Bread and carbs: are they really evil?

Carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates, fibre and starch: the terminology has changed but unfortunately many of us are still confused. So let’s take a quick look at where we’re at with these and what’s good for us. Bread is an excellent example of the subject so we will also review the facts about this popular food source.


Basically, carbohydrates include single sugar units (monosaccharides) such as glucose, fructose and galactose; double sugar units (disaccharides) made up of two single sugar units; and polysaccharides made up of many single sugar units, which include starch, glycogen (the body’s storage form of glucose) and fibre. So the term sugar and carbohydrate are inextricably linked. That’s it!

So now it’s clearer why some carbohydrates are easier and faster to digest than others, given some are multiple chains of sugar units making them much longer than others.

Sugars: are they all bad?

There has been some confusion around the question of sugars. Many natural foods contain simple carbohydrates/sugars and each simple sugar has an important function. For example, fruit sugar (fructose) aids recovery after exercise; breastmilk has a simple sugar called galactose, which with lactose is important for immunity; and blood sugar (glucose) fuels our brain. So to say that all sugars are bad is simply not true. What we do need to take care with is how much simple sugars represent of our daily diet (up to about 10% of calories can come from simple sugars).

The least-desirable simple sugar is added sugar such as common table sugar (sucrose, which is made from fructose and glucose). Added sugars tend to provide calories (or kilojoules) without offering other nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre. Calories derived from these sugars are often referred to as ‘empty’. Added sugar has many detrimental effects including tooth decay, and is linked to obesity and diabetes.

Sugar can be hidden in many ways; in fact, manufacturers use a multitude of terms to fool the unsuspecting consumer. Other ingredient names for sugar include:

  • Sucrose
  • Glucose
  • Lactose
  • Fructose
  • Sorbitol
  • Mannitol
  • Corn syrup
  • High-fructose corn syrup (watch out for increasing use of this ultra-sweet product in Australia and New Zealand)
  • Honey
  • Malt
  • Malt extract
  • Maltose
  • Rice extract
  • Molasses
  • Golden syrup
  • Invert sugar

Sound familiar?

‘Complex carbohydrates’ vs whole grains

Most of us have used the term ‘complex carbohydrates’, confident that it refers to healthy eating habits. But more recently the term has fallen out of favour as it is somewhat vague; instead we’ve seen a preference for ‘whole grains’. (I am sure you have noticed how often this term is used.) Simply speaking, whole grains maintain the focus on whole foods rather than their components. When a food is referred to as a ‘complex carbohydrate’ we still may not know exactly what we are eating; however, we can all understand the concept of a food that hasn’t been tampered with. Choosing food that is made from whole ingredients will offer better nutrition, and the term ‘whole grains’ is much more user-friendly. It allows us to assess the quality of our food – and make the right decisions on what to eat.

Tip for working out a product’s simple sugars

A nutrition panel is a great way to determine the amount of simple sugars in a product. Pop to the cupboard and grab a cereal packet. Using the 100g column, note the difference between the ‘sugars’ figure (represents all sugars, naturally occurring and added) and the ‘total carbohydrates’ figure (all carbohydrates). Subtract the sugars figure from the carbohydrates figure; the resulting number represents complex carbohydrates (or ‘not simple sugars’). The greater this figure the more likely the cereal is a healthier option (at least in this respect). You are likely to find that many brekky cereals contain a very high percentage (85%) of simple sugars. Your challenge is to find a cereal for the kids that contains fewer simple sugars?

Bread as an example

Humans have eaten cereals such as corn (maize) and grains such as wheat, rice, barley, sorghum, oats and millet for years. We require the greatest quantity of these foods over the course of the day. Servings of cereals may come from breads, pasta, noodles, breakfast cereals and so on.

Cereals in an unprocessed state are:

  • Naturally low in sodium.
  • Good sources of B vitamins, vitamin E and minerals such as iron, zinc, magnesium and phosphorus.
  • Low in saturated fat but a source of polyunsaturated fats.
  • A good source of antioxidants, such as vitamin E and selenium as well as phytochemicals including phytoestrogens, glucans, phytic acid, flavonoids and phytosterols (which can help lower blood cholesterol levels).
  • Cholesterol-free.

Examples of some of the health benefits include:

  • Beta-glucans in oats bind to cholesterol in the intestines and reduce blood cholesterol.
  • Some carbohydrates ferment in our colon, creating substances (short chain fatty acids) that have been found to reduce the risk of bowel cancer.
  • Slowly digested carbohydrates and dietary fibre that escape digestion can protect against diabetes, particularly wholegrain breakfast cereals, cooked rice and potato and bran.

How do breads differ?

A wheat grain comprises an outer layer (bran), a middle layer (endosperm) and an inner layer (germ). Each layer can be separated and used in different types of bread. What is left in the bread will offer different nutritional benefits.

  • Bran: the outer layer differs from grain to grain; 14-16% of wheat and 5-6% of corn. It contains fibre and health-giving compounds and is found in most wholemeal and multigrain breads.
  • Endosperm: contains the greatest amount of carbohydrates and protein and is a main ingredient of white bread.
  • Germ: the smallest part of a grain contains unsaturated fatty acids and many other beneficial nutrients. Found in multigrain and grain-containing breads.

Refining of wheat may cause:

  • 60% or more loss of fibre
  • Around 90% loss of selenium
  • About 60% loss of folate
  • Up to 99% loss of phytochemicals from the grains

What are whole grains?

Whole grains contain all three layers – bran, endosperm and germ. Breads (and cereals) made from whole grains offer the health-giving benefits of consuming all three layers, such as vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and protective compounds.

Common types of breads

  • White bread: The most common variety of bread is white bread. It is made from wheat flour which can often be processed (e.g. bleached). There is a wide range of options with a plethora of other ingredients that can be added.
  • Wholemeal or wholewheat bread: Made from wholemeal flour, popular due to our improved knowledge of the health benefits of bran and wheat germ.
  • Mixed grain bread: Can be made from any combination of flours (e.g. wholemeal or white flour, rye meal or flour), grains (e.g. kibbled grains, wheat germ, whole grains or wheat and other cereals) and seeds (e.g. sesame seeds).
  • Rye bread: Made from a combination of rye flour and wheat flour. Dark rye bread contains a higher proportion of rye flour and rye meal than light rye and is consequently denser, heavier and has a stronger flavour. Pumpernickel is a heavy dark bread made from rye flour, rye meal and kibbled or cracked rye grains.
  • Sourdough bread: Has a slightly sour flavour and a denser texture than regular bread. Sourdough describes the raising agent used to make this type of bread. A starter, such as yeast or even yoghurt, is added. This mixture is allowed to sour through a fermentation process that produces a gas and an acid. It is then used as a starter to leaven other breads; the gas produced by the fermentation is trapped in the gluten of the dough, causing it to rise, while the acid gives the bread that famous tart flavour.
  • Lavash bread: Thin, flat bread made from white wheat flour, yeast, salt and water and then oven-baked on a heated metal plate.
  • Bagel: Jewish bread where the dough (with yeast) is shaped into a ring and thrown into boiling water before baking. This gives the crust a chewy texture. It may be coated with poppy or sesame seeds and can be flavoured, e.g. raisin, blueberry and cinnamon.
  • Middle Eastern flat, pocket or pita bread: Flat, oval or round wheat bread that can be made from flour, water, yeast and salt. In some bread, the pocket is made by exposing the flattened pieces of dough to dry conditions so that both sides become slightly drier than the centre. During baking at high temperature, the steam produced inside the dough is trapped by the baked, drier outside layers.
  • Gluten-free bread: Gluten-free bread is usually based on cornflour to which flour from gluten-free grains such as rice and maize then potato or pulses is added. Gluten-free bread tends to be heavier and drier than traditional bread as gluten tends to be a binding agent. You may also find that some gluten remains in the bread and that gluten-free does not equate to wheat-free.
    (Source: Adapted from Wikipedia)

Keep in mind that all breads have varying amounts of ‘other’ ingredients. Therefore, it is a good idea to read the ingredients’ panel to see exactly what goes into a loaf!

Choosing a bread

So, when choosing a bread:

  • Read the ingredients’ panel and select breads that predominantly use wholemeal flour rather than baker’s flour (often a combination is used). Many multigrain breads can sometimes be white bread with some whole grains thrown in.
  • Due to changes in bread-labelling laws in 2002, manufacturers can choose to make bread with whatever percentage of flour they want. Use the nutrition panel to estimate how much wholemeal or rye flour has been used.
  • However, from September 2009 all flour will be fortified with folic acid (the synthetic form of B9).
  • Select breads with no added sugar.
  • Opt for breads without preservatives, though of course they will not stay fresh as long. Still, breads with a short ingredients’ list are better for your health.
  • Opt for breads with the lowest salt – check the nutrition panel.
  • Low-moderate GI (under 70 such as sourdough and rye breads) breads are ideal; however, even a high GI bread can be nutritious depending on what you eat with it.
  • Avoid breads containing GE ingredients

What’s all the other stuff in breads?

  • Prebiotics – the non-digestible part of carbohydrate that helps friendly bacteria to function and keep our bowel healthy. Prebiotics are found in raw oats, rye and unrefined wheat.
  • Soy and/or linseed – these are added to provide phytoestrogens which have been shown to reduce the risk of many hormone-related cancers such as prostate and breast, as well as to assist menopausal women. Phytoestrogens don’t appear to act as a hormone; rather, they balance the action of estrogen and estrogen receptors in the body (so men need not worry!). Also, linseed offers healthy fats – though keep in mind that the conversion of the essential fatty acids in linseed to the active forms that the body can use is only about 8%.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids – these little wonders have been shown to reduce numerous diseases, are essential for early brain development, reduce inflammatory responses in the body including eczema, and improve overall health.
  • Folic acid – or B9 is essential for normal cell development. It can reduce the incidence of neural tube defects in unborn babies by up to 70%.
  • Improvers – these are softening agents that help the dough work better as a bread. They include enzyme supplements, mainly amylase; gluten-modifying agents such as ascorbic acid; sodium metabisulphite and L-cysteine hydrochloride; and yeast foods (such as ammonium chloride, phosphates and calcium salts). Preservatives (calcium and sodium propionate, sodium diacetate and acetic acid) and mould inhibitors can be added to prevent bread spoilage.
  • Sugar – small amounts of sugar (1-2%) are sometimes added to help start yeast action. During fermentation, the sugar is converted to glucose and fructose. Larger amounts of sugar are added to sweet buns and fruit loaves.
  • Salt – usually added to stabilise the yeast fermentation, strengthen the gluten protein to assist dough-handling, and add flavour. In the manufacture of reduced and low-salt breads some of the salt is commonly replaced with potassium chloride.
  • Gluten is sometimes added to increase the protein content.

What about white breads that are high-fibre low-GI?

Over 50% of mothers prefer to buy multigrain or wholemeal bread – but 80% of children aged 8-15 years prefer the taste and texture of white bread! Ugh! Hence, a new generation of breads has been created that attempt to enhance the health credentials of white bread.

Such breads use maize from a specially developed grain. Many nutritionists and dietitians recommend such breads, particularly over plain white bread.

References: available upon request


This information has been provided by Leanne Cooper from Sneakys baby and child nutrition. Leanne is a qualified nutritionist and mother of two very active boys.