et curcenses.

Bread’s also got spiritual history. Its label as the “staff of life” originated in the Bible (“the stay and the staff, the whole stay of bread,” Isaiah 3:1). And of course, in the New Testament there is the miracle of Jesus “feeding of the 4,000” with seven loaves of bread and a few small fish, as reported in Matthew 15:32–39 and Mark 8:1–9. Over a millennium later, as the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms notes, Jonathan Swift moved the motto into the sectarian culinary vocabulary in A Tale of The Tub (1704). Bread has universal appeal in its religious roles via Communion wafers in many Christian traditions, Jewish challah bread as a holiday treat; and via Islam’s directive to share it as a symbol of human connection.

Nutrition-wise, like so many foods, bread brings both benefits and occasional controversy. On the plus side, where the Egyptians long ago used moldy bread to treat infections that arose from dirt in burn wounds, modern medicos isolated penicillin from these same molds. On the other hand, humans being human, there have always been reasons, sometimes conflicting, for rejecting bread. Whole grain loaves were labeled unrefined. “White” breads were criticized as unhealthfully processed. Home-baked bread was called unsanitary. Breads baked in factories were suspected of being adulterated.

Today, grains including bread get the respect they deserve from nutrition experts. Both the grain-based Mediterranean Diet, ranked Number One for six years in a row by US News and World Report, and the USDA clearly emphasize the benefits of whole grains, including whole grain breads. As one element of a healthful diet, their high fiber and B vitamin content reduce the risk of heart disease, support healthy digestion by moving food along the intestinal tract, and help control weight. Better yet, during pregnancy, grain products such as bread fortified with the B vitamin folic acid protect the developing fetus from birth defects of the brain, spine, or spinal cord.

As a result, USDA has recently set age related Recommended Dietary Allowances for grains at 5 to 8 ounces a day for adult women and 6 to 10 for adult men. Counting one slice of bread as an ounce, that’s a whole day of sandwiches.

All that being true, there are still two groups of people who whom bread may be problematic. First, diabetics must carefully calculate the amount of carbs they can handle. Second, folks with celiac disease are sensitive to gluten, a protein in grains that may trigger an immune response that can damage their intestinal tract and interfere with their body’s ability to absorb nutrients. Luckily, there are tasty alternatives: Breads made with non-gluten rice and potato flours.

Finally, bread has built our language as well as our diet. The word companion comes from the Latin com(with) and panis (bread). We call the most important member of our family the breadwinner, and, to complete that picture, in the Hippie 1960s bread became a cultural synonym for cash.