There's a reason bread was called the staff of life: it used to supply necessary nutrients in a big way. Today's store-bought bread--and even most home-baked bread--comes up extremely short on those nutrients, as well as on fiber.
Modern flour processing removes much of the nutritious value of grain. The most serious damage done is the removal of the bran and the germ. The loss of fiber, minerals, vitamins, and unsaturated fats is extensive. In addition, many other components, such as enzymes, are also lost. Chemical processes like bleaching also do damage: bleaching removes virtually all of the vitamin E from wheat flour.
In white flour, 25% of the protein, 56% of the calcium, 70% of the iron, 80% of the niacin, and 95% of vitamen E have been removed, just to give you some examples. Then there's the fiber, of which many Americans simply don't get enough.
But isn't the flour "enriched?" you ask. Well, yes, and while enrichment actually increases the content of certain nutrients, it does not make up for what's lost in the milling, "conditioning," "aging," and bleaching processes.
But what if I buy whole wheat bread, or even whole wheat flour to bake my own bread?
This is the part that shocked me. I knew white bread and white flour were nutritionally lacking, but I felt pretty good about buying bread or flour labeled "whole wheat." The truth of the matter is that such labels are misleading. What is sold as whole wheat flour is really flour that has been milled just like white flour, but has had some germ and bran added back--and not in the proportions that Mother Nature bestows.
Whole grains are good carbohydrates. While eating refined carbs can cause your blood sugar levels to spike and decline dangerously, leading in the worst cases to such things as insulin resistance and diabetes, eating unrefined carbs is good for you. The fiber in the grain slows down the digestion of the sugars and provides essential nutrients.
So ... what to do?
Buying true whole-grain bread is nigh impossible, I've found, especially if one is simultaneously trying to avoid trans fats. And you practically have to be a lawyer and chemist to understand the labels. Often there's simply no way to be sure that you're getting unadulterated flour. Most likely, you're not.
The result is that I decided to try baking my own bread. The first thing I did was to buy The Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book, which deals exclusively with whole grains. After reading up on the topic, I went searching for whole-grain flours.
There are some whole meal flours to be found even in the supermarket. At my local Kroger (but not at the Farmer Jack) I can find King Arthur whole meal flour. Note the term: whole meal, not whole wheat. Arrowhead Mills also offers whole meal flour. Otherwise, get thee to a Whole Foods store, a supermarket with a good supply of health foods, or a health food store if you want whole meal flour (our Kroger does have a decent health foods section with lots of whole grain products; unfortunately, the flours tend to come in small packages at hefty prices).
So I've been experimenting with bread-baking for the past couple of months. I'd like to get into a regular habit of baking the bread we eat; I'm getting there, but I'm not quite there. I haven't had a perfect loaf yet, although I've baked close to a dozen loaves. We aren't big bread-eaters, but I'm hoping to change that with whole-grain breads. My spouse and I got used to avoiding bread because of the "bad carbs" thing, and it's taking time to break that habit.
In addition to getting the benefits of whole-grain flour, baking your own bread allows you to boost the protein content, something that can be important for vegetarians. Adding mashed cooked beans, dried-bean flours, powdered milk, or vital wheat gluten to a recipe can significantly increase a bread's contributions to one's daily diet.
I've stuck so far to kneading the loaves by hand, which takes about 20 to 25 minutes for a two-loaf recipe. I could pop the ingredients into the food processor, but since whole-meal flours behave differently than white flours, I figured I needed to "get to know the dough," that is, be able to understand the changes the dough goes through during the kneading process, and what it looks and feels like after sufficient kneading. There's a side benefit to kneading: your muscles get a workout! The morning after my first attempt at a two-loaf recipe, I wondered why my abdominal muscles felt sore. I finally realized that the only thing that could account for it was the kneading. And of course the upper arms feel it, too.
I have a bread machine, but I don't care for it. I would rather knead and shape the loaves by hand. The process of making bread, as Laurel's Kitchen has you do it, requires two risings plus a third rising in the pan, called proofing. It's something to do when your presence in the house is required anyway. I did find one recipe with quicker rising times that can be put together if time available is not extensive, and it was excellent.
Recently I tried a recipe that included whole-meal rye flour, and it
was delicious. Rye is tricky to work with, so the book tells me, so I
started with a recipe that included just a little rye. Still, the rye
flavor was unmistakable. I've also made cornbread with whole cornmeal, and the taste is incomparable.
If I can prove to myself that I can bake all the bread necessary for our daily use, then I'm going to go one step further and buy a grain mill. Yes, doesn't that sound loony?? But--if I stick with the baking--I'm going to do it. I'll be able to buy whole wheat and rye berries and grind them as needed, as well as seeds, dried beans, and dried corn. I won't have to worry about rancid flour, and I'll know that I'm eating organic grains with none of the nutrients stripped away by processing.
Since I've cut out trans fats, paid more attention to my intake of fruits and veggies, and made whole grains a key food (including bulghur, steel-cut oats, brown rice, buckwheat groats, etc.), I've lost weight without trying, about ten pounds in the past few months. I didn't set out to do it; it just happened. I wouldn't mind if it kept on happening, either!
Meanwhile, I'll continue to try to perfect my baking, enjoying every moment of it. There's so much to learn--and so much good (and healthy) eating ahead.