Shhhh….we love white bread. Don’t tell the Food Police.

not my favorite as a kid(photo: Donna P Feldman)

not my favorite as a kid
(photo: Donna P Feldman)

I like white bread.  I realize this sounds hypocritical, since I frequently admonish readers to include whole grains.  And in fact I also eat whole grain breads, just not exclusively.  So it was fun to find this article on white bread today, and find out I’m not alone.  Actually, judging by the bread selections in the grocery store and places like Whole Foods, it’s safe to conclude that most people are still eating a lot of white bread.

Is this a terrible nutritional mistake?  The Food Police would have you think so.  The new rules for eating, as dictated by the U.S. government (and reinforced by the new School Lunch rules) say at least half our grain intake should be whole grains.  According to the Whole Grains Council:

60% of Americans consumed at least one whole grain product during a typical two-week period in 2008, up from 35% in 2006.

Umm, are they actually bragging about this?  It sounds pretty terrible, if daily consumption of 50% whole grains is your goal.  At that rate it will be the 22nd century before we get close to the goal.

Why do we even have this goal?  Whole grains retain all of the nutritional content: the fiber, minerals, vitamins, natural fats and some protein.  To get white flour, for example, the outer husk and all those nutrients are removed.  White flour is less nutritious and has much less (or no) fiber.  But choosing foods based solely on nutrition is not a priority.  We like the taste of white bread.

The article quotes Minnesota flavor researcher Devin Peterson, who analyzed white and whole wheat breads for chemical content and came up with a theory about why we prefer the flavor of white bread.  During baking, white flour goes through browning reactions that create the flavors we like.  Whole wheat flour contains many different chemicals, so the yeast fermentation and browning reactions produce different flavors, some of them bitter or disagreeable.  When I bake whole wheat bread, it ends up with a heavy, whole-wheaty flavor.  Someone who isn’t used to that would easily be put off.

So what’s the harm in white bread?  What are the nutritional consequences of you don’t meet those lofty whole grain consumption goals?  The nutrients you might get from whole grain breads are found elsewhere in our food, in vegetables, fruit, cereals, meats, beans and nuts.  White flour is fortified with some of the vitamins and iron.  Honestly, if you eat so much bread that it could impact your nutritional status, you might have bigger issues than whether the bread is white or whole wheat.  You should be eating lots of other non-bread foods, like vegetables, fruits, beans, meats, dairy foods, nuts, cereals and cooked grains.

If you’re still feeling guilty about your white bread habit, consider the French.  They eat lots of crusty white French bread every single day at most meals.  And so far they don’t seem any the worse for wear, nutritionally speaking anyway.  They combine their white bread preference with good habits like eating lots of other foods, eating small portions and not snacking all day long.

If you are looking for bread with more whole grain content, beware the notorious “wheat” bread label.  The word “wheat” has nothing whatsoever to do with whole wheat.  Don’t be fooled.  The Whole Grains Council stamp on a food label indicates significant whole grain content.  Or check the ingredients list.  Is whole wheat flour listed first?  A whole grain listed first is a good indication of significant whole grain content.

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