Bread is a staple in most households these days - toast for breakfast, sandwich for lunch. It is so convenient to buy, relatively cheap and can be teamed with so many toppings! Most bread is made from wheat, with variations (ie. white, brown, wholewheat, added seeds etc) and most people in the western world also consume wheat many times a day in the form of cereal, pasta, pastry, cakes and biscuits.
So what is wrong with this staple food and when is it not particularly good for us?
There are two main reasons:
Our distant ancestors ate no grains (or dairy products) and only started cultivating them 10,000 years ago, so some scientists believe that we have not yet adapted to tolerate them. Wheat has a very high gluten content, including an intestinal irritant called gliadin, that comprises 78% of the total protein in modern wheat. When making bread, the yeast reacts with sugar and gluten is activated to produce a lighter style of loaf. This is good news for baking companies as the costs are much lower, but it is bad news for our intestines! Furthermore, baking wheat increases its ability to react with the gut wall.
Not everyone is sensitive to gluten, but many people are and don’t know it. Some experts believe that as many as 40-60% of the population are intolerant to gluten. If you do consume grains, consider avoiding highly processed grains and stick to whole grains.
For anyone with severe gluten sensitivity (coeliac disease) the villi (tiny protrusions that make up the small intestine) get worn away. Coeliacs need to avoid all gluten or they risk symptoms of inflammation, bloating, fatigue and overall poor health.
The wheat we eat today is very different to what grew in the Bronze Age! And it is highly processed. The refining of modern wheat removes 25 nutrients to turn it into white flour, yet only four - iron, B1, B2 and B3 - are replaced. On average 87% of the vital minerals zinc, chromium and manganese are lost.
Much is made about spelt grain and sourdough bread. What is the big deal?!
As mentioned earlier, the wheat grown now is significantly different to the wheat that would have been grown back when it was first cultivated, And whilst wheat is very common, there are a number of ancient varieties of wheat, most notably spelt, that are considered a ‘healthier’ and safer option for those who otherwise need to avoid wheat and/or gluten.
Spelt (aka 'farro grande') has a lower gluten content, is more water soluble and easier to digest. First cultivated over 9,000 years ago, it is a cousin of modern wheat and is even mentioned in the Bible (book of Ezekiel). It has been a favoured grain for centuries by herbalists and mystics, and was a source of nutrition for the Roman Army - called the 'Marching Grain'!
Sourdough bread is made using a starter dough that harnesses naturally occuring wild yeast to make the bread rise - a fermentation process. The process of soaking grains or flour with an acid (ie lemon juice) encourages the breakdown of phytic acid (which binds to magnesium, calcium and zinc in the intestinal tract and blocks their absorption), improves cooking results as well as creating a more nutritious and easily digested food.
Our ancestors, and virtually all pre-industrialised peoples, soaked or fermented their grains before making them into porridge, cakes, breads and casseroles. For example: in India rice and lentils are fermented for at least two days before they are prepared as idli and dosas; in Africa, coarsely ground corn is soaked overnight before adding it to soups and stews. Ethiopians make their distinctive injera bread by fermenting a grain called teff for several days; and Europeans make slow rise sourdough breads from fermented starters.
The extra nutrients from the spelt flour are made more available via the fermentation process, where naturally occurring lactobacilli and yeast helps produce a more nutritious and more easily digestible bread. Sourdough has a mildly sour taste that is not present in most breads that are made with baker's yeast and has better inherent keeping qualities than other breads, due to the lactic acid produced by the lactobacilli.
Until the breadmaking process was industrialised and commercial yeast became available to speed things up, making bread was a slower process as this excerpt from ‘Not on the Label’ by Felicity Lawrence explains…
“Trays of willow baskets holding balls of sourdough, which were started the day before, go into an old steel oven for another day’s fermenting before baking the following day. Elizabeth pulls from a bucket a lump of baguette dough that has been proving for several hours. It stretches and droops from her hand and then flops onto the counter. She kneads it gently with her knuckles, folds it to pull it back, pushes away, and gives it a quick roll with the heal of her hand. It is springy and soft and although it looks wet it is dry to the touch. Knocking back like this redistributes the gas bubbles produced by the yeast, helps the gluten to develop and sets the yeast going again. Once replaced in tins, the dough starts coming back to life. Then it will be left to prove and rest overnight so that it ferments slowly and acquires the full flavour that comes from the traditionally made loaf”.
Such a wonderful description :)
So the big deal about spelt flour and using it to prepare sourdough bread is that it is a healthier and more nutritious alternative to typical bread made from wheat!
Where do you buy your bread? Make a point next time of looking at the ingredients list and, if you can't pronounce or don't understand all the words, put the product back on the shelf. Find a local market that makes traditional artisan bread from just a few simple whole ingredients, and try some spelt and sourdough bread.
Better still, have a go at making your own.
CHEK Connect (www.chekconnect.com) How to Eat, Move and Be Healthy, Paul Chek.
Changing Habits, Changing Lives – Cyndi O’Meara
The Wellness Guys podcasts
Nourishing Traditions, Sally Fallon
The Art of Fermentation, Sandor Katz
Not on the Label, Felicity Lawrence
A recent post on Instagram by @providencebakery, who were alarmed enough to share the ingredients list from a 12 pack of brioche buns - on sale in a nearby shop - has also prompted me to share this photo. Of French origin, brioche pastry traditionally has a high egg and butter content giving it a rich and tender crumb texture. Of course it also includes flour, yeast, milk and water, but not the dozens of other additives and preservatives contained in the supermarket version - quite shocking!!