Breaking Bread around the World

Whether it’s naan in India, baguettes in France, tortillas in Mexico or lavash in the Middle East, the breaking of bread brings people together throughout the world.

Bread is a significant symbol in many religions, with numerous nods to it in the Old and New testaments. It even inspires poetry. Omar Khayyám, 11th century Persian mathematician and astronomer, included the well-known verse, “A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou,” in one of his poems.

There also are a number of secular connotations for the word. For example, “bread” (as well as “dough”) is slang for money. A “bread line” refers to people waiting for food from a charitable organization or public agency – akin to today’s soup kitchen or food bank. A person’s “bread and butter” refers to one’s main source of income. The “breaking of bread” means to eat a meal with others. And bread is called the “staff of life” because it’s considered a mainstay of the diet throughout history, all over the world.

Bread is one of mankind’s first “processed” foods. In pre-historic times, a mix of ground grains and water could be cooked on hot stones, making a type of flatbread. Ancient Egyptians are believed to have cultivated wheat and developed a grinding stone called a quern, which crushed grains into coarse flour. The first leavened bread likely happened by accident, when yeast from the air mixed with the combination of flour and water; however, yeast production became a profession in itself in ancient Egypt. Archeological digs have excavated bread ovens and tools, and bread loaves of varying shapes and sizes have been unearthed in tombs and burial sites.

White breads were especially popular among the ancient Romans and Greeks, for whom a lighter color bread indicated higher quality. Over time, milk, eggs and butter were sometimes added to the dough, along with fruit, sweeteners and other ingredients. The art of baking was held in high regard; a representative of the Guild of Bakers held a seat in the Roman Senate.

By the Middle Ages, bread had spread into Asia and the rest of Europe, with different cultures using whichever grains were common in their regions. For example, the Vikings mainly made bread from rye, while China’s steamed breads were often made from rice, sorghum and other indigenous grain flours. Kings and landlords employed staff solely dedicated to baking bread, while poorer people typically brought their dough to a communal oven.

The Industrial Age ushered in the beginning of today’s commercial breads. Mass production of yeast began and Charles Fleischman started selling yeast to bakers, and then to the public, within a few short years. Flour mills appeared in Europe and America, and bread moved from being a homemade product to a commercially produced staple. In 1930, Wonder Bread — that soft, white bread in the famous white package with red, blue and yellow circles — became the first commercially-produced sliced bread. In the 1940s, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin and iron were added to enriched flour and hence, into breads, in a public health campaign to ward off nutrient deficiency diseases such as beriberi and pellagra. In 1998, folic acid was added to the list of required nutrients to enrich commercial breads to help prevent birth defects.

Today, many bread manufacturers are expanding product lines made with gluten-free flours or starches, xanthan gum and emulsifiers to mimic breads containing gluten, while others are exploring reduced-sodium formulas. Consumers are also looking for breads that offer bonus nutrition, such as added fiber, calcium and vitamin D. On the flip side, bread is the No. 1 source of sodium in the American diet. While its per-serving sodium (80 mg to 230 mg per slice) pales in comparison to that of other foods, people tend to eat multiple servings of bread throughout the day.

But while Americans sure o love their bread, research indicates we’re on the pathway to making healthier choices when it comes to navigating the bread aisle. A recent survey indicated that 56 percent of consumers are cutting back on white bread, while more consumers are seeking whole-grain and multi-grain breads. Could bread manufacturing and consumption be coming full circle to its humbler, simpler beginnings?

Do Know Your Loaves?

Despite their different textures, shapes and flavors, breads can generally be classified into three categories: yeast breads, flat breads and quick breads. Here are samples from around the world of each type:

Yeast Breads

Yeast breads use yeast as the leavening agent to help dough rise. Some examples include: brioche (rich French bread); baguette (long, thin loaf French bread with crispy crust); bauernbrot (German sourdough bread); challah (braided Jewish Sabbath bread); cherniy hleb (Russian black bread); kulich (Eastern Orthodox sweet Easter  bread); and pan de jamón (Venezuelan stuffed bread of ham, raisin and olive bread).

Flat Breads
Flat breads are thin and flat breads, as the name implies. Some may be leavened (such as Italian foccacia, Greek pita or Native American frybread, that are cooked in oil), while others do not include a leavening agent of any sort. Examples of other flat breads include: naan (Indian tandoor-baked bread); lavash (Middle Eastern thin flatbread); tortillas (corn or wheat Mexican round flatbread); bammy (Jamaican cassava flatbread); lefse (Norwegian potato flatbread); and matzah (Jewish cracker-type bread).

Quick Breads
These breads do not require kneading or rising time, since a leavening agent (baking powder or baking soda, for example), helps the dough rise quickly when it’s combined with a liquid. Eggs may also help leaven quick breads. Examples of quick breads include popovers (American version of the English Yorkshire pudding that is a hollow, light and airy roll); buttermilk biscuits (Southern American favorite that uses buttermilk); soda bread (Irish soda-leavened bread); cornbread (American quick bread that contains corn meal. Other variations include Johnnycakes, corn pone and hushpuppies); and Boston brown bread (early American steamed bread traditionally baked in a can and sweetened with molasses).

Kerry Neville
Kerry Neville, MS, RD, helps commodity boards and better-for-you food companies translate the science of nutrition into the good food that people eat.