Sunday, June 16, 2024

Can’t resist white sliced bread? Here are the ‘healthiest’ loaves to buy

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The humble white sliced loaf has been an essential part of the fabric of British life for around 100 years, when it handily coincided with the invention of the pop-up toaster in 1926, it was a marriage made in butter-slathered heaven. 

“White sliced bread is one of the staples of the British diet and deeply embedded into the consumer’s psychology and tradition, making it really hard to change habits and tastes,” says Dr Jibin He, the head of science at the School of Health and Life Sciences at Teeside University.

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And it’s true, there are times when only the doughy comfort of white sliced bread will do. Whether it’s toast and jam, dippy egg and soldiers, or a chunky bacon sandwich, those soft, springy carb-heavy slices make the perfect pairing. 

We’re a nation hooked on white bread. So it’s welcome news that scientists at Aberystwyth University are working on a healthier version of the white loaf by blending flour with foods like peas or oats while keeping the taste and feel. It is by some margin our most eaten bread, with £876 million worth of loaves sold in 2021 according to Mintel, with sliced white accounting for 71 per cent of the UK’s bread consumption. And research has shown that its appeal can be addictive, due to the intense sugar spike triggered by its high glycaemic index. 

“When brands have been developed with bran added to boost fibre content to make it healthier, this hasn’t taken over from basic sliced white bread,” says Dr He. “Even though consumers know it’s not healthy.” 

We may love our bread but it does not love us. In fact, nutritionally, in many cases we may as well be eating cardboard. 

“Typically, white bread is made from white flour, which is a very refined carbohydrate, and gluten protein. There’s nothing much else in typical white sliced bread, which means it’s not of much value, health-wise. Wholemeal flour includes the bran’s outer layer and the germ, providing us with fibre, antioxidants, vitamins and other proteins apart from gluten. These micronutrients are what we need – not refined carbs which have gone through a manufacturing process in which all the useful parts are thrown away,” says Dr He.

White sliced loaves are considered an ultra-processed food (UPF) because the initial raw ingredients have been industrially manipulated along the way, with additives, preservatives, emulsifiers and stabilisers added.

But that doesn’t mean the industrial sliced white loaf should be eschewed entirely. “While we don’t want to ban foods people love like white bread, which is often considerably more affordable than other types of bread, it’s best to have it in moderation and ideally not as part of your everyday diet,” says Amelia Lake, a dietitian and professor of public health nutrition at Teesside University.

Fibre 

Dr Cathrina Edwards from Quadram Institute, which brings together researchers, academics and NHS clinicians to address global challenges in human health, food and disease, says: 

“What I would recommend paying most attention to is the fibre content. Fibre is really important for gut and metabolic health, but most people do not get enough. Although white bread is not usually particularly high in fibre, many people rely on it as a staple food, so it can be an important source of fibre in many households”. Prof Lake adds: “A lot of white sliced bread will lack fibre so check how much is provided by a particular brand and watch out for hidden salt and sugar”. 

Additives 

“Some breads are fortified with added nutrients and while some of the additives are not as scary as they sound, others can help bread to stay fresh and safe to eat for longer,” says Dr Edwards. Good additives are calcium, iron, riboflavin, thiamine and niacin. Additives to look out for are emulsifiers, which have been linked in some research to impacting the gut microbiome, and palm oil, which is high in saturated fat, boosting unhealthy cholesterol and triglycerides which raise the likelihood of heart disease. And look out for acidity regulators and preservatives, which make a food ultra-processed and not good for our health, as UPFs are linked to an increased risk of cancer and Type 2 diabetes.

Dietician Priya Tew, the director of Dietitian UK, says: “A fresh loaf from a supermarket bakery will have less additives and preservatives, making it less ultra-processed or even UPF-free”. And the healthiest white loaf of all? Dr He recommends “one that’s mixed with wholemeal flour, like Hovis Best of Both or Warburtons Half and Half – this is far better for you than just plain white bread, as wholemeal flour contains so many nutrients”.

Priya Tew, a nutritionist, gives her verdict on 10 of the most popular white sliced loaves, looking at content including vitamins and healthy fibre, and harmful sugar, salt and additives, as well as value for money.

M&S Supersoft Thick White Sliced Bread, 800g, 75p from Ocado

Highest fibre content

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