British Nutrition Foundation’s Defence of Bread

Back in February I wrote a blog post entitled “Personal Trainer in London Stops Eating Bread”. Here’s a follow-up blog which looks at the British Nutrition Foundation’s website article “Myths About Bread”. It’s a staunch defence of bread as part of a healthy diet, but it only gives half the story.

Remember that the British Nutrition Foundation is funded by manufactured food companies, one of which is Premier Foods, makers of Hovis, Britain’s best-selling brand of bread.

The British Nutrition Foundation explores 7 ‘myths’ about bread:

“Myth 1: Bread causes bloating and other digestive problems”

The BNF article says “there is no scientific evidence that regular consumption of bread…causes bloating or gastrointestinal discomfort, unless there is a sudden increase in fibre intake.”

So the BNF is saying that any bloating is due only to fibre: “some people experience discomfort and wind after increasing the amount of fibre from habitual levels”.

It’s strange how there’s absolutely no mention of the word ‘gluten’ in the BNF’s discussion of bloating in relation to bread. People who are gluten intolerant can experience bloating and other gastrointestinal problems as a result of eating foods high in gluten, which includes bread. In fact the word gluten doesn’t appear anywhere in this article.

When the BNF says there is no scientific evidence linking bread with bloating or gastrointestinal discomfort, does this mean that the BNF genuinely don’t know about any of the scientific studies devoted to this very issue? Is it really possible that the British Nutrition Foundation has not heard of the studies linking bread with gluten intolerance?

The article does mention coeliac disease further down, but not in response to this particular ‘myth’, and only to exclude coeliac disease from their comments about the low prevalence of wheat allergy and intolerance.

“Myth 2 – Bread does not contain any nutrients”

The British Nutrition Foundation admits that nutrients are lost in the milling process of flour, and the amount lost depends on whether it’s white bread (more processed, bran and germ removed) or wholemeal bread. However, the BNF points out that in the UK white bread is fortified with key nutrients lost in the manufacturing process, by law.

So I agree with the BNF when they say it’s a myth that there are no nutrients in bread. There is calcium, iron, zinc, some B vitamins (niacin and thiamine), and of course carbohydrates and some protein. The BNF also correctly points out that the main difference between white and brown bread is the fibre content.

What the BNF fail to mention is that most bread contains phytic acid, an ‘anti-nutrient’ molecule which inhibits absorbtion of minerals such as zinc, calcium and iron.

“Myth 3 – modern bread is less nutritious than bread produced by traditional processes”

Again I’d agree with the BNF that this is a myth, when you take into account the fact that bread is now fortified with the vitamins and minerals lost in the modern milling process.  But if you count fibre as a nutrient, white bread is less nutritious than brown or wholemeal bread.

“Myth 4 – wheat allergy and intolerance is on the increase”

The BNF focuses on the uncertainty regarding the actual prevalence of wheat intolerance, excluding coeliac disease. It’s strange that the BNF doesn’t explore the prevalence of coeliac disease, and the studies linking it to gluten in bread.

The BNF says that the proportion of people who think they have a wheat allergy is greater than those who actually have one, and criticises people who suspect they have a wheat allergy/intolerance for “deciding to avoid wheat and unnecessarily restricting the diet without actually being allergic”  and before they’ve even been diagnosed by a qualified health professional.

In what way does not eating bread unnecessarily restrict the diet? Every nutrient found in bread and other wheat-based foods can be found in many other foods, without the phytic acid and gluten too.

“Myth 5 – Bread is high in salt”

Bread is certainly a lot higher in salt than more natural and unprocessed forms of carbs such as brown rice, quinoa, sweet potatoes, oats. So to that extent it’s not a myth. And it’s a fact that as a nation we eat far too much salt. But the BNF correctly points out that salt levels in bread are generally falling, and that you can check the label if you want to choose a brand of bread that’s lower in salt than other brands.

“Myth 6 – We eat too much bread”

The BNF point out that many of us don’t eat enough fibre, “and consuming wholemeal or multigrain bread is an easy way to increase our fibre intake”. This is not bad advice, but there are many other sources of fibre apart from bread, which are nutritionally superior when you take into account their absence of gluten, salt, yeast, and phytic acid.

The article also points out that high fibre diets help reduce bad cholesterol and reduces the risk of heart disease. But there is evidence that non-wheat sources of fibre (specifically oats, one study showed) are better for your blood cholesterol levels than wheat-based sources of fibre.

“Myth 7 – Because of bloating you should limit bread intake to one portion a day (have it for breakfast or lunch, but not both)

The BNF makes a bold statement here: “For most healthy people, there is no evidence that regular consumption of bread causes bloating or gastrointestinal discomfort.” I guess it depends on your definition of “most healthy people”. If you exclude all those people with coeliac disease, wheat allergies, wheat intolerance, then the remainder of the population could be termed “most healthy people”, and to this extent the BNF is probably right.

But it is equally true that for a significant group of the population, ie – those with coeliac disease, gluten/wheat intolerance and allergies, bread can cause bloating or gastrointestinal discomfort. And there is plenty of evidence for this.

The BNF then makes an even bolder claim, and Premier Foods (manufacturers of Hovis bread, and one of the food companies which funds the BNF) are no doubt delighted to see this in print: “Bread is an important staple food in the UK diet and therefore plays an important role in most people’s diets”.

As a personal trainer I’m often advising my London clients to eat more healthily, and I don’t recall ever telling a client that bread is an important part of a healthy diet. I’ve advised clients that wholemeal bread is healthier than white bread, because of the higher fibre content, but I also advise clients that there are even healthier sources of fibre and complex carbs than bread. These include oats, sweet potatoes, quinoa, brown rice; and if you eat these foods and no bread at all, your health will benefit.

To suggest that bread is an important part of a healthy diet, implies that cutting out bread will leave you nutritionally worse off. This is simply not true, as long as you’re getting your complex carbs and vitamins/minerals from the other sources I’ve mentioned above.

To end, I should emphasise that small amounts of wholemeal bread will do you no harm (as long as you’ve not got coeliac disease, or wheat intolerance/allergy), and you’ll get plenty of nutrients from wholemeal/wholegrain. But at the end of the day, bread is a manufactured product which contains salt, yeast, gluten, phytic acid, and probably some additional chemicals and preservatives too. There are many healthy food alternatives with all the benefits and none of the downsides.