Traditionally bread has only four ingredients: flour, yeast, water and salt – but things have changed . . .
Victory for SA consumers
A bit more than a year ago South African consumers successfully lobbied bread manufacturers to stop using the chemical additive azodicarbonamide (ADA) in the bread-baking process. This affected companies like Pioneer Foods, Famous Brands and the in-house bakeries of a number of supermarket chains. (Tiger Brands, the manufacturers of Albany bread said that they did not use ADA.)
ADA is used in bread in miniscule amounts (45 parts per million) as a “flour improver” to make the product whiter and improve the texture. ADA is regarded as safe by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but has been banned in the UK, Australia and most of Europe.
According to the influential American food safety activist, Food Babe, ADA is “the same chemical used to make yoga mats, shoe soles, and other rubbery objects. It’s not supposed to be food or even eaten for that matter...”
This was no small victory for South African consumers and is a significant step in the right direction.
High levels of salt
More recently bread was lambasted by Dr Vash Mungal-Singh, the CEO of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of South Africa (HSF) for being the single highest contributor to the total salt intake of South Africans. "Our bread contains high levels of sodium, in fact much more than many first world countries," Dr Mungal-Singh told Health24.
This is of particular concern as black populations are considered salt sensitive and therefore more at risk of heart disease and stroke.
According to a recent article “a high salt intake contributes to high blood pressure (BP), which is one of the most powerful predictors of stroke and major cardiovascular events including heart attack and heart failure. Other harmful effects of too much salt are that it increases the risk of kidney disease, kidney stones, osteoporosis and possibly even stomach cancer.”
So, apart from ADA and excessive amounts of salt, what other dangers lurk in the average loaf of bread?
Bread made from wheat and rye contains gluten. Gluten is a sticky protein which is largely responsible for giving bread its “elastic” texture.
Unfortunately gluten is also difficult to digest and causes digestive issues in many people, e.g. fatigue, bloating and stomach cramps. In people with coeliac disease gluten causes an inflammatory reaction in the small intestine and leads to impaired nutrient absorption. Coeliacs can react to miniscule amounts of gluten and need to avoid it at all costs.
Genetically modified foods
The African Centre for Biosafety (ACB) is a non-profit organisation, based in Johannesburg and focuses on issues pertaining to genetic engineering. In the interest of keeping the public informed about what goes into the foods we eat, the ACB recently had samples of white bread sold throughout South Africa tested for the presence of GMOs.
The results indicated that the GM content of the samples was found in the added soya flour, and that it ranged from 91.09% (Checkers white bread) to practically none at all (Sasko white bread). Woolworths white bread has a soy flour component of less than 1% of the whole loaf.
Soya flour is added to bread as a “flour improver”. It helps to bleach the flour, makes it more “machinable” and adds to the volume and softness of the bread.
The soya used in bread is in almost all cases genetically engineered. GM crops are altered to include herbicides and insecticides in their make-up. The Monsanto Company, responsible for the development of genetically engineered foods, insists that these toxins are harmless to humans, but if they kill insects, how likely are they to be good for us?
Genetically modified foods are also not required by law to be tested like medicines, which means that we have no idea of the long term effects of these foods have on humans and the environment.
While the South African government's support for GMO foods implies that there are no safety issues, and there are more than 2000 scientifically-peer reviewed studies that show the safety of GM crops – maize, soy bean and cotton – and have resulted in them being approved for commercialisation in South Africa, there is widespread concern about the effects of GM crops on small farmers, the creation of potential superbugs and superweeds and possible contamination of other plants.
A study by a team of biological and social scientists from Ghent University in Belgium (Trends in Plant Science) shows why people choose not to eat GMO foods: “People intuitively interpret gene modification as an unwarranted and contaminating intervention into the essence of an organism, rendering the organism impure and, therefore, no longer consumable."
According to Whitley the traditional British loaf was redesigned in the 1960s: “The flour and yeast were changed and a combination of intense energy and additives completely displaced time in the maturing of dough ... It is white and light and stays soft for days ... For increasing numbers of people, however, it is also inedible.”
Whitley lists even more “unnecessary” ingredients in the bread we eat:
- Fat. Hard fats improve loaf volume, crumb softness and help it to last longer. Hydrogenated and trans fats are thankfully being phased out
- Flour treatment agent. Ascorbic acid can be added. It acts as an oxidant, helping to retain gas in the dough, which makes the loaf rise more.
- Bleach. Chlorine dioxide gas makes white flour whiter.
- Reducing agent. L-cysteine hydrochloride is a naturally occurring amino acid used to create stretchier doughs.
- Emulsifiers enable the dough to hold more gas and therefore grow bigger and make the crumb softer. They also slow down the rate at which the bread goes stale. (A study in Nature has linked the emulsifiers polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulosin in bread to inflammatory bowel disease disease and metabolic syndrome)
- Preservatives. Calcium propionate and vinegar are widely used. Preservatives are needed for prolonged shelf life.
What's the alternative?
If you want to avoid bread, you can go for South Africa's "other starch", i.e. maize or mealies, which is usually eaten as porridge (pap). Pure "mieliepap" is free of additives, but in the 2011/2012 season approximately 72% of all maize seed sold in South Africa was GM.
All is not lost, however, and besides bread and maize there are also starchy staples like potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice and pulses (e.g. lentils and dry beans). And, of course, there is nothing that stops you from baking your own additive-free homemade bread using organic flour.
Image: Loaves of bread from Shutterstock