what's up with wheat?
There is a huge misunderstanding that bread and gluten make people sick. This need not be true except for the small percentage of people with celiac disease. What makes people sick is what humans have done to bread and gluten. As the title of my blog, What's Up with Wheat?, suggests, I've been working to identify what's happening to a food that was once known as the staff of life. One thing I know for sure is that we can't point to just one reason. Through years of research and farming I've come to understand that, in fact, there are many reasons, a constellation of farming, milling and baking practices, that cause people to feel sick after eating wheat products. Yet this need not be the case. We can once again have good, healthy bread though proper farming, milling and baking practices.
I found an excellent interview by Food Tank with Andrew Whitley which succinctly describes the problems with bread. Below is an excerpt. Click here to read the entire interview and check out his campaign website. It's chock-full of resources such as getting started with sourdough.
Food Tank (FT): Can you tell us a little bit more about how you started your career from running one of UK's first organic, artisan bakeries to cofounding the Real Bread Campaign and your research into nutrition and digestion?
Andrew Whitley (AW): In 2002, I left the Village Bakery Melmerby—which I started in 1976—to do a Masters in Food Policy at City University, London, under Tim Lang, the creator of the concept of "ecological public health." At the same time, I was invited to write a book about bread. These two assignments enabled me to research the changes in our wheat and bread that my former customers told me seemed to be causing gastro-intestinal complaints and a widespread revulsion from industrial loaves. My book suggested that the systematic (though legal) adulteration of industrial bread with additives and processing aids and a radical reduction in fermentation time, coupled with half a century of green revolution plant breeding for higher yields under intensive farming, might have made the bread most people eat less digestible and nutritious than it once was or could be. The public reaction to my book was, "let’s do something about this," and in 2008, my idea for a Real Bread Campaign was realised by Sustain, the UK campaign for better food and farming.
FT: What are some of the most important aspects of how modern farming and industrial baking have affected the quality of bread and what role long fermentation plays in this process?
AW: There is evidence that modern high-yielding wheat varieties can express more of certain protein epitopes (e.g. alpha- and gamma-gliadins and some high molecular weight glutenin sub-units) that are implicated in wheat and gluten intolerance and coeliac disease. High-input farming doesn’t help. One study showed how a routine practice in chemical farming—the late application of soluble nitrogen to wheat to boost its protein—can double the expression of omega-5 gliadin, a protein implicated in widely-reported allergic reactions.
Alongside such changes in wheat and genotype-environment effects, there has been a general reduction in mineral density. In simple terms, to get sufficient amounts of the important minerals such as iron, zinc, and magnesium that wheat contains, people have to eat more slices of bread than they used to—which isn’t great for weight control. Those minerals are located mainly in the bran layers of wheat, so industrial refining of flour removes most of them. Worst of all, almost all bread is now made from "no-time" dough. The clue is in the name: additives and high energy input have replaced time, preventing the slow maturation of dough that is essential to make minerals and other nutrients plentifully available and to aid digestibility. If you mix flour and water and wait a while, you get a spontaneous fermentation of natural yeasts and beneficial bacteria—what we call sourdough. This was how all bread was raised until concentrated yeast hit the market. All the evidence suggests that this process produces the tastiest, most nutritious, and digestible bread. But there are no shortcuts. Sourdough is a process, not an additive, and it takes time to work its wonders.
FT: Building a local grain economy is one of the objectives at your Bread Matters agroforestry farm in the Scottish Borders, where you live with your wife, Veronica. Can you expand some more on other activities at Bread Matters, such as teaching community baking courses and cooperation with other bakeries in the UK and Scotland?
AW: We’re keen to help people take bread into their own hands at various levels. That means passing on the skills required as well as responding to a growing feeling that real bread makers must take responsibility for more than just what happens in the bake house, for example, by seeking out more nutritious grains or by seeing customers as fellow members of the community with a right to be nourished appropriately. I suppose our approach is a fermentative one, in that we share ideas, practices, and materials in the expectation that these will multiply and flourish like the diverse micro-organisms in a healthy sourdough. So, apart from ordinary baking courses for amateurs and budding pros, we run "sourdough exchanges" where young people work on the farm for a few days in exchange for training in how to bake with naturally fermented grains. We’ve started a Fungal Network that links everyone who uses and shares our sourdough. Like the mycelium and mycorrhizae in the soil, this is an underground web for communication and mutual nourishment—and it’s open to all who love bread, the world over.