I have a complicated relationship with bread. Or rather, I have a totally simple one. I love bread but bread does not love me back. I love bread but bread leaves me wanting more, leaves me hungry, unfulfilled, needy. A freshly baked loaf of bread smells intoxicating and so I eat it like I’m intoxicated (in great quantities).
So—I don’t often make bread at home. Although I go through bouts of bread baking, usually, my bread comes pre-sliced and in a crinkly plastic package. When buying bread, I always look for products made from sprouted grains. A grain is, of course, a seed, so its sprout is an attempt to form a new plant; this attempt breaks down long starch molecules and growth inhibitors, making the graim—and thus, its vitamins and minerals—easier for your body to digest. Fermenting grains into sourdough has nearly the same effect, so whole grain sourdough breads are a good choice, although harder to find.
There is nothing better than good bread slathered in good cheese with a good tomato sliced on top. Last night for dinner, I had grilled artisan bread topped with black eyed peas and two fried eggs—the perfect pair of protein and love. But generally, I don’t eat a lot of bread, partly because I find it much easier to maintain my weight when I don’t. When I do eat bread, I always pair it with protein—for breakfast, almond butter and a banana; for lunch, a fried egg and sautéed greens.
I don’t buy bread made with any refined flour—which is to say, I try to only buy whole grain bread. This is a trickier endeavor than it might seem. This Artisan Loaf is deceptively called Wheat Bread, which might make you believe it is Whole wheat bread, but the first ingredient—Enriched flour—gives it away, as flour is enriched only when it’s refined. Many so-called “whole grain breads” are also made with both whole grain and refined flour, which seems to rather defeat the purpose. Even if it’s labelled with every “whole grain” synonym you know (integral is another common culprit), check the label.
Well, say—if Whole wheat flour is featured on the ingredient label in bold font, no need to read on, right? Too bad, because just two down the row is sugar—which means that, after water and wheat, sugar is the third most common ingredient in this bread. But wait, it gets better—sugar has company! Raisin juice concentrate is a nice way of saying sugar (sugar juice, to be fair) and so is molasses (although, to be fair, molasses is packed full of nutrients).
Datem is an emulsifier used to strengthen dough by building a “strong gluten network.” Calcium propionate prevents mold growth. They’re both safe additives, but don’t seem entirely necessary—bread should mold after a few days on your counter. And, also, wheat comes with it’s own gluten network—in the wheat.
This ingredient label cracks me up. I couldn’t fit it in one picture so that it was legible, so I tried to take a panorama. When that didn’t work either, I figured that two photos might show just how ridiculous and confusing it can be to be presented with an ingredient list with so many words. Seriously. It’s bread. Wheat, water, yeast, and sugar—how much more could you need?
Evidently, quite a bit more. Many of the first ingredients aren’t terribly processed—millet seeds, flax seeds, brown rice, malted barley flakes. But if you persevere (I wonder how many people do…) you’ll find an extensive array of additives.
I counted five kinds of sugar: raisin juice, sugar, honey, molasses, and Sucralose. A plethora of dough conditioners—sodium stearoyl lactylate, calcium sulfate, to name a few—and lots of emulsifiers, including mono- and diglycerides, which sound like they could be just about anything. Consulting CSPI’s Chemical Cuisine, we learn a glyceride “makes bread softer and prevents staling, improves the stability of margarine, makes caramels less sticky, and prevents the oil in peanut butter from separating out. Mono- and diglycerides are safe, though most foods they are used in are high in refined flour, sugar, or fat.”
Not all long lists are bad lists. I have a long-standing love for Ezekiel grain products (as anyone who’s read any other post on this blog knows), not only because all of their grains are organic, but also because they’re sprouted. As I mentioned above, sprouting grains renders their nutrients more accessible and the proteins more digestible. Sprouting grains also helps destroy nutrient-blocking phytic acid, which occurs naturally in the bran of all grains. (If you don’t treat phytic acid—if you don’t ferment the grain or soak it until it sprouts—phytic acid combines with minerals in our intestinal tracts and block the absorption of a grain’s nutrients.)
I’m on the unprocessed fence about wheat gluten, which is basically ground-up wheat protein, added to give bread lift and structure. Many at-home bread recipes call for it, although the process of making wheat gluten requires grinding up whole grains after they’ve been vigorously washed to remove the starch—not exactly on my kitchen to-do list, but a fairly straightforward procedure nonetheless.
Gluten free bread comes with a compromise—lots of additives. For the many people out there who legitimately cannot digest the glutens in wheat, this isn’t a bad gluten free bread. Like many vegan products, while you can make a perfectly acceptable substitute at home, it’s nearly impossible to find store-bought gluten-free products that are also unprocessed. It’s the name of the game—to give gluten-free bread the same coherence and lift as bread-with-gluten, you need chemicals and additives.
Gums like xanthan gum (guar gum is another common culprit) are on CSPI’s “certain people should avoid” list: “Gums are derived from natural sources (bushes, trees, seaweed, bacteria) and are poorly tested, though probably safe. They are not absorbed by the body. They are used to thicken foods, prevent sugar crystals from forming in candy, stabilize beer foam (arabic), form a gel in pudding (furcelleran), encapsulate flavor oils in powdered drink mixes, or keep oil and water mixed together in salad dressings.”
Like tortillas, bread is another one of those foods that’s really nice to buy locally. Whole Planet bakery bakes four blocks away from where I’m holding this loaf of bread, so I know the bread is likely fresh—and when I mean fresh, I mean fresh without the assistance of preservatives or dough conditioners.
I’m not sure why it’s so hard to find true whole wheat sourdough bread, although I’m guessing it’s because refined grains offer more sugar for yeasts to munch on. Even so, I love the flavor of this bread—whole grains already have more complexity than refined grains, and the slow fermentation only amplifies those flavors.
Ascorbic acid is Vitamin C—a synthesized version of the stuff we enjoy in our oranges. From CSPI: “Ascorbic acid helps maintain the red color of cured meat and prevents the formation of nitrosamines… Vitamin C is also used to pump up the vitamin content of foods like ‘fruit’ drinks and breakfast cereals. It also helps prevent loss of color and flavor in foods by reacting with unwanted oxygen.”
I’m not sure why ascorbic acid is being adding to sourdough bread, although from a quick peruse around the internet (sorry), it seems to add some extra “tang” to the fermented flavor. Which is all well and good, but it’s still a chemical.
Herein lies one of the challenges of unprocessed eating. Should I skip this loaf of bread, made just down the street, by a company that’s been a part of the Tucson community for 30 years, because it contains ascorbic acid, or should I buy a totally unprocessed, no-additives needed loaf made by a baker who lives somewhere else? In every case, it’s a fine line, but in this one, the answer seems fairly obvious to me. I buy the local bread—mostly because, if I was still standing at the Food Conspiracy Co-op, holding this bread, I could march down the street and ask Lucy Mitchell, the longtime owner of Small Planet Bakery, what’s up with the ascorbic acid. In the meantime, since I’ve made it home, I’ll make some toast and almond butter to tide me over.