Ultra Processed Foods: Bread may be considered one, but that doesn’t mean it’s all bad

A woman is holding two loaves of bread from the supermarket.

Humans have eaten bread in some form for centuries. But modern bread is very different from the bread of the past. In its sliced ​​bread form, it often contains so many more ingredients than our ancestors ate that it is now widely considered an ultra-processed food. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad for us.

There are many definitions of what makes an ultra-processed food. The most commonly used is the Nova classification, developed by researchers at the University of São Paulo in Brazil. This separates foods into four groups.

The first group includes unrefined or minimally processed foods such as vegetables or meat without additives. Secondly there are culinary ingredients that come from natural sources, but have been ground or processed to make them easier to cook or edible like flour.

The third group concerns processed foods. These are made by combining ingredients, including fat, sugar and salt. Examples include homemade or baked bread. The latter are ultra-processed foods. These are processed industrially in a factory or include ingredients not typically used in the home, such as additives such as emulsifiers.

Since most sliced ​​bread is made using the Chorleywood process, this would technically make it an ultra-processed food. The Chorleywood process was invented in the 1960s to make bread faster on an industrial scale.

The process involves using faster mixing and more yeast, as well as adding solid fats, emulsifiers, and ascorbic acid (vitamin C). This allows more water and low protein flours to be used in the baking process, as well as the use of vacuum to control the leavening process. This creates the soft, fluffy bread we buy at the supermarket.

While this process has allowed for cheap and substantial bread, there are growing concerns about how healthy it actually is because it’s ultra-processed. This concern has been fueled in part by mounting evidence showing a link between ultra-processed foods and health issues including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.

However, researchers don’t yet know whether consuming ultra-processed foods directly causes these health conditions. Nor do they know if only specific ingredients within these foods are to blame.

Bread’s position as an unhealthy, ultra-processed food has also been questioned. Some researchers argue that the Nova classification’s definition of ultra-processed is oversimplified, leading to many foods being lumped into the same category despite containing very different ingredients and going through different processing methods.

A woman is holding two loaves of bread from the supermarket.
Bread may not be as bad as other ultra-processed foods.
CGN089/Shutterstock

Its real supermarket bread contains emulsifiers, which have been linked to health problems, including a potential increased risk of developing certain types of cancer. But typically bread uses only mono- or diglyceride fatty acids as emulsifiers, which haven’t been linked to disease risk.

It’s also worth noting that during the lengthy fermentation processes used in traditional bread-making, compounds similar to these two emulsifiers will actually be produced by yeast and bacteria. These emulsifiers are used to improve the texture and, together with hard fats (such as palm oil), help extend the shelf life of the bread.

Furthermore, the more important question may not be whether the bread is classified as ultra-processed or not. The salt levels in store-bought bread may be more of an issue. Salt is used to uniform the leavening of the bread and give it a consistent texture.

But the amount of salt in different brands of bread can range from one teaspoon per loaf (similar to most homemade recipes) to four teaspoons per loaf. Pay attention to the sodium levels on the label and aim to buy breads with less than 0.7g of salt per 100g (or 0.3g of sodium per 100g).

And, despite similar concerns, the sugar in modern supermarket bread may not be as bad as many people think. Sugar is used to help the yeast ferment and rise before baking. Therefore, most breads contain 2g-4g of sugar per 100g. Some of these actually occur naturally as a result of the demonstration process. However, this can vary by brand.

Other considerations

So, it’s likely that the way ultra-processed bread is made may not be as big of an issue for our health as some think, although the salt content in some loaves may be.

Black bread (such as wholemeal or brown bread) goes through a production process similar to that of white bread. The main difference is that it may have some fibers retained or added back into the flour.

Fiber is important for maintaining a healthy gut. Breads (and even flatbreads or pittas) that contain seeds or bits of grain can also have the added benefit of taking longer to digest. This can help keep you feeling fuller for longer.

Sourdough is another favorite option, with many saying it’s healthier because it uses more traditional baking processes. There is evidence that traditional French breads, which are slowly fermented and made with a sourdough starter, raise blood glucose (sugar) and insulin levels less than typical sliced ​​breads. As with the higher fiber versions, this could mean that they keep us feeling fuller for longer.

But many supermarket breads labeled sourdough may not be traditionally made. One of the problems is the lack of a legally recognized definition for sourdough bread. In some countries it may contain only flour, water and salt (perhaps with a drizzle of oil), but in others it may contain yeast to speed up fermentation and leavening, and even additives. So, if you’re looking for a real, traditional sourdough loaf, check that it contains only flour, water, and salt.

While supermarket bread may be classified as ultra-processed, that doesn’t mean you can’t include it as part of a balanced diet. Just make sure you think about what you’re putting on your toast. A sausage sandwich is less healthy than topping your toast with canned tomatoes or baked beans.

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