Health freaks will tell you that whole-wheat bread is better than anything made with refined flour. This concept is still resisted at an intuitive level by most Indian bakers because
a) Indians are brought up to think of maida as sophisticated and atta as downmarket and,
b) the baker’s craft is founded on a bed of refined flour. You need maida to bake cakes, pastries, pies, etc.
So, until recently, it was difficult to get genuine whole-wheat bread at many places in India. When we use the term ‘brown bread’, we refer to whole-wheat bread which lacks the whiteness of maida bread. There is a scientific reason for this. Wheat contains cerealine, which gives natural wheat products (ie. our chapatis at home) a brownish colour. When we refine flour to create maida, not only is the cerealine lost but the finished flour is often bleached so that it acquires a white colour.
Unfortunately, many Indian bakers took ‘brown’ literally. They would make their bread from maida and then use caramel to artificially colour it so that it looked brown. (Bakers defend themselves saying that caramel is a natural ingredient and therefore not artificial). So much of the so-called brown bread that used to be sold in India was actually white bread made from maida that had been given a brown colour.
Why did bakers do it? The usual reasons (the sense that maida is more upmarket than atta and the bakers’ love of refined flour) plus one very practical one: it is easier to make bread from maida than from Indian atta.
In recent years, bakers have been forced to make real brown bread but many still cheat, mixing maida with atta on the grounds that the gluten content of Indian atta is not right. Now, fancy hotels import their brown-bread flour to get around this objection.
What should you, the consumer, do? Well, it is up to you. I actually prefer the taste of brown bread to most commercial white breads and the health benefits are undeniable. But if you can’t necessarily taste the difference, here’s a simple test: squeeze the slice of bread. If it seems springy, it has maida in it. If it has no spring to the touch, then it is probably really whole-wheat flour.
Vir Sanghvi is India's best-known food writer and TV host. His book, Rude Food won the Cointreau Award for Best Food Literature book in the world and his food and travel shows on channels such as TLC and NDTV Good Times have won numerous awards and continue to be watched by millions.