The Good of Grains and Hope for Bread's Redemption

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Ever since the dawn of the low-carb craze, bread has been on the outs. Diners ask for the breadbasket to be removed from their tables at restaurants, sandwiches are shunned, and toast is … well, toast. But new research may help prove that bread has been unfairly demonized, and that the loaf languishing in your kitchen is not the enemy you once thought.

Yanni Papanikolaou, vice president of Nutritional Strategies, Inc., was part of a team that used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to investigate the role of bread — and other grain foods — on body weight and nutrient intake. Some of what the team discovered was surprising, even to the researchers themselves.

“Those in the grain group had a higher daily caloric intake than those in the group that did not eat grains,” says Papanikolaou. “But they did not have any increase in body weight.” The grain eaters also had higher intakes of fiber and folate. And wWhile Papanikolaou cautioned that this research is observational (meaning it doesn’t establish cause and effect), he also pointed out that other research has shown a correlation between higher fiber intake and better weight management.

But remember when reaching for the breadbasket that not all loaves are created equal. Ideally, opt for 100 percent whole grain whenever possible. “Be wary of claims on the label like ‘whole grain’ or ‘7 grain,’” warns Alissa Rumsey, R.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. They may mean nothing, and your loaf may actually be made mainly from refined grains.

“Your best bet is to ignore the front-of-the-package claims, turn the bread over and read the ingredients and nutrition facts instead,” she suggests. The first ingredient on the list should be whole-wheat flour, and each slice should provide at least 3 grams of fiber. “While traditional homemade bread doesn’t contain sugar, many packaged varieties do add some,” says Rumsey. Again, search the ingredient list for sugar or one of its many guises — corn syrup, can juice, brown rice syrup, or any word ending in “-ose,” like dextrose or sucrose.

“I think bread is judged unfairly by the company it keeps,” says Papanikolaou, referring to the high-fat spreads and meats that often accompany slices. “But bread can be nutrient-dense — providing a rich source of shortfall nutrients such as fiber, folic acid and iron.”

Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.