What Is The Reason For Sugar In bread? Is It Essential?

It’s a common misconception that sugar is only used for making food and drinks sweet. While sugar does sweeten the taste of food, it actually holds more functions in bread making than just the flavour of your favourite bread. So why there is sugar in bread? What does sugar do to bread? And, is it essential to include it in a bread recipe? I asked myself the same questions, here’s what I found out!

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Why bread has sugar

Sugar is often included in most types of bread, as it serves a couple of important functions. Some of them are:

Supplies the yeast with food

As yeasts are living organisms, they need food for their metabolism. Because yeast is a small cell, it can only allow small, simple cells to pass its cell wall to be consumed. Sugar, or its scientific name, sucrose, is a disaccharide made by the bonding of two monosaccharides, fructose and glucose. These are small enough to pass through the yeasts cell walls so the yeast can respire and ferment.

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With the addition of sugar, yeast quickly consumes the sugar to release carbon dioxide to make the bread rise. This results in a faster rising of the bread, but there’s more to it than this…

Reduces ethanol production

If sugar and oxygen are freely available, yeast will engage in aerobic respiration to produce C02. But when sugar and oxygen are depleted, the yeast switched from respiration to anaerobic fermentation. As the yeast ferments, it produces ethanol. This largely evaporates during the baking process, yet still perfumes the aroma of the bread.

For a lighter tasting loaf, bakers will ofter knead the dough intensively to incorporate plenty of oxygen and include sugar in the recipe to feed the yeast. This method increases respiration and therefore ethanol production.

Improves texture and sweetness

Not all of the sugar will be consumed by the yeast. The moistened flour will also break down from complex carbohydrates to simpler sugars (mono and disaccharides). This leads to excess sugar which provides sweetness, whilst also improving texture. 

The improvements in texture occur as sugar tenderizes the gluten strands. Sugar builds strong bonds with water molecules which prevents water from being available for the gluten. This leads to shorter strands of gluten which reduces the ability of the dough to stretch. As the dough is not as stretchy, the use of sugar in bread leads to a soft texture in the crumb.

Reduces staling

Sugar retains water which helps baked goods stay moist for longer periods. Not only does it provide moisture, but it also slows down the rate at which water can escape the crumb which again, keeps the bread fresh.

Flavour Enhancer

Who doesn’t love those deliciously sweet brown edges of the bread, right? Well, this browning is largely due to the Maillard reaction. This “enzymic reaction” occurs when proteins are heated in the oven. But the inclusion of sugar in bread dough can cause caramelisation to accelerate as well. This adds more colour and sweeter notes to the crust which will perfume the loaf.

How sugar changes bread dough

Sugar can have a major effect on the dough used in bread. As I’ve said above, it can help improve its texture and colour, as well as prolonging the freshness of the baked goods. But the main role of sugar in the bread dough is to provide food for the yeast.

Sugar isn’t really required for yeast to grow and multiply, as it can convert the starch into flour. However, adding sugar can greatly affect their performance and activity. Adding a small amount of sugar will result in a compact textured breadcrumb, which is great for rolls and dinner bread. While a larger amount of sugar will give a light fluffy texture, just like for cakes and other pastries.

Sugar can also speed up the rise time during the proofing period. But the right amount of sugar that your recipe calls for should always be observed. Having too little or too much sugar can have a negative effect on your dough:

Too little amount of sugar

A dough with too little sugar can slow down yeast activity. Again, yeast feeds on sugar to produce carbon dioxide gas that will make the dough rise. So, if there’s a limited supply of sugar, the rising process is dramatically slowed. This is the case for pizza doughs, where the dough is added with little to no sugar, and yeast activity is slowed by using cool proofing temperatures.

Too much sugar

Adding too much sugar to the dough can also slow down, or worse, inhibit the yeast activity. Sugar absorbs water, so when there is too little water to conduct osmosis, yeast activity must slow.

Usually, a dough is considered to be high in sugar when it contains more than 1/2 cup of sugar for every 4 cups of flour, or above 5% as a bakers percentage of the flour.

Can I skip the sugar in a bread recipe?

Bread can still be made without adding sugar, however removing sugar from the recipe will alter its texture, taste, freshness, and speed of the rise. Without sugar, yeast can still multiply by feeding on the naturally occurring sugar and starches in flour. 

Do I need to add sugar when blooming yeast?

Warm water is necessary when you’re trying to activate active dried yeast. The added sugar that is often recommended by yeast manufactures is for the yeast to consume. It is added to prevent the yeast from running out of food and dying. As the sugar is consumed by the yeast as it blooms, its addition has little impact on the characteristics of the bread.

Do I need to add sugar when using a bread maker?

If the recipe states that you should add sugar, add sugar. Not doing so will impact your timing and could lead to your bread rising too slowly for the baking program. This can cause under-proofed, dense bread, but feel free to experiment by adding more yeast or increasing the length of the rise on your program.

What types of bread are sugar-free?

Bread made with sprouted grains and 100% whole wheat contains more complex sugars alongside higher quantities of fibre. These types of bread are the best low-sugar loaves of bread you can consume. However, some bakeries will include added sugar in their recipe, so always check the labels.

Is activated malt the same as sugar?

Malt is a sweetening agent that’s typically made from barley. It isn’t the same as sugar, but in syrup form, it is a form of sweetener. It has a distinct flavour, and it’s also used for making yeast-leavened baked products. Diastatic malt flour is regularly used as an enzyme accelerator. It increases the rate at which complex starches are broken down into simpler sugars. The use of malt flour is perfect for poor-performing flours and to provide natural sugars in bread (and the benefits the bread will enjoy), without adding extra sugar.

Compared to other sweeteners, malt is considered to be more nutritious. This is why some bakers prefer to use it as an alternative sweetener in making bread.

Malt is available in the form of:

  • Non-diastic malt flour
  • Diastic malt flour
  • Malt extract
  • Malt syrup

Is there a lot of sugar in bread?

The amount of sugar in bread varies by its different types. But most sliced bread contains about 2-4% of sugar content. Most of the sugar found in bread is naturally occurring, and not added. Raw flour contains naturally occurring sugars, with approximately 1.4-2.1g for every 100g of flour yet, as starch gets broken down into simpler sugars, the amount of sugar that will be absorbed when digested is higher.

Flour is made from grains, which are composed mainly of starch, protein, dietary fibre, and various minerals. The amount of sugar in flour depends on the starch and the variety of grain and its growing conditions. 

It’s pretty common nowadays to see sugar as an ingredient in bread. With all of the above benefits of adding sugar, you can see why sugar is used in commercial production. Although, the extra calories and quick production, aren’t good for us!

Is white bread full of sugar?

White bread is a type of food that is high in carbs and low in fibre. As white flour is refined, it contains a lot of carbs. Having this combination can result in higher blood sugar levels. Besides that, health experts don’t advise that we consume a lot of white bread because:

  • It has fewer nutrients compared to other types of bread.
  • It’s digested quickly, and the sugars will enter our bloodstream rapidly and if the energy is not consumed, the unused energy will turn to fat.
  • It doesn’t contain as much fibre as whole wheat bread. This means, your body won’t feel as satisfied as it would if you ate the latter. Fibre is essential for a healthy digestive system and controls blood sugar levels.
  • It often has added sugars, which could lead to weight gain and increased risk of diabetes and heart disease.

It is common for bread to contain small amounts of sugar. However, there are some types of bread that may contain more than you expect. If you want to make sure that you’re eating healthy, always carefully read the nutrition facts on the label.

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  1. It is always fun to read the freely-shared knowledge of what I would term a bread scientist. I’ve certainly spent my fair share of time experimenting on various types of bread trying to understand exactly what does what, why, and how to influence those factors to get a controlled result, and I could never have anywhere near the understanding I have without people like yourself providing the foundational seeds of knowledge as an entry point. While you probably understand bread better than I ever will, I am going to assert with absolute certainty that white bread is nutritionally identical to a bread made with a whole-wheat flour (as can be observed on the nutritional information between two loaves), all other things being equal. The only difference of statistical significance in the composition between the two will be the fiber content. There is no such thing as nutritional fiber, as fiber is not digested, absorbed by the body, or used in any nutritional way. This isn’t to say fiber is not important, as the roughage helps keep our pipes clean, but that isn’t a nutritional function, which is why fiber is referred to as dietary; it is not a nutrient. Therefore, white breads are not less “nutritious.”

    Thanks for the insight on the various ways in which sugar affects bread throughout its production.

  2. Hi Chris! Thanks for your comment, I can definitely clear a few things up, thanks. I’m just someone who likes to spend time researching and writing about bread. Like you, I love to do experiments! Just to add that if the wheatgerm is included in the flour (which it can be in whole wheat flour), there are more health advantages than just the fibre. That was where I was coming from when I wrote this, I’ll clear it up soon.

  3. Thank you for this very informative post. So I am wondering, if a bread is made with a variety of whole grains, is it any more nutritious than a simple whole wheat bread? I love bread. It is a struggle to come up with a recipe for bread using all whole grains and minimal sugar. To top that off, I’m vegan, so I don’t use butter or eggs in my bread either. A simple artisan loaf of bread is fine, yet I can’t get around the fact that it isn’t healthy. Can anyone share their 2 cents worth on the nutrition dilemma? Thanks.

  4. Hey, thank you Coreena! I did some research into whole wheat vs grains topic a while back. Combining them together leads to unedible dense bread, but I think there is an argument to eat a bit of both. Grains contain proteins and vitamins, whereas whole wheat bread is a better source of carbs and high-fibre. Sourdough, especially sourdough made with wholewheat flour is very good for you too. See this post -> https://www.busbysbakery.com/sourdough-vs-whole-wheat/

    Sugar is added to whole wheat bread as it takes a while for the starch to break down into simpler sugars for the yeast. Instead of adding sugar, you can experiment with soaking all or a portion of the whole wheat flour in water for a few hours. This will kick start the breaking down of the starch by hydrolysis.

    Also, I made a cracking loaf last night using a 70:30 ratio of white to whole wheat flour with a poolish, no sugar required!

    There are also dairy replacements you can look into. Things to try include soy flour and vegetable oil which contain lecithin, a popular natural emulsifier flour in eggs.

    Anyway, hopefully, you have a few ideas to look into! Let me know if you want any more resources or have any questions.

  5. I found online (YouTube) a great recipe that has a 60% whole wheat flour portion but it does specify that it must be finely ground and high protein. I did actually find a good flour that fit both those characteristics! Like this article, it instructs that you soak the whole wheat flour in the entirety of the recipe’s liquid amount no less than 4 hours, but best overnight. I actually did it over 2 nights by accident and it made for an amazing loaf without any unpleasant bitterness or acidity.
    Besides the high nutritious value of the loaf, I was pleasantly surprised by how tender the crumb was, how long it stayed fresh (4 days max because my son who’s NOT a health nut loved it too), and it was amazing just plain toasted.
    Others suggested seeds could be added as well as dry fruit, etc. But what I liked most was that I increased the amount of whole wheat flour to 70% and used the tangzhong method to make sure it stayed tender and fresh and it worked. I used the bread flour portion of course, 1:4, flour to water ratio, taking into account ambient humidity, and it worked swimmingly!
    My 2 cents’ worth.

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