Half-baked healthy notions


A survey last week reveals that brown bread may not be as healthy as we thought. Consumer Affairs Correspondent Paul Cullenreports

‘FOUR LEGS good, two legs bad,” the beasts in Animal Farm were given to bleat and, in similar vein, most of us have imbibed the nutrition message that eating too much white bread is, in a general sense, bad for us and high-fibre bread is good.

Now, however, a new survey suggests that we need to re-examine these notions about what is good and bad about bread. White bread, oft disparaged for its high salt levels and lack of fibre, is getting healthier, the survey in Consumer Choicemagazine shows, while the spectrum of brown, wholemeal and wholegrain bread we usually consider to be healthy may not always deserve this accolade.

These findings matter a lot because we Irish eat so much bread, which has long since replaced the potato as our staple. Bread is our constant companion at the table, from breakfast to supper. It sheaths our breakfast rolls, provides dunking material for our soups and soft-boiled eggs and wipes up our dinner gravy.

Almost 95 per cent of us eat white loaves and 73 per cent eat wholemeal and brown, according to the North South Food Consumption Survey. By contrast, less than half the population eats rice or pasta and just two-thirds eat breakfast cereals.

Our preference may be for white, but nutritionists would prefer if we ate more wholegrain breads, which are rich in vitamins and trace minerals. Consumption of wholegrains is linked to better digestive health, reduced rates of some cancers and, because they are digested more slowly and make us feel full for longer, lower rates of obesity.

People who eat wholegrains are likely to have higher vitamin, mineral and fibre intakes than white bread eaters, the above-mentioned consumption survey found, though the difference could not be attributed solely to consuming wholegrains.

The other factors involved were lifestyle choices such as taking more exercise or eating more fruit and veg.

What the report in Consumer Choiceshows, however, is that consumers seeking to eat healthy bread need to examine their options more closely. Even then, there is an information deficit which prevents consumers from finding out what their favourite breads contain.

There are no rules, for example, requiring retailers to provide information on the content of unpackaged bread.

As for packaged products, the percentage of each type of flour contained in a bread is rarely given. Labels can mislead the naive consumer, too; if an ingredient is given as wheat flour, as the report points out, this means refined white flour.

Consumer Choice, which is published by the Consumers’ Association of Ireland, looked at 30 common breads on the Irish market and found that five were high in salt. It also found that, of the wholegrain breads, half had more white flour than wholemeal.

Brown, granary and Multigrain breads can look like they contain wholegrains, it says, but actually most contain a mix of different flours, such as refined white flours with bran or seeds added.

Malted flour is often added to make bread look brown and there is no guarantee of any multigrain in brown, granary or multigrain breads.

While all the multigrain products contained added ingredients such as seeds, cracked grains, wheatgerm and bran, only one of the 10 contained a greater amount of wholemeal flour than flour and another had some wholemeal. The other eight had no wholemeal flour whatsoever.

The Consumer Choicesurvey also found that 53 per cent of the breads tested had preservatives, 77 per cent had emulsifiers and 80 per cent had flour treatment agents.

Remarkably, soya flour was found in 60 per cent of breads and added gluten in 30 per cent; these ingredients make the dough more elastic.

Let’s be clear; no one is breaking any laws – because the regulations in this area are not particularly prescriptive.

Manufacturers are free to call their breads “rustic” or “hearty” or “wholegrain” without fear of contradiction, because these terms are not defined.

The exception seems to be “wholemeal”, because these breads are made with wholemeal wheat flour.

The Irish Breadmakers Association says its members produce bread to suit all tastes in the market. It points out that many of the ingredients added are themselves rich in nutrients and makes the point that all products are made in conformity with current regulations.

A spokesman said the industry would consider new measures to provide more information for consumers, such as a specific stamp for wholegrains, but any scheme would have to be clearly defined.

The good news is that the humble white loaf is less unhealthy than it was before the breadmaking industry embarked on a salt-reduction programme with the encouragement of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland. The latest choice shows a level of 1.3 g/100 g of salt in an average white sliced pan, which is on the high side of medium, according to the Consumer Choiceclassification.

White bread, usually made from flour containing only the central core of the wheat grain, remains low in fibre, but so were some of the multigrain breads tested.

What all this means is that consumers seeking healthier bread options need to take a closer look at what they are buying. Regulators could be doing more to help them, the magazine suggests, by requiring manufacturers to indicate the percentage of different flours used and, in particular, specify the percentage of wholemeal flour used where the terms brown, wholegrain or multigrain are used.

Of course, surveys such as this don’t take account of consumer tastes. Many people find grainy bread hard to stomach, literally, and manufacturers argue that consumers can be weaned off their liking for salt in bread only very slowly. There is, of course, another way of putting the perfect loaf for you on the table – make it yourself!