If you had to say one thing about bread, you might say this: It gets the job done. Few other foods can so quickly satiate a hungry belly, or do so in such a mild and palatable way as to have almost universal appeal.
On many dinner tables, mine included, bread is the go-to food, a saving grace for kids alarmed by one-pot meals. When everything’s all jumbled together and you’re longing for something straightforward and familiar … ah, there it is. Bread.
Even at meals we go without bread we can’t go without bread. Set down any kind of salad in front of my family and what happens? One child or another will pop up and go rummage in the pantry for a bag of bread in yet another incarnation, cubed and fried. No bread tonight? Better sprinkle some on top.
Our old standard, the food pyramid, featured grains at its very foundation. But for nearly two years now, the Agriculture Department has promoted a revised dietary guideline called “MyPlate.” In the round plate graphic, grains no longer dominate. Fruits and vegetables take up half the plate, with grains and protein filling out the remainder.
Most of us eat plenty of grains already, according to the MyPlate website. The problem is, they aren’t the right kind. At least half of all grains we eat should be whole grains, meaning they contain the entire kernel: bran, germ and endosperm. Refined grains, like white bread, bagels and tortillas, have all been stripped of the bran and germ. They may come “enriched” with B vitamins added back in after processing, but the fiber is gone for good.
Is that really such a crime, I wondered? My friend, a Weight Watchers graduate, said yes. She gave me an earful about how the body turns white bread, lickety-split, right into sugar. Unsure exactly how that works, I turned to a dietitian for answers.
“Blood sugars increase more rapidly when we eat refined grains,” said Jessica Patrick, a registered dietitian at Lake Forest Hospital. Those foods are also easier to digest, which is why they can be a good choice for people with certain stomach issues. “But for most of us, it’s better for food to digest slowly because the fiber makes our system work harder, and we feel fuller longer,” she said.
So how do we fiber seekers know which loaf of bread to toss in the cart? The bread aisle is always such a murky place, loaded with confusing terms and claims.
For example, if refined grains have no fiber, why are some white breads labeled high-fiber? Usually because the manufacturer adds in other types of fiber, like oat fiber, said Patrick. You’ll often find them farther down on the ingredient list. Many wheat breads also list “refined wheat flour” rather than “whole wheat flour” as a main ingredient. And just because a bread claims to be “multigrain” or “seven grain” doesn’t mean you’re getting any of those grains whole.
Color isn’t a reliable guide either. A loaf may look all nice and brown and wheaty, and that color could come from whole grain. Or it could come from caramel coloring or molasses. Patrick advises reading the label carefully.
“The average American doesn’t get nearly enough fiber in his diet,” she says. To help remedy that, stick to breads that list “whole grain” or “whole wheat” as one of the top two ingredients.
After talking to the dietitian, I decided to switch to a different wheat bread at home. Consequently my kids are eating fewer sandwiches at lunch. I even tried wooing them with whole grain bagels, but that didn’t work either. “They don’t even look like food!” my son protested.
I think, like all whole grains, they’ll just take a little longer for my family to digest.