There are few issues in the world of nutrition today that elicits as much opinion and emotion as whether or not to eat bread. Bread, once revered as the creator of life itself (“the bread of life”), is now considered by some to be responsible for all manner of health conditions from digestive disorders and obesity to autism and even schizophrenia. I was diagnosed with gluten sensitivity about 6 years ago and have been living basically wheat free ever since. So, I thought it would be interesting to see what would happen if I baked and ate bread using a sourdough starter and an old world recipe. Maybe gluten sensitivity is related to modern commercial production of bread and not the wheat itself.
Before I describe my experiment, a little about the wheat controversy. Gluten is a combination of proteins found in wheat and other grasses such as barley and rye (yes, grass). Gluten is the substance that makes wheat so useful from the standpoint of the baker. It allows dough to stretch and rise and fill with air pockets as yeast fermentation takes hold. It is difficult to achieve these characteristic qualities without gluten which explains why gluten-free baking is generally unsatisfying.
I am not going to attempt to address the entirety of the issue here but it is important to hit on the two major concerns related to eating wheat and gluten. First, we humans have a lot difficulty digesting gluten in modern wheat (the wheat we eat today is much different than that of our ancestors). Especially considering the volume of wheat consumed in today’s hyper-processed American diet, these undigested proteins are floating around wreaking all kinds of havoc on the body. For example, many digestive disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome may be related to gluten but also common concerns today such as inflammation and brain fog.
The second point of concern is related to how wheat contributes to weight gain in the body. In fact, wheat has a higher glycemic index (a measurement of how much a particular food increases sugar in the blood) than table sugar. When you eat wheat, the carbohydrate is converted rapidly into glucose and absorbed into the bloodstream. Next, insulin increases and converts the glucose into fat. At least part of the concern here is the volume of wheat many people eat. People eat bagels and doughnuts in the morning, sandwich bread for lunch, pasta in the evening, and the endless processed snacks we crack open for energy between meals. The more we eat wheat, the more insulin our body requires resulting ultimately in a condition ripe for diabetes.
OK, so no wheat then Mr. Health Coach? Well maybe or maybe not. I mean, humans have been eating bread for more than 6,000 years so how bad can it be? The truth is that the production of wheat and of bread has changed dramatically during the last 100 years and even more so recently. Bread, traditionally, has three ingredients: flour, water and a sourdough starter to create fermentation. Today, unfortunately, there are many more mysterious ingredients in the bread we eat. Wonder white bread, for example, contains 25 or more ingredients including high fructose corn syrup, monoglyceride, calcium propionate, sodium stearol lactylate and many more. Do we really need to be eating this stuff? Something is definitely wrong here.
I doubt you even need me to point out the other side of this argument. If you have ever smelled and tasted fresh baked bread you know how alluring the draw of this ancient food can be. There is something about fresh bread that speaks to us as human beings. Maybe 6,000 years of eating and baking bread has gotten into our DNA because it does seem to almost call to us. For me, it is not enough to say we are simply craving sugar here; there is definitely something else going on. Additionally, although wheat does not contain nearly the nutrient bang for the buck as many veggies, it is still loaded with a good array of vitamins and minerals.
Michael Pollan, journalist and advocate for traditional food, remains a steadfast proponent of bread. His book and Netflix documentary, “Cooked”, addresses his love of bread and belief that it can still be a healthful and inspirational source of food. Pollan makes the case that wheat gluten can be broken down and digested if it is baked using a traditional sourdough culture rather than the commercial yeast common today.
Although sourdough is often thought of as a style of bread it is really just the traditional method of fermenting bread to gain the rise we all love so much. A sourdough culture is simply flour and water with naturally occurring yeast and bacteria. So, what happens when a gluten sensitive person (myself) decides to develop his own sourdough culture and bake whole grain bread using a traditional recipe?
I decided I would do this experiment the right way. I needed to make my own starter rather than purchase one. I combined flour and water according to directions in Pollan’s book, stirred it vigorously and kept feeding it every day. It’s like owning a pet fish. You feed it every day and then watch hoping for something spectacular to happen. It took several days but eventually wild yeast and bacteria in the air started making their way into the mixture resulting in bubbles and a faint smell of yeast. It took another several days of feedings until the starter really looked active and ready to go. Below is a picture of my sourdough starter grown from my own kitchen (I’m quite proud in case you didn’t pick up on that).
For me, it is essential for any bread I bake to be as healthy as possible. Healthy bread means whole grain and minimal white flour. Fortunately, the recipe Pollan provides in “Cooked” satisfied that requirement perfectly. I used about 25 percent all purpose flour and the rest stone ground whole wheat and rye to bake a traditional French country loaf. I won’t get into the whole process of baking here but suffice it to say that it involves a lot of time. In my case it took about 24 hours from the time I made the leaven until baking late the next day. That said, there is something fantastic about doing something, anything, that slowly and that well. Why do we need to rush through everything? What are we missing? It was almost meditative to concentrate on the various processes of creating this simple loaf of bread.
The end product is represented in the picture at the top of this post. It is not perfect but it tasted fantastic. The crust was a beautiful copper-brown color and plenty chewy. The crumb on the inside was soft, sweet and faintly sour. Taking a bite of the crumb literally made my mouth water. We devoured two loaves of the bread over a few days time. I wanted to make sure I was eating it consistently and had no problem doing so.
I really had no idea how my body would ultimately react to this experiment. The good news is that I had some very definite positive reactions. My digestion, energy level, clarity of thought, appetite, and weight were all either unaffected or positively affected. I was surprised how easily I digested the bread; there was no bloating or constipation as I would have expected. In addition, I would have expected my body to get hungry quicker but the opposite was true. My appetite was actually suppressed for the first time in years. The country loaf is a hearty bread and really filled me up and kept me satisfied for hours.
In addition to the sourdough culture, one possible explanation for the results is simply that whole wheat flours are very hardy. Although whole wheat and rye flours are also high on the glycemic index, they contain numerous nutrients and digest much slower due to the inclusion of the bran and germ in addition to the endosperm (white bread is only the endosperm). On a certain level, I don't really need a scientific explanation. My own body is the laboratory and I will follow where results lead me. Health frequently comes down to eating real food, listening to your own body and trusting your intuition.
All that said, there was some suggestions that there was still a problem. It is common for people with gluten sensitivity to have certain physical triggers that don’t necessarily sound problematic but are an indication of the effect of gluten. Without getting too personal, I did experience some of these triggers but not as intensely as I would normally expect.
In the end, the results were inconclusive. Oh well, I better try again!