There are few foods as maligned as white bread, though our cultural distaste for it has long been cushioned by the belief that it makes you sick and wan. It is processed, after all. Earlier this year, researchers from Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, skeptical about this claim, grouped together 20 random participants, all young and healthy, and subjected them to two weeklong trials of eating of two kinds of bread.
These two varieties came from antipodal universes. One was artisanal, whole wheat sourdough straight from a bakery; the other was achid, the Israeli analog to American Wonder Bread, preservative-laden and mass-manufactured. Participants ate roughly three to four slices of one bread each day for one week, followed by a two week dormancy period in which they ate no bread at all. Then, they did the reverse, eating three to four slices of the other bread.
The results of this study, recently published in Cell, are fascinating: Scientists looked at such variables as glucose levels, fat and cholesterol levels, and levels of essential minerals like calcium and iron. What the team wanted to focus on was how this bread affected these participants’ bodies, testing the reigning belief that white bread damages your body. They concluded there was little difference in the respondents' biological reactions to these two breads on average.
Averages can obscure more granular, individual responses to these foods, though, and that's where these findings get especially compelling: Researchers also zeroed in on the glycemic response, a vital indicator of diabetic risk, of participants two hours after consumption. They discovered that the subjects responded differently to the breads on an individual level. Half saw a spurt in blood sugar after consuming white bread. Others had that same reaction to sourdough.
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The takeaway here isn’t necessarily that no bread is “healthy”; it’s that existing notions of dietary limits are severely limiting. Our bodies are odd, fickle creatures, and imposing understandings of nutrition may call for more specificity and rigor than imposing one-size-fits-all philosophies upon them.
Well, this is the best news I've heard in some time. I was heartsick for white bread when our household abandoned it during my childhood, just around the time it became popular to summarily besmirch white bread. Consider my childhood predispositions towards white bread vindicated. Give it to me.
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.