The history took a dramatic turn, around 30,000 years ago when the first bread was produced using a paste of grain flour and water. Historians may differ on how the first bread was prepared: “accidental cooking or deliberate experimentation” but they all agree that it was the evolution of bread and later the industrialization of bread baking that revolutionized the entire food industry. Over the centuries, bread witnessed a radical change in the ingredients used, and in method and equipment used to prepare them.
What we have today on our platter is a plethora of breads that range from simple flatbreads (Indian chapattis and Mexican tortillas) to leavened delights (like French baguettes, American bagels and Italian pizzas) and exquisite hand crafted artisan breads such as ciabatta, sour dough and focaccia breads. With so many types of breads available, choosing the best and the healthiest one can be confusing. So here is the lowdown on the most popular breads, their nutritive values and my take on each.
While bread shopping, remember the golden rule that the best breads are prepared with whole grains, are packed with nutrients and fiber and contain the least amount of chemical additives. The healthy sounding label claims like ‘brown bread’, ‘multigrain breads’ or ‘enriched breads’ may often be misleading. It is imperative to check the first ingredient in the list of ingredients: if it says ‘wheat flour’ or ‘bleached flour’, it might refer to ‘not so healthy’ and nutrient stripped wheat flour or ‘maida’. Steer clear of these breads and also from the ones that list ‘partially hydrogenated fats’, ‘corn syrup’ or ‘enriched flours’ higher in the ingredient list. Pick the bread that says ‘whole wheat’ or ‘100% whole grain’, and show ‘low GI’, ‘low sodium’ and ‘organic’ or ‘high fiber’ labels.
White Vs Wheat Bread
A kernel of wheat grain contains an outer nutrient rich ‘bran’ layer, followed by ‘germ’ (that germinates to create a new plant) and the innermost ‘endosperm’ that works as a storehouse for carbohydrates and proteins. White breads are prepared by a milling process that involves removal of bran and germ and retains only the endosperm. Whole wheat or wholegrain breads, on the other hand retain the germ and endosperm and sometimes a part of the outer bran too, thus rendering a darker color and a coarser texture.
Evidently, the white breads are not only lighter in color but also lighter in nutrient composition and fiber content. Whole wheat breads are nutritionally superior with higher fiber content ( 1.9 gm of fiber in whole wheat bread slice versus 0.8g in white breads), and generous amounts of B vitamins, folic acid, magnesium, zinc and vitamin E.
Other Types of Breads
- Bagels and baguettes– Decadent coffee shop treats such as bagels, croissants and buns are rich in taste and unfortunately, in calories and fat content too. Lean and crisp crusted baguettes or French loaf qualify as healthy breads with 85calories, 17g carb, 2.8g protein and 1g fat in a small slice.
- Chapattis – When prepared at home without added salt and oil, our good old wheat chapattis are one of the healthiest breads (approx. 60 calories per chapatti). These unleavened flat breads are fiber rich and also lower in sodium and fat content than sliced breads. Step up the fiber content by adding jowar, bajra or soya flour to wheat flour. Naans and parathas are prepared with maida and best reserved for special events only.
- Tortillas– Corn tortillas made from maize flour fare better than wheat tortillas, prepared using finely ground refined flours. Corn tortillas are gluten free, low in calorie and fats and contain fair amounts of fiber, iron, and vitamins.
- Pizza– While the refined flour based pizza crusts are a strict no-no, you may go for whole wheat, buck wheat or quinoa flour based pizza crusts with healthy toppings like cottage cheese, lean meats and vegetables.
- Pita bread–
These baked ‘pocket’ soft flat breads are a staple in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. A medium sized wheat pita bread contains 125 calories, 25g carbs, 4.5g proteins and less than 1g fat. Pita breads boast popularity due to the versatility of eating anything ‘in, on or with’ it but when it comes to nutritive value, they are lower in fiber content and higher in sodium content than whole wheat breads. Still, whole wheat pita breads make for a healthier option than white breads and ‘maida’ pizza crusts.
- Artisan Breads–
Artisan breads are not the typical mass produced, store bought breads. These breads are prepared in small batches using select ingredients and are usually leavened slowly without chemical additives. High in fiber content (if whole grains are used) and often flavored with herbs, garlic, onion, cheese and even fruits, artisan breads are undoubtedly superior in terms of taste, texture and flavor. However unless you are sure that they are prepared using whole grains like millets, bran or whole wheat, they might not scale higher than sliced whole wheat breads nutritionally.