Bread is often the food people crave the most
From hot buttered toast to the simple sandwich, bread was once the staple of the British diet. But today it’s suffering from a serious image crisis — it’s become something of a health bogeyman, a food to be avoided and resisted.
Sales have been dropping since the Seventies. In 1974 the average Briton got through 2.2lb (1,029g) of bread a week, but now it’s 1½lb (700g).
Largely that’s because many people are now convinced they suffer from wheat intolerance or an allergy to gluten (the protein found in wheat).
A survey by the University of Portsmouth last year found that one in five British adults believes they are allergic to a food, with most blaming wheat.
Bread is being held responsible for a range of symptoms, including fatigue, stomach pain, bloating and headaches.
Meanwhile, low-carb diets such as Atkins and Dukan haven’t helped either — the claims that carbohydrates cause blood sugar levels to rise, preventing the body from burning fat, have put many off their lunchtime sandwich.
Yet despite this, bread is often the food people crave the most.
Ask any dieter to name their greatest weakness and it will be toast in the morning or that irresistible basket of warm rolls on the restaurant table.
But is it really so bad for us? And why has our relationship with this basic food become so dysfunctional? We talked to the experts.
YOUR BRAIN IS HOOKED ON BREAD
Sometimes only a bacon sarnie will do — but why exactly is that? The simple answer is that bread appears to make us feel better.
'When carbohydrates such as bread are broken down to glucose, they trigger the production of the brain chemical serotonin, also known as the happy hormone,’ says Helen Bond, of the British Dietetic Association.
That’s why a toasted teacake or muffin tastes so good at teatime.
'The body has a natural dip in serotonin levels around 4pm,’ she explains. ‘Bread is a great way to give yourself a bit of a boost.’
THE MODERN LOAF WE CAN’T STOMACH
For some experts the day it all went wrong was in 1961 when something called the Chorleywood Baking Process was introduced — this breadmaking technique uses three times as much yeast as before and so reduces the time needed for fermentation.
It means a loaf can be baked in just one hour, and also has a longer shelf life — as a result 76 per cent of the bread we eat today is made this way.
Unfortunately, critics say that this reduced fermentation time means yeasts have less time to be broken down and therefore could upset the delicate balance of bacteria in the gut, triggering digestive problems.
Jonathan Brostoff, professor of allergies at King’s College, London believes the so-called ‘one-hour loaf’ may have more yeast and additives left in, meaning more risk of irritation.
He is now looking at whether making breads in different ways affects the types of bacteria found in the gut and the impact on health.
Andrew Whitley, a baker with 30 years’ experience and author of the book Bread Matters, champions sourdough bread, which takes between ten and 24 hours to rise and doesn’t require bakers’ yeast.
'Allowing bread to ferment this long ensures the proteins that make up the gluten are pre-digested so the stomach doesn’t have to work so hard,’ he says.
'This has been proven in the lab and in feeding experiments. I see a lot of people who say they can eat my bread, but not factory bread.’
He adds that most modern bread contains enzymes and stabilisers known as processing aids to keep it ‘squidgy’ for longer.
'These make the proteins harder to break down — we’ve engineered bread to be at its most indigestible.’
The average Brit gets through the equivalent of 60 loaves a year
WE’RE NOT BUILT TO EAT SO MUCH
Toast for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch and rolls for snacks — no wonder the average Brit still gets through the equivalent of 60 loaves a year, despite the overall drop in consumption.
Some experts say our digestive systems can’t cope with so much — explaining the rise in complaints such as irritable bowel syndrome and bloating.
'Gluten, a type of protein, makes bread what it is,’ explains Professor Peter Whorwell, a gastroenterologist at Wythenshawe Hospital in Manchester.
'Yet gluten is a large molecule that’s poorly digested by the gut and we don’t break it down very well.’
We make things worse by eating far too much bread.
'It’s become the number one convenience food,’ he says. ‘It’s everywhere, and that’s part of the problem.’
'Think of our beginnings as hunter gatherers,’ adds Professor Brostoff.
'We didn’t have wheat back then — we had meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. We weren’t really designed to eat all this wheat.’
Even if you limit yourself to one harmless-looking sandwich a day, you’re still likely to be eating more than you realise, says Catherine Collins, principal dietitian at St George’s Hospital in London.
'Often bloating is nothing to do with wheat intolerance and everything to do with portion size,’ she says. ‘Ten years ago your average sandwich would be 60g of bread — two slices of 30g each.
Now, bread often weighs more like 40g a slice, and if you’re slightly sensitive, two of those can be enough to trigger symptoms such as bloating and tummy pain.
'Paninis are deceptive too; they may look small, but actually contain a lot of bread, squashed down.’
What’s more, she adds, nowadays we often eat lunch on the go or at the desk — meaning it’s wolfed down too quickly and we feel stuffed afterwards.
EXOTIC HOLIDAYS MAKE THINGS WORSE
A variety of modern lifestyle habits — including exotic holidays — are leaving people with a permanent slightly raised level of sensitivity to gluten in foods like bread, says Professor Whorwell.
'I see a lot of people who caught a tummy bug abroad which has left the gut more sensitive, so it can flare up again when they eat too much bread.
'Any previous stomach bug, as well as foreign travel, and taking lots of medications such as antibiotics can all make our guts more sensitive.’
Bread’s large gluten molecules mean that this is one of the most likely foodstuffs to cause problems in a newly sensitive gut.