On bread (and gluten)

It is not hyperbole to state that wheat is the reason human civilization exists today. As always, Michael Pollan says it best:

“Compared with earlier and simpler methods humans have devised for turning plants and animals into foods – the roasted chunk of meat, say, or pot of stew, either of which an individual or small group can pull off – a loaf of bread implies a whole civilization. It emerges only at the end of a long, complicated process assuming settlement and involving an intricate division of human, plant and even microbial labor. In addition to an agriculture and a culture of milling and baking, the loaf of bread depends on a nonhuman culture as well: it won’t rise without the active contribution of some highly specialized living creatures besides the baker, the miller and the farmer. Few things are as ordinary as a loaf of bread, yet the process by which it is made is extraordinary – and still something of a mystery even to those who study it or practice it every day.”

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Nom nom nom.

That last sentence says it all: it’s ordinary, it’s extraordinary, and it’s a mystery, even when you do it every day. Is it any wonder people refer to baking bread as a religion?

It’s impossible to put into words how much I love good bread. I’d much rather eat bread than just about any dessert. With olive oil, with cheese, perhaps homemade jam or backyard honey, a thick smear of salted butter or just on its own, well-made bread is one of life’s great edible pleasures. Like Mr. Pollan, I particularly adore rustic breads with rugged, crunchy crusts that are thisclose to burned and conceal a “soft, custardy interior.” Many people don’t like this type of bread; they think the outside is cooked too much while the inside isn’t cooked enough. But as we know, one of the many magical pleasures of cooking at home is that you get to make things exactly the way you like them.

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My namesake grandmother’s bread bowl and one of my most treasured possessions.

Before we left on our round-the-world trip, when I was stressed and overwhelmed with all the things that needed to be done, I wrote a short post about baking bread. I honestly think it’s one of life’s most cathartic activities, and when you’re done with your cheap therapy you’re rewarded with a loaf of homemade bread. What I’m trying to understand nowadays is why we’ve so wholeheartedly rejected a truly time-honored and pleasurable task. It seems unreasonable to mourn bread when there are so many other things to mourn in the world right now, yet over the past decade, very few foods have been as maligned as the humble loaf of bread. More accurately, it’s rare that we collectively have found something to vilify on the scale that we’ve vilified wheat.

Humans have been eating wheat for about ten thousand years. Wheat represents one-fifth of all the food consumed worldwide, and it’s also the world’s most important source of non-animal protein. Its production surpasses every other grain, including rice and maize, and it can be grown almost everywhere on the planet. Human civilization as we know it would not exist without wheat and all the agricultural settlement that goes along with its production, processing, storage and conversion into digestible foodstuffs.

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Wheat fields in India.

Gluten is a protein that occurs naturally in wheat as well as other grasses such as rye, triticale and barley. Gluten is one of the primary factors responsible for that amazing chew we get in pizza crusts and breads; softer baked goods, like flaky pie crusts and tender cakes, don’t perform well with high-gluten flours. The type of wheat, i.e. soft spring or hard red winter, determines the amount of gluten in the final flour.

Despite its importance, about 20% of the U.S. avoids gluten; numbers are increasing in the UK, Australia and other Western countries as well. Chefs and other food and nutrition professionals have questioned (both covertly and openly) why everyone has suddenly gone gluten-free. A very small percentage of the population – less than 1%, depending on which sources you choose to believe – has celiac disease, which makes digesting gluten difficult. But it is scientifically impossible for one-fifth of the Western world to suddenly, collectively develop the same allergy or intolerance. It simply can’t happen.

What can happen is for everyone to decide that a gluten-free diet is somehow healthier and – by extension – will help one lose weight with very little effort. People who go gluten-free say they feel better, and that may well be true. If you legitimately feel better eating a gluten-free diet, then by all means, please carry on. But I’d unscientifically attribute “feeling better” to avoiding processed foods, eating more fruits and vegetables and generally being more conscious of your diet, although a gluten-free doughnut is, ultimately, still a doughnut. “Gluten-free” also means profit; sales of gluten-free foods have increased nearly 70% over the past four years, which translates to billions of dollars. The vast majority of gluten-free devotees are middle- to upper-class white women, and savvy food manufacturers know well that there is an enormous amount of money to be made from this market.

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Chocolate stout cake. Yes, please.

Why have we all decided that gluten is making us sick? Some sources believe that GMOs are responsible, although there is no commercially available GMO wheat. (There are, however, escaped volunteer plants in Washington.) Many say it’s because we’ve hybridized our wheat, though we hybridize a lot of plants. And still others claim that it’s because we grind all of the nutrition out of the wheat to produce white flour, which travels better, stays fresher longer and produces the light, fluffy taste and texture that most people prefer. Once the bran and germ are removed and the flour is enriched, they say, we struggle to digest it.

If I had to choose, I’d fall firmly into the third camp, but I simply refuse to acknowledge that good bread is somehow singlehandedly responsible for the Western world’s catastrophic increase in diabetes, heart disease and other lifestyle-related diseases. Bread isn’t the problem; our entire industrialized, inhumane, chemically-drenched food system is the problem. As usual, though, we’ve chosen one villain to attack because to address the actual issue would be tantamount to admitting that our shockingly profitable agricultural fiefdom – based on cheap corn, soy, and animal protein – isn’t working. We somehow selected gluten, an ingredient most people can’t actually define, and decided that it was to blame for all of our health issues. Plain and simple: I disagree.

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Every single culture in the world has some form of bread.

Ever wondered about what is actually in Wonder Bread? I’ve conveniently assembled the ingredient list here for your consideration: unbleached enriched flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, high fructose corn syrup, yeast, contains 2% or less of each of the following: calcium carbonate, soybean oil, wheat gluten, salt, dough conditioners (contains one or more of the following: sodium stearoyl lactylate, calcium stearoyl lactylate, monoglycerides, mono- and diglycerides, azodicarbonamide, enzymes, ascorbic acid), vinegar, monocalcium phosphate, yeast extract, modified corn starch, sucrose, sugar, soy lecithin, cholecalciferol (vitamin d3), soy flour, ammonium sulfate, calcium sulfate, calcium propionate (to retard spoilage).

Do you even know what most of these words mean? Can you buy those ingredients (separately) in your local grocery store to assemble your own homemade version of Wonder Bread? The simplest bread made at home contains four ingredients: flour, salt, yeast and water. No commercial yeast, even, if you’re using a wild starter. Review that ingredient list above once more. I don’t deny that we’re pretty sick, but we cannot logically blame gluten.

10 thoughts on “On bread (and gluten)

  1. It is very interesting that I have several friends who can freely eat wonderful bread in Europe (wheat bread). They, however, have a tough time digesting USA wheat. They now buy Italian wheat flour and have no issues. I’m not sure why but it works for them. Nothing like a French baguette just out of the oven with a big pat of butter…….yum

    Like

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