Bread – What’s the problem?
In recent years the fitness industry has vilified bread to the point that not one trainer that I know eats it on a regular basis. It is very much viewed as a cheat. But is a food that has been a staple of the human diet in almost all of the developed world really so bad for us? And why is gluten such a problem all on a sudden? It never seemed to be an issue until the last few decades, so what changed?
Gluten genuinely does seem to be the problem. When we eat gluten it stimulates a hormone called Zonulin to be released in the gut. This hormone causes a weakening of the gut and an increase in its permeability. Meaning that particles of food that are not completely digested make it into the bloodstream. This can cause immune activation and inflammation. The inflammatory processes in the gut can also cause chronic inflammation in other areas of the body and even in other bodily systems such as the nervous system. Symptoms can range from bloating and digestive discomfort to severe headaches, rashes and many more, wide-ranging, symptoms.
Note on celiac:
The condition and reaction described above is gluten sensitivity/intolerance and occurs to some degree in pretty much everyone. This is not celiac. Celiac is a full-blown gluten allergy and sufferers have immediate, severe and painful reactions to consumption of even small amounts of gluten. Please do not confuse the two.
So why are so many people feeling the effects of gluten sensitivity or intolerance recently?
The issue is twofold. Firstly there is the issue of the amount of gluten in wheat. Gluten has the happy benefit of making wheat crops more resistant to pests and makes fluffy, light bread. For these two reasons, wheat crops have either been selectively bred or genetically engineered for higher gluten content. The problem is that this has resulted in a far higher gluten content of the wheat-based food we’re consuming.
The second factor is the way in which bread is produced. 100 years ago bread was almost exclusively made very locally, slowly and freshly. With a shelf life of just a day or two. Today commercial bread is made very quickly. By using fast-acting yeasts commercial bakers can prove dough in a matter of hours and churn out many times more loaves than are possible using traditional methods. This drive towards efficiency comes at a great cost, which ultimately leaves far more gluten in the finished product than when made traditionally.
When bread was first created thousands of years ago it was fermented without added yeasts. The yeasts that were in the air reacted naturally and slowly with the dough. The process of proving dough to the point that it was ready to be cooked and eaten took between 24 and 72 hours. During this long fermenting time the microorganisms in the bread would actually break down the gluten, leaving far less remaining in the finished product. So take away this slow breakdown by adding fast-acting yeasts, and add in the high gluten crops and you have a huge difference in the amount of gluten left in the product you’re eating. Add in high consumption of bread and unfermented wheat-based products (like breakfast cereals) and you have the modern gluten problem.
Luckily for us, the old method of making bread is still in use today, it is called sourdough. When made properly sourdough bead is left to ferment for 3 days before cooking and one study has shown the process to leave as little as 12 parts per million of gluten. (Below 20 is legally gluten free). Searching for an artisan baker will probably yield the best results in terms of both quality, methodology and taste. If you live near us in Nottingham you’re lucky enough that we have the Welbeck bakery. An artisan baker that supplies many local delis and cafes including Delilah, where I buy my occasional sourdough loaf. (I have no financial relationship with either)
It may not be suitable for people who are genuinely celiac. But if you generally avoid bread and gluten for sensitivity and intolerance purposes, you may well find that you can consume the occasional piece of properly made sourdough and feel zero reactions.
I’m not advocating a return to toast for breakfast and sandwiches for lunch. I genuinely think that a very low gluten diet is optimal for health even if you do not experience any reactions when eating it. But I also think that there is no problem with occasional consumption of small amounts.
Sourdough also beats most gluten free breads by far in terms of health. Take a quick look at the back of a gluten free bread and most of the ingredients are pretty bad for you. If you’re a non-celiac who is eating gluten-free for health reasons but to do so are consuming potato starch (which is higher on the glycemic index than white flour) and a cocktail of preservatives and additives needed to make the texture, taste and shelf life adequate you really may as well not bother.