From wheat to industrial baking process, there are a lot of factors that have changed the way in which we know bread and how it impacts our bodies. Thousands of people have abandoned bread altogether, troubled by bloating, irritable bowels or some apparent intolerance for wheat. And coeliac disease now affects at least one person in hundred, but sensitivity to wheat is detectable in as many as one in five.
So what has happened over the course of the last century that has changed this daily life staple of our parents’ and grandparents’ lives to being one of the most widely talked about and avoided food item in the modern world? One disturbing possibility is that modern farming and industrial baking process produce bread that more and more people cannot and should not eat.
Lets start with the modern wheat. It is not the same wheat that our parents’ and grandparents’ generations knew. Wheat today represents the technological capabilities of agricultural geneticist (which expose us to genetic and biochemical changed introduced into this grass) and is no longer the healthy wholegrain that it used to be. “A typical wheat variety is hexaploid—it has six copies of each gene, where most creatures have two. Its 21 chromosomes contain a massive 16 billion base pairs of DNA, 40 times as much as rice, six times as much as maize and five times as much as people” (Economist, Ears of Plenty, Dec 20th 2005). The resulting 16 billion pairs of DNA allow us to continuously reconfigure the basic material to meet the needs of both agricultural methods and geographical location. Wheat is no longer just wheat, but a product of science: following years of mutation, we have reached the point where wheat’s seeds weigh ten times more than those of its wild ancestor. The plant is now entirely dependent on human care and maintenance and designed to work with the artificial fertilisers and pesticides used in intensive farming.
There are a lot of potential effects years of seed modification may have on the way that wheat interacts with our bodies, but a lot of them are not yet known. Recent research suggests that these new wheat types have fewer minerals and vitamins compared to traditional varieties and, importantly, more of the proteins that cause “leaky gut” type conditions. Another fascinating, and scary, side effects of all the modifications that wheat has gone through – that has generated a lot of debates recently – is to do with the changes in gliadin protein (which is a component of gluten). The gliadin in today’s wheat is a very powerful stimulant of appetite, so much so that the typical person who consumes wheat eats, on average, between 440 and 800 more calories per day. Furthermore, antibodies to gliadin are capable of binding to nervous system tissue and may contribute to neurological impairments and be responsible for allergic responses (Dr William Davis talks about this in a lot of details in his book “Wheat Belly”).
However, it is often not wheat itself that is responsible for the discomfort associated with eating bread, but the industrial bread making process that produces majority of our supermarket loaves. In the old days bread meant something that took time to make. A proper baker’s loaf required leisurely kneading and proving. Bread was a slow, crusty fermented product. In the modern bread, however, one important ingredient is missing – a proper respect for time. And in order to augment what usually happens in the natural lengthy fermentation process, bread is no longer a result of a simple flour, yeast, water and salt combination that develops over time – but a product of lots of chemicals, such as calcium propionate, amylase, chlorine dioxide and L-cysteine hydrochloride that make up for the lack of proper fermentation time.
What has changed bread is the Chorleywood Bread Process (CBP), invented in 1961 and now used to make most industrial bread. While, traditionally, most bread was fermented for many hours and often overnight, the research bakers at Chorleywood discovered that by adding hard fats, extra yeast and a number of chemicals and then mixing at high speed you got a dough that was ready to bake in a fraction of the time it normally took.
An Independent article back in 2006 describes CBP as the process that “produces bread of phenomenal volume and lightness, with great labour efficiency and at low apparent cost. It isn’t promoted by name. You won’t see it mentioned on any labels. But you can’t miss it. From the clammy sides of your chilled wedge sandwich to the flabby roll astride every franchised burger, the stuff is there, with a soft, squishy texture that lasts for many days until the preservatives can hold back the mould no longer” (Independent, The Shocking Truth about Bread, August 2006).
No wander modern bread making has been referred to as the art of ‘making water stand’, and, indeed, majority of supermarket loaves aren’t much more than cotton wool with a crust – white, cheap, filling, light and staying soft for days. For increasing numbers of people, however, it is also inedible.
Not only does the Chorleywood loaf have twice the amount of yeast of a traditional loaf, enzymes, oxidants and other additives are also added. Enzymes are an interesting component to talk about as they are classified as ‘processing aids’ and do not need to be declared on product labels so most people have no idea that their bread contains added enzymes – often derived from substances that are not part of a normal human diet. Manufacturers have developed enzymes with two main objectives: to make dough hold more gas (making lighter bread) and to make bread stay softer for longer after baking. And now the safety of bakery enzymes has been radically challenged by the discovery that the enzyme transglutaminase, used to make dough stretchier in croissants and some breads, may turn part of the wheat protein toxic to people with a severe gluten intolerance.
In summary, what I would like to highlight that while for some it is indeed wheat that causes discomfort and intolerance to wheat-based goods, for many it is the excess of yeast and the absence of fermentation time in modern-day industrial bread-making that doesn’t allow bread to rise and prove naturally. Longer fermentation not only increases vitamins and minerals content and lowers the glycaemic index (GI) of the end product (even when the same flour is used), crucially, it also makes the end product a lot more digestible. A recent study has shown that the lactic-acid bacteria in sourdough helped to ‘pre-digest’ wheat and rye flour, making it less allergenic. Fermenting dough for six hours as opposed to 30 minutes removes around 80% of a potentially carcinogenic substance called acrylamide found in bread crusts, and long yeast fermentations conserve the highest levels of B vitamins in dough.
Quick and Easy Gluten-Free Loaf
1 cup sunflower seeds (sprouted if you can find them)
½ cup flax seed (not ground)
1/2 cup hazelnuts
½ cup dried cranberries or currants
1 ½ cup gluten free rolled oats
2 tbps chia seeds
4 tbsp psyllium husks (don’t skip these as they are key to making the ingredients stick together)
Sprinkling of sea salt / pink Himalayan salt
1 tbsp maple syrup
3 tbps coconut oil (in its liquid form)
1 ½ cups water
Mix all the dry ingredients together in a bowl. Mix water, maple syrup and coconut oil in a jug and add these wet ingredients to the dry ones. Mix thoroughly until the dough becomes sticky. Transfer to a silicone loaf pan and press densely. Now the key thing is to let the dough sit so that all the ingredients have a chance to bind together. I usually prepare the mix in the morning and let it rest for a day, before baking the loaf in the evening.
Once rested, bake in pre-heated oven (175 degrees C) for an hour. Remove from the oven and take the break loaf out of the silicone pan and let it rest and cool down until its completely cool. Not only will it make it easier to slice, but I also find that the texture and flavours improve if you let it rest overnight once baked.
Great eaten as is spread with coconut butter. Or can be toasted to make an even more delicious treat.