If you’ve had to switch from regular to gluten-free bread, you’ll be aware of the difference in taste and texture between them. Once you eliminate gluten and wheat, it’s very difficult to replicate the same characteristics as bread made from wheat flour. Even so, gluten-free breads are improving despite challenging specifications. So what exactly is in the gluten-free bread that we eat, and how are bread makers able to substitute these ingredients to make it work?
For a closer look, we checked the nutrition information of two home-brand white sliced loaves and two home-brand GF white sliced loaves from popular Australian supermarkets. We’ve also consulted a 2019 report from a group of scientists who examined the ingredients in 228 GF breads from 12 countries1.
A breakdown of ingredients showed that gluten free bread has seven ‘categories’ of ingredients, all with various roles to play.
Flours and starches
Flours and starches form the structure and volume of bread. A lower-volume bread is heavier and denser than a higher-volume bread. Flours and starches also play an important role in texture and taste quality.
In the non-GF supermarket breads, the top ingredient (listed by weight) is wheat flour. GF breads contain various combinations of modified tapioca starch, rice flour, soy flour and maize starch. A combination produces better texture and volume, rather than using any of these flours and starches would on their own.
Maize starch improves volume, but can cause a dry or crumbly texture. Tapioca starch is good for texture but doesn’t produce the same volume as maize flour. The modified tapioca starch used in GF bread helps retain moisture and improve shelf life – a modification that is required because in its natural form, tapioca starch wouldn’t survive the baking process or frozen storage. Rice flour improves texture but not volume. Soy flour is found in both non-GF breads too, but only as a minor ingredient due to the sometimes unpopular flavour of soy that can influence the taste of bread.
Because GF starches and flours are low in protein compared to wheat flour, protein is added to boost the bread’s nutritional value. Both GF breads contain egg white for added protein, and one also contains soy protein, but still have less protein per 100 grams than the non-GF breads. Egg proteins also help create a fine, uniform texture, and improve cohesion and springiness.
Fats and oils
Fats and oils improve moistness, shelf life, volume and softness. Both our non-GF breads used canola oil, as did one of the GF breads. The other GF loaf used an unspecified vegetable oil. Both GF loaves contain more fat than the non-GF loaves, contributed by the extra vegetable oil content.
‘Hydrocolloids’ act as gluten substitutes to stabilise the bread structure, enhance texture and consistency, and improve moistness. The GF breads we surveyed used a mixture of vegetable gums for this purpose. One also contained psyllium as a gluten substitute with nutritional benefits such as greater fibre content.
Sugars are used to mimic the sugar characteristics and aroma of wheat bread. Both GF loaves list sugar in their top six ingredients, and contain more sugar than the non-GF loaves.
These include raising agents, emulsifiers, preservatives, flavourings and aromas. The non-GF breads contain emulsifiers to strengthen the gluten network.
All four loaves contained similar percentages of iodised salt for flavour enhancement – around 350 to 400 milligrams per 100 grams of bread. However, GF bread slices are heavier than non-GF slices, which means more salt per serving.
They all listed yeast, a natural raising agent, although the GF breads used less. All four also contained vinegar, which assists the yeast, and reduces bread spoilage.
Both non-GF loaves contained thiamine and folic acid, as required by Australian regulation to help combat widespread nutritional deficiencies, particularly among pregnant women. Unfortunately, this regulation does not extend to GF loaves, and as such neither of our supermarket GF loaves were fortified with these important micronutrients.
What does this mean for you?
Now that you have the lowdown on what makes up your gluten-free loaf from the supermarket, it’s pretty apparent that GF bread is nutritionally vastly different from regular loaves. While going for the GF loaf isn’t an option for many people, having a better understanding of what is in your gluten-free substitutes can be a useful tool in helping you to maintain a nutritionally balanced, gluten-free diet.
Author: Nancy, Glutagen
- Roman, Belorio, and Gomez (2019) ‘Gluten-Free Breads: The Gap Between Research and Commercial Reality’ Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, Vol. 18, 2019, 690-702
- Food Safety Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). Retrieved from: www.foodstandards.gov.au
- Choice (Australian consumer advocacy group). “Food additives to avoid”. Published August 2014. Retrieved from: https://www.choice.com.au/food-and-drink/food-warnings-and-safety/food-additives/articles/food-additives-you-should-avoid