Could this be the worst thing since sliced bread? According to two new studies from China and Australia, ultra-processed food is at the root of much of our ill health – with the highest consumers 24 per cent more likely to suffer heart attacks and strokes, and 39 per cent more likely to develop high blood pressure.
Britain and the US are the world’s biggest consumers of ultra-processed food, with more than half our daily calories coming from inside plastic packaging.
In a dismaying twist, researchers are now labelling bread – the backbone of the British diet – as an ultra-processed food, or UPF. This means it has been industrially manipulated to be a long way from the initial raw ingredients, and generally contains additives including preservatives, emulsifiers and stabilisers – which you couldn’t buy in your local supermarket.
More than eight in 10 loaves we buy come from the supermarket, sliced and in a plastic bag – packaging which in itself is significant according to Dr Chris van Tulleken, the author of Ultra-Processed People: the Science Behind Food that isn’t Food. Van Tulleken defines UPF as, “products wrapped in plastic which contain at least one additive you don’t find in a domestic kitchen” – which, on the surface of it, includes our humble supermarket loaf.
Not all bread counts as UPF. A loaf containing just flour, salt, and yeast is simply “processed” and processed food isn’t a problem. Many of the expensive sourdoughs fit into this category.
The reality is, however, most of us don’t want to shell out a fiver for our daily bread, nor can we afford it. So what does this mean for the rest of us, who’ve spent decades buying brown bread, assuming it to be the healthy choice?
Should we be avoiding the sliced loaf altogether? Absolutely not, says dietitian Clare Thornton-Wood of the British Dietetic Association. While she agrees that freshly made food is better, in the end, it’s all about balance. “Bread is good for you,” she says. “It’s a source of fibre, calcium and B vitamins.
A wholemeal sourdough might be a great choice, if possible, but otherwise go for something that’s got a variety of grains and maybe some seeds for added nutrients and fibre.” So how does your regular supermarket loaf measure up?
See below, to find out:
1) Sainsbury’s Soft Multiseed Farmhouse Wholemeal Bread
Flavour: There’s a decent bounce to this and a nutty flavour, plus crunch to the seeds.
Health: It contains palm oil, which is contentious but sustainable, and ascorbic acid (vitamin C). Otherwise, no nasties, and an excellent 4.1g fibre per slice. There are lots of seeds too – 14 per cent and four different kinds.
2) Tesco Wholemeal Bread
Flavour: Not much bounce, and a faintly gritty texture. Tastes of nothing at all.
Health: It’s got Mono- and Diacetyl Tartaric Acid Esters of Mono- and Diglycerides of Fatty Acids, and a preservative, Calcium Propionate, in, but not Palm oil. Only 2.5g fibre.
3) Tesco Finest Wholemeal Seeds and Grains
Flavour: Less bouncy than Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference loaf at the same price and delivers a smaller slice. Tastes a bit worthy – like eating bran.
Health: Includes additives such as diglycerides of fatty acids and calcium propionate, which at this price, I’d hope to do without. Plus it’s only 2.8g fibre per slice.
4) Kingsmill Tasty Wholemeal
Flavour: A pleasant smell and a nice malty edge to the flavour. I’d like a bit more texture, but it’s got a very good spring.
Health: Contains emulsifier and preservative and only provides 2.5g fibre per slice.
5) Hovis Tasty Wholemeal
Flavour: Smells a bit rancid and the flavour is weird too. Doesn’t have a great spring either.
Health: Contains preservatives and emulsifiers, along with 2.7g fibre - I’d like to see more, particularly as the flavour’s not great.
6) Sainsbury’s Medium Wholemeal
Flavour: Very pappy, stodgy stuff, with a faintly caramel flavour.
Health: contains mono- and diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids, Calcium propionate, and
palm oil – so definitely a UPF loaf.
7) Sainsbury’s Stamford Street Co Medium Wholemeal
Flavour: Pale looking and rather dry texture. Tastes of very little, bar a faint nuttiness.
Health: Also contains mono and diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids, calcium propionate and palm oil. It’s slightly lower in fat and protein, but higher in carbohydrate than the standard Sainsbury’s version.
8) Vogel’s Soya and Linseed Loaf
Flavour: Actually a white bread, speckled with seeds, it’s got a decent bounce and it’s not dry. The flavour is mildly seedy – I’d like more.
Health: It’s 21 per cent grains and seeds (wheat, soya, linseed) so quite a small range and 2.8g of fibre per slice. Nothing scary in the ingredients list though.
9) Co-op Wholemeal Toastie
Flavour: Good bounce and a nice deep brown colour. Tastes sweet and malty.
Health: Contains emulsifiers, palm fat and calcium propionate, but the fibre content is high at 3.5g a slice, without tasting worthy.
10) Waitrose Organic Seeded Half Bloomer
Flavour: Good and bouncy with the most intensely seeded flavour of the lot – plus it isn’t too hard or gritty.
Health: Five kinds of seeds (19 per cent) and no problematic ingredients at all.
11) Waitrose Wholemeal Farmhouse
Flavour: Reddish gold color with a good springy texture and a faint toasty flavour. Unexceptional
Health: Contains emulsifiers but no palm oil or preservative. However, slightly lower in fibre than most at 2.4g per slice.
12) Coop Irresistible Super Seeded Farmhouse
Flavour: Interesting, and a good bounce. It may offer a bit too much seed for some but I like it.
Health: Contains six kinds of seeds, which is a great range, and although there are emulsifiers and palm fat, there is no preservative.
13) Marks and Spencer Wholemeal seeded Farmhouse
Flavour: Very seedy but a slightly dusty flavour, and bit gritty in texture.
Health: Ten types of seeds and grains, which makes up 13 per cent of the ingredients. Contains palm oil and no preservative. The emulsifier is rapeseed lecithin, although the jury is out as to whether that is any better. On the upside, it offers 3.75g fibre per slice.