Is There Hope For The Gluten-Sensitive Bread Lover?

In this article the author, Liza Saturley, discusses the gluten intolerance issue and how it relates to bread. It shows how the use of heirloom varieties of wheat, home (or stone) milling, and natural sourdough starter leavening may offer bread consumption hope to gluten sensitive people.

What is gluten, and why does it cause so much trouble for so many people? And what role does bread play in this growing problem for an estimated 0.5-2.0% of all Americans and Europeans?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. There are two main categories of gluten intolerance: Celiac Disease, and gluten sensitivities. Celiac Disease (CD) is a serious autoimmune condition where upon consuming gluten, the body attacks itself by damaging the villi (tiny finger-like protuberances which aid in absorption of nutrients) of the small intestine. Those with CD cannot consume gluten without a potentially serious negative impact on their health, and there is currently no cure for this disease. Gluten sensitivity is also a real condition, however while its uncomfortable and sometimes disabling symptoms are similar to those of CD, it is not an autoimmune disease and its consequences are not as dire.

Humans have enjoyed consuming wheat and other grains which contain gluten with no significant issues for 10,000 years. Since World War II, however, the number of people diagnosed with Celiac Disease has increased by 400%. Add to that the staggering number of people who suffer from gluten intolerance and one logically wonders, what’s changed? While the scientific community continues their efforts in definitively identifying the specific causes of the dramatic increase in peoples’ difficulty in digesting gluten, there are indications that significant changes from the past half century have likely precipitated today’s gluten sensitivities: how we grow grains; how we mill grains; how we bake bread products; and an increase in the amount of gluten consumed by way of unconventional uses of gluten in a wide array of food products.

How grains are grown

In 1961, high-yield wheat varieties were first introduced by American agronomist Norman Borlaug. His hearty strains benefited from heavy applications of fertilizers and produced large numbers of wheat berries. As his success became known others imitated his efforts, and high-yield wheat was soon grown all over the world. Industrialized farming methods became common, which required wheat varieties to be hardy enough to withstand handling by machinery, transcontinental shipping, and industrial dough mixers. To address these demands of a hardy wheat, wheat varieties were bred to be stronger, which meant stronger glutens. Ancient grains with more fragile glutens were phased out in favor of this stronger and more profitable type of wheat.

“There is good evidence that ancient grains didn’t have anything like the toxicity that current wheat does.” — Dr. Peter Green

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While high-yield wheat has been convenient and profitable, there are nutritional concerns to consider. A whole wheat berry in its natural form contains micronutrients such as iron, zinc, and selenium. However yield and the presence of micronutrients are inversely proportionate: the higher the yield, the lower the amount of micronutrients available for consumption. In place of micronutrients, starches and gluten grow. According to Dr. Peter Green, a gastroenterologist at Columbia University and author of the book Celiac Disease: A Hidden Epidemic, “There is good evidence that ancient grains didn’t have anything like the toxicity that current wheat does.”

How grains are milled

These harder, stronger wheat varieties require an aggressive manner of milling, which takes the form of steel hammers or rollers that pulverize grain berries into flour. To create white flour, the bran and germ of the now powdered berry is separated out, leaving the starchy center for the consumer. The high heat produced by the friction of the steel possibly destroys the germ, the portion of the berry which contains its micronutrients. To create whole wheat flour in industrial milling, bran and germ (but perhaps not the vital components of germ) are added back to the starchy white flour. Some believe reintroducing these components after milling allows flour to maintain its nutritional integrity, however others believe the process compromises the nutritional value of the flour and negates the manner in which whole food components, when left to their own devices, aid the body in digestion.

[Stone-milled] flour is allowed to retain the wheat germ which houses so many of its nutrients, making it a healthier, and possibly a more easily digested flour.

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The traditional method of milling grains is stone milling. Kernels of grain are ground between two stones, and then varying amounts of bran is sifted out to create different grades of flour. Because the variety of wheat berries used are the more delicate ancient grains, and because the heat created by the friction of the stones is minimal, the resulting flour is allowed to retain the wheat germ which houses so many of its nutrients, making it a healthier, and possibly a more easily digested flour.

How bread is baked

Traditionally, bread was baked with natural sourdough starter to make the dough rise. Bacteria and yeasts that exist naturally in the air, in the water, and on grains grow and multiply, creating active live cultures which cause dough to ferment. They feed on grain starches and proteins, one of which is gluten, as well as the sugars contained in grains. These sugars are turned into compounds that our stomachs absorb slowly and with relative ease. As these microbes eat, they leave behind gases and more bacteria which result in enzymes, amino acids, and more than two hundred flavor compounds that are the main elements of sourdough’s complex flavor. Some microbes in sourdough can survive the heat of the oven, causing the resulting bread to be a truly living food, containing more probiotics and other nutrients than uncooked fermented foods such as yogurt and sauerkraut.

2007 study… when wheat bread is thoroughly fermented, it reduces gluten levels from roughly 75,000 ppm to 12, which qualifies it as gluten-free.

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In the mid-late 1800’s, Louis Pasteur identified and isolated a single strain of yeast. This one isolated strain named Saccharomyces Cerevisiae was targeted by Pasteur due to its vigor, and at the turn of the 20th century it was commercially produced in powder form. Baker’s yeast offered a significantly shortened fermentation time which appealed greatly to the mass-production mindset, as well as to the busy homemaker. It being one isolated strain of yeast, in addition to its abbreviated fermentation time, does not allow for complex flavors to develop nor for microbes to break down proteins and starches to facilitate easier digestion and greater nutrition.

A study published in 2007 in “Applied and Environmental Microbiology” purported that when wheat bread is thoroughly fermented, it reduces gluten levels from roughly 75,000 ppm to 12, which qualifies it as gluten-free.

Unconventional uses for gluten

Gluten is used as a binder and texture stabilizer in many foods one might not expect to find it, such as salad dressings and catsup to name just a couple. These hidden sources of gluten make it difficult for one to easily monitor how much gluten they’re consuming on a daily basis. One theory about the increased prevalence of gluten sensitivities is twofold: that the increased exposure to gluten we now experience causes an overload; and that gluten in this isolated form makes it difficult for the body to digest.

Is gluten to be avoided altogether?

The field of gluten intolerance and baking is replete with information and theories, but until the scientific community comes up with hard, indisputable facts, the jury’s still out. That being said, it is conceivable that gluten-containing bread and/or pasta might be accessible and enjoyable to those with gluten intolerances. Anecdotal evidence though it may be, some people with gluten sensitivities claim successful bread and pasta-consuming experiences based on the presence of all nutrients inherent in the grain due to stone milling. Some claim success after eating sourdough bread that has been fermented for long periods of time and therefore benefit from the assistance of natural microbes breaking down gluten. Still others claim their success in consuming gluten-containing food is due to the ancient wheat varieties used (which contain only 2 or 4 sets of chromosomes). The cause of gluten intolerance and bread’s potential role in it is an intriguing mystery, and one which will almost certainly be solved in a matter of time and scientific curiosity.

About the authorLiza Gray Saturley has been a valued member of the Breadtopia team since 2005. She is an accomplished researcher, writer, and home baker.



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