The simple answer is yes. Most breads are vegan friendly. Always check those labels though.
Well-made bread (not the processed kinds found in supermarkets), is traditionally made with a few simple ingredients. Yeast, water, a very small amount of sugar, a healthy fat and flour.
Vegan Yes – But Healthy?
Is bread vegan? Mainly, yes. Is it healthy? Not so much.
It has been known for a long time that refined grains (particularly in the form of white bread) aren’t particularly healthy, beneficial or nutritious for humans.
For the last 20 years doctors, dieticians and nutritionists have advised us to consume whole grains instead.
But are whole grains really any better for us and should bread ever be categorised as healthy?
The Gluten Controversy
Bread is largely made of wheat, and wheat is predominantly made of gluten, which is a type of protein that gives bread it’s stretchy/springy quality.
Over the last 15 years there has been mounting evidence that a growing proportion of the population is particularly sensitive to gluten.
It was generally thought that it was only those with Celiac Disease that experience an immune response to gluten (wheat, barley, rye, spelt). But there is now growing speculation that even those with gluten sensitivity experience a certain amount of immunological damage after consuming wheat products.
There have been a number of controlled trials (study, study) in the last decade that have demonstrated that gluten has the propensity to damage the digestive tract, even in those without Celiac disease. The immunological response can cause symptoms such as tiredness, pain, bloating and irregular bowel movements.
There have also been strong links between gluten sensitivity and certain disorders of the brain. Schizophrenia (study,study) and cerebellar ataxia (study, study), for example.
I always believe there is no smoke without fire. Most bread contains gluten and we know gluten has the propensity to trigger an immune response in certain individuals who have a susceptibility. So if you have unexplained symptoms of tiredness, digestive pains, bloating or even anxiety or depression, then seek medical advice. The only real way to establish whether you have a gluten sensitivity is to remove gluten from your diet for a period of 30 days and then reintroduce foods containing gluten to see if your body reacts (but this should be under the supervision of an experienced professional).
The Toxic Ingredients of Bread
The reality may be that Gluten is actually the lessor of two evils. The real dangers of bread may actually come from some of its unsavoury ingredients:
Artificial Flavours & Colours: Obviously these vary in usage from country to country. Artificial flavours and colours are also normally derived from petroleum. And many of these additives have been linked to health issues in children such as allergies, asthma and hyperactivity.
Preservatives: All foods are supposed to be eaten fresh, and bread is no exception. Steer clear of any breads that contain preservatives. A common one in a lot of countries is calcium propionate. Again, this has been linked to child health problems such as ADHD.
Refined Sugars:This can be an ingredient that is incredibly difficult to spot, even in breads that are marketed as “low sugar” and “healthy”. Some common household breads contain as much as 2-3 grams of sugar per slice. The World Health Organisation advises that we should consume no more than 6 grams a day. There is also the contentious issue in some countries that the sugar used is derived from GMO sugar beets.
Dough Conditioners: In traditional bread making techniques these would never have been used. They have literally been introduced so that manufacturers can speed up the manufacturing process and maximise profit. Many dough conditioners are derived from extracting fat from corn or soybean oil and then manipulating it with other ingredients. Some common examples (and also ones that have been banned) include: sodium stearoyl lactylate, monoglycerides, azodicarbonamide and DATEM.
GMOs: Thankfully these haven’t made their way into the UK yet (but I am sure it’s only a matter of time). A lot of countries (especially the U.S.) use multiple GMO ingredients in the production of household breads. GMO soy flour, corn oil and soybean oil are all common. GMO use is clearly a contentious issue. The issue for me is that there have never been any long term tests on humans that assess the health impacts. And the argument that GMO’s are safer because no pesticides are used is incorrect. Some GMO’s are actually engineered by inserting toxic pesticides into the seed. This then causes the insects stomach to explode when trying to eat the crop.
Nutritional Profile of Bread
Bread is really just empty calories. It contains only low levels of vitamins and minerals. High levels of sugar. Low levels of protein. Often high amounts of unhealthy fats. High amounts of salt. And not much else.
But what about whole grain bread, I hear you cry? Well, it’s not much better I’m afraid.
While whole grains offer slightly more vitamins and minerals than processed grains, whole grain bread will contain higher levels of phytic acid, so it will potentially block any increased nutritional profile.
Is bread vegan? Is bread healthy? It can be. Why not try one of these healthy recipes?
Deliciously Ella: Date & Pecan Loaf
Plant Based Judy: Date & Pecan Loaf
Vegan Corner: Gluten Free Buns
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Last year the media went crazy following a publication in the Annals of Internal Medicine that suggested saturated fats were actually healthy and beneficial for the body (the publication can be found here). The media dangerously suggested that people could, without consequence gorge on as much meat, dairy and eggs as they wanted (articles like this one). The problem with such media hype is that it just fuels confusion amongst an already largely unhealthy public. The headlines misrepresented the findings of the research team and were taken massively out of context. It is abundantly clear from years of conclusive studies that those who promote diets high in saturated fats and suggest that it is healthy are clearly, well….. delusional. You have only got to look at what this type of diet did to the arteries of the godfather of the saturated fat diets, Robert Atkins. He made millions exporting the Atkins diet around the world. Yet at 72 when he died his arteries were riddled with atherosclerosis.
If you cherry pick data then you can paint any picture you want. But to truly derive FACT then you have to look at the totality of research to date.
Missing Data In The Saturated Fat Argument
The study in the Annals of Internal Medicine that was negligently used by many, has some gaping holes in its foundations. The researchers concluded that while there was an increased risk in heart disease from consuming trans-fats (the man-made fats), there was no increased risk associated with saturated fat consumption. What the researchers failed to take into account was other nutrients in their argument. Let me explain. If you reduce the amount of meat, eggs and dairy that you are eating and simply replace these with unhealthy carbohydrates (highly blood sugar spiking) such as white breads and pasta then clearly you will not have a reduction in heart disease risk. This is what happened in the study; they simply removed saturated fats from people’s diets and wrongly concluded that there was no reduction in risk! In reality, we know from years of studies, that if you removed saturated fats from your diet and replaced them with omega-3 and polyunsaturated fats from plant based sources, then you get a massive reduction in risk from a number of chronic diseases. Obviously, leading studies like these (study, study, study, study) aren’t picked up by the media as it doesn’t generate the same sensational headlines that “you can eat as much butter as you want” does.
Meat, Dairy And Eggs Have Never Been Health Foods
Again, study after study has shown that meat, eggs and dairy reduce lifespan and increase your risks for a manner of different diseases. The links between saturated fats and breast cancer are clear. As are the links between saturated fat consumption and its inflammatory effects in the body, including the damage it causes to endothelial cells (the trigger for heart disease). We also know that saturated fats increases insulin resistance in the body (See study, study, study, study, study, study, study).
While I could spend a lot of time discussing only the negative impacts of saturated fat on the body, I am reluctant to for fear of turning the argument into a saturated fat only debate. The issue is far more wide ranging. By this I mean you can’t eat meat, dairy and eggs and only be exposed to saturated fats. These foods contain a myriad of other toxic compounds that cause problems in the body. For example, arachidonic acid found in meats is very inflammatory in the body (study). Both carnitine and choline found in eggs and meat are converted in the gut into inflammatory compounds (study, study, study). Meat cooked at high temperatures releases carcinogens such as hetrocyclic amines that have been shown to cause cancer (study, study, study). Red meats also contain high amounts of heme iron. Heme iron has been shown to exacerbate oxidative stress in the body (a known trigger for cancer growth) (study, study). Then you have problems with the meat, eggs and dairy proteins themselves that are known to increase insulin like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) in the body. Why is this a problem? Well we know that high levels of IGF-1 in the body speeds up tumour growth (study, study). We also know conclusively that those who eat higher amounts of milk and cheese have higher risks for developing both ovarian and prostate cancer (study, study, study) . Red meats also have unquestionable links to increased risks for both strokes and colorectal cancers (study, study).
The True Health Fats – Plant Based
Beyond any questionable doubt both nuts and seeds have been shown to reduce the risks of cardiovascular disease. Be sure to eat these as whole foods rather than consume products that extract their fats and oils, as these are less beneficial in the body. This leading study showed that by consuming 5 or more portions of nuts a week can reduce your cholesterol levels by over a third. The same portion intake was also shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by approximately 35% in another leading study. Again, in order to paint a full picture, you need to take a totality view. By eating these fats from whole food plant based sources you will also expose yourself to other essential nutrients not contained in meat, dairy and eggs. High amounts of fiber, high quantities of antioxidants, high amounts of many different phytochemicals. In additional, some plant based foods also contain the essential fatty acid omega-3 (only found in very small quantities in meat, dairy and eggs) which is massively important in averting heart disease.
What It All Boils Down To
The stark reality of it is that western populations need to dramatically reduce their consumption of animal based products and dramatically increase their intakes of whole plant based foods. I don’t think that anyone would disagree with this statement (unless they are selling a book or diet). I like to think of smoking as a good analogy when analysing the risks of saturated fats and meats. We all know that smoking is bad. You might have a slightly lower risk of cancer by smoking only 3 cigarettes a day, compared to smoking 40 cigarettes a day, but the risk is still substantially higher than a non-smoker. Consumption of meats, eggs and dairy is a similar story. The more you eat them the greater your risks are for all forms of disease. No credible study has ever shown that saturated fats are safe, and if you find a study that claims this then please send it to me, I would love to review it. Intakes of saturated fats from all animal sources should be reduced as much as possible and people should concentrate on increasing intakes of nuts, beans, seeds, legumes and whole grains. Its deplorable that the media, with no health knowledge is able to continually perpetuate these scandalous headlines and in the process cause suffering, worsening of health conditions or even death to people who rely on the media for their nutritional education.