Wholemeal bread, and how to improve its quality

Wholemeal bread, and how to improve its quality

After discussing wholemeal flours in our last entry, today we’ll talk about wholemeal bread, its advantages, and its challenges. Like all our blog posts, I aim for them to be comprehensive but not excessively lengthy. For this reason, I’ll be including some links to more extensive works, in case you want to delve deeper into any of the points.

Nutritional aspects

Today, the benefits of increased consumption of whole grain products are undeniable. This higher consumption has been linked to a lower risk of chronic diseases such as certain types of cancer, type 2 diabetes, or cardiovascular diseases. The consumption of whole grain products has also been associated with a lower risk of constipation and with the reduction of obesity problems, although this latter effect is not as clear. All these advantages of consuming whole grain products are based on their higher fibre content, but also on the presence of certain minor substances such as vitamins, minerals, and bioactive compounds, such as some antioxidants. You can find more information on the nutritional advantages of consuming whole grain products in this review by Aune and colleagues from 2017. But perhaps the publication that has most clearly demonstrated the advantages of consuming whole grain products is this one from The Lancet, where it is stated that increased consumption of whole grain products may be the most effective nutritional measure, along with reducing sodium in the diet, to reduce mortality in individuals. Something that according to this other study is closely related to the need for increased fibre consumption.

Unfortunately, despite the clear evidence of the advantages of consuming wholemeal bread and other whole grain products, their consumption remains low. In this analysis, carried out in Australia, you can see some of the reasons for this low consumption. In addition to lower organoleptic quality, it seems that lower nutritional education of individuals, and the lower variety and availability of these products, as well as their limited promotion and information highlighting these advantages, are part of the reasons for this lower consumption. Another existing problem is the bad press that the consumption of bread and other flour-based products has had in recent years. In fact, in some countries, there is a clear trend towards low-carbohydrate diets. These types of diets are not fully substantiated, and most nutritional recommendations worldwide indicate that the basis of our diet should be carbohydrates. Some nutritionists demonize white bread, but overly praise wholemeal bread. These assertions are very dangerous and can lead to less than ideal consumption habits. While increasing the consumption of whole grain products is highly desirable, the composition of whole grain flour is identical to that of white flour by 75%. Therefore, it is not fair to label one product (white bread) as the demon and another as the healthiest in the world.

In order to improve the information on the packaging of these products, some countries have approved some health claims, indicating that diets with high levels of whole grain product consumption can reduce the risk of certain types of cancer, type 2 diabetes, and/or cardiovascular diseases. This is the case in the United States, for example. In the European Union, there is a problem in promoting these types of claims, as the definition of wholemeal product or bread is not common in all countries. These types of claims are regulated at the European level, so in order to assert that a wholemeal product has certain advantages, it would be necessary to unify the definition of wholemeal product, something that depends on each country. You can find more information on the definition of wholemeal product and possible health claims in this review. For many reasons, it would be convenient to harmonize the definition of bread and wholemeal product throughout Europe and allow actions that promote clear and substantiated information to the consumer. This would encourage greater consumption of wholemeal bread in the population and would have an effect on the overall health of the population, presumably.

My forecast is that, given the worrying increases in health problems in modern societies, partially associated with poor nutritional habits, as well as other factors such as lack of physical exercise, and the healthcare costs associated with these problems, in the coming decades many governments will make efforts and take measures to try to correct this situation. These actions have already begun, but they will surely increase. And one of the protagonists of these actions will be whole grain products. In Spain, one of the first actions taken has been the establishment of a clear definition of what wholemeal bread is, as we will see next.

Regulations in Spain

The quality standard for bread in Spain (link in  Spanish) was modified in 2019. And one of the key points was the definition of wholemeal bread. Up until that moment, wholemeal bread was defined as that which was made with wholemeal flour, but it did not specify how much wholemeal flour was necessary. Therefore, a bread with 99% white flour and 1% wholemeal flour could fit into that definition, depending on interpretation. Additionally, some breads made with blends of white flours and bran were being marketed as wholemeal breads, without specifying the quantities of each. This constituted a violation of the regulations, but it was being allowed. Faced with more informed consumers who were purchasing these products for their nutritional benefits, it was necessary to establish a more precise definition that would give consumers what they were looking for. Thus, today in Spain, in order to label a bread as wholemeal, it must be made exclusively with wholemeal flour (in addition to water, salt, and other ingredients). It may contain wholemeal flour from different grains, but no white flour can be used. To complete these modifications, in 2016 the quality standard for flours was also modified, and the definition of wholemeal flour was precisely defined, as we discussed in our previous entry.

A change in the organoleptic quality of bread always influences its acceptability, and some consumers do not accept 100% wholemeal breads due to their smaller volume, darker colours, drier texture, or more bitter flavours. In those cases, it is possible to market breads with a percentage of wholemeal flour, and the bread denomination will include that percentage. Thus, a bread made with 70% wholemeal flour and 30% white flour will be called 70% wholemeal.

As a result of the regulatory change, a very significant effort has been made to improve the organoleptic quality of wholemeal breads. And in some cases, there is a clear preference for 100% wholemeal breads, ceasing to offer other breads with a lower content of wholemeal flour. I believe it is good to offer consumers this type of bread (100% wholemeal), but I also think it would be good for them to coexist with breads with a lower percentage of wholemeal flour. Changes in dietary habits are difficult, and switching from white bread consumption to wholemeal is difficult if done suddenly. The existence of intermediate options can help facilitate this transformation more gradually. And each consumer will be able to find the bread that satisfies them the most, taking into account both its nutritional and organoleptic quality. But this must always be accompanied by adequate nutritional information and education.

Improving the quality of wholemeal breads

Wholemeal breads often have several problems that reduce acceptability among consumers. On one hand, their smaller volume; on the other, a somewhat drier mouthfeel and slightly harder texture, and finally, a more bitter and peculiar taste, and a darker colour. As in many other cases, people can gradually become accustomed to these characteristics. Thus, individuals who have grown up consuming this type of bread usually find it more appetizing than those who have consumed white bread all their lives. As we have discussed, to make a less abrupt transition, the presence in the market of breads with a certain percentage of wholemeal flour, less than 100%, may be beneficial.

The reason for the smaller volume of these breads is the lack of capacity to expand the dough, and to retain the gas formed during fermentation and baking. This effect is due to the dilution of gluten, by incorporating the outer parts of the grain, and to the micro-breaks in the gluten network caused by bran particles. To partially compensate for this negative effect, stronger flours can be used, reinforcing agents can be added, such as oxidants and emulsifiers like DATEM, or vital gluten can be added. We have already discussed these products on the blog. It will also be necessary to analyse the most suitable hydration for the doughs. A wholemeal dough may require higher hydration due to the greater water absorption capacity of the bran. Finally, we can study how the particle size of the bran affects our formula and processes, or the application of other pretreatments, as we discussed in the previous entry. In my opinion, the volume of bread is overrated, at least in the case of loaves and other pieces baked outside a mold. Thus, if we achieve a bread with good flavour and texture, a slightly smaller volume will not be a serious problem. What happens is that a low volume can be related to a harder crumb texture, and that can be problematic.

To reduce the dryness and hardness of these breads, we can resort to adding an ingredient that provides juiciness. We probably won’t achieve a crispy bread, but rather a pleasant bread with higher acceptability. Within this type of ingredients, one possibility is to incorporate oil. Although fats do not fit well with a careful diet, it is increasingly clear that low-saturated fat oils can be beneficial. Thus, the inclusion of sunflower oil, very common in Spain, or even olive oil, can be beneficial to improve the texture of these breads. In other countries, with a different culinary culture, corn or rapeseed oil can be used, for example. A second option is the incorporation of hydrocolloids with high water absorption capacity, such as xanthan gum or guar gum, or natural products with similar functionality, such as psyllium. These ingredients help retain water during baking, resulting in juicier breads, and with fewer calories (due to higher water and fibre content). In these cases, it is necessary to adjust (increase) the hydration of the doughs, depending on the type and quantity of hydrocolloid used. These hydrocolloids can also contribute to the structure of the dough, improve gas retention during fermentation and baking, and minimize the collapse of the pieces during these phases. Finally, moisture retention in storage is also improved, increasing the shelf life of the breads. But in extreme cases, where storage of more than a week can be achieved, it should be noted that the higher moisture content of these breads can also promote microbial growth.

To improve the flavour of the breads, we can use wholemeal flours from whiter varieties, with lower polyphenol content, which produce products with less bitterness. It is also possible to modify the flavour of the bran with pretreatments, such as some heat treatment or fermentation, but this must be evaluated case by case. The inclusion of oil or some hydrocolloid, and the greater juiciness of the breads, by modifying the mouthfeel, also modifies the perceived flavours. Finally, we can resort to some ingredient with good (and intense) flavour, to try to mask the characteristic flavours of these products.

Lastly, it is worth highlighting the great fit between slow processes with sourdough and wholemeal breads. These processes, in addition to modifying the components of the grain, as they would in the production of white bread, also modify the bran and improve its hydration. These changes can be positive for the organoleptic quality of the final bread, but they also increase the bioavailability of minerals. One of the great advantages of whole grain products is their higher mineral content, but in cereals, many of them are in the form of phytates, which are not assimilated by the body. The longer the fermentation times, the greater the action of the phytases present in the grain, and therefore the greater the release of these minerals, increasing their bioavailability.

To find more information on wholemeal flours, I encourage you to consult the bibliographic review we published in 2020.

Bravo-Nuñez, A., Gutkosky, L.C., Gómez, M. (2020) Understanding whole wheat flour and its effect in breads. A review. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 19:3241-3265. DOI: 10.1111/1541-4337.12625

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