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What ever happened to bread anyway?

My doctor, bless her heart, decided that it was "time to do something" about my weight. And in truth, I have to admit she's right. I'm not in prime "Biggest Loser" territory, but I do have some health issues that should be a lot better if there was less of me. So, I'm on a strictly controlled diet. And, believe it or not, while I've been on my diet, I spent a lot of time thinking about food. Especially bread. Good bread. Sourdough bread. MY BREAD.

My doctor told me I'd have to give up carbs for a long time. Rice, potatoes, pasta, bread. I mentioned that bread would be an issue since I'm a baker and teach baking classes. She commented, "We can't digest wheat, and then they blow it up with yeast which just blows you up!"

That's a hard blow for a baker to hear! And made worse since there's so much wrong with it!  But it just made me think. We, as a species, have been eating bread for something like 6,500 to 10,000 years! The average person around 1900 ate more than twice as much bread as we do today. Records from France and Germany indicate consumption of 10 ounces per day was far from uncommon. Yet obesity hasn't been a major issue until the last 50 to 60 years. Without trying to put too fine a point on it, bread consumption has declined steadily as obesity has increased. I have trouble believing that bread has contributed to the current obesity problem. So, what's happened?

I tend to put my deep problems on the back burner and let my subconscious work on them. Or, put another way, I had other things to do. I was at work when Maria, a sympathetic co-worker, dropped by to see how I was doing on my diet. (Quite well, thank you.) At one point, she wondered why obesity was so much ... ahhh ... bigger a problem than it used to be. The question was the catalyst and things that had been loosely connected began to come together for me. I commented that the Second World War was a sea change for the world in almost every way. Before WWII, most people engaged in physical labor. After WWII, fewer and fewer people did, so they burned fewer calories. However, serving sizes have steadily increased. At the same time, we have begun processing our foods in ways that people from an earlier generation could not have imagined. The very nature of our foods has changed. I used to think, "there's no such thing as a bad food, just bad diets." Now, I'm not so sure.

That weekend, I found an interview with Andrew Whitley, the author of "Bread Matters: The State of Modern Bread and a Definitive Guide to Baking Your Own." Andrew talks about why bread just isn't what it used to be, why it has no taste, why it isn't good for you, and why it does aggravate health conditions. Luckily, he offers answers. Answers which bread lovers and slow food aficionados should understand.

The problems start at the seed companies and farms. They are, with good reason, breeding and selecting strains of wheat that produce more wheat per acre. However, the nutritional values of these wheats has declined proportionally with the increase in production. Andrew comments that the seed companies in England don't even mention the nutritional values of the grains intended for human consumption on the product sheets, though it is listed on the product sheets for grains intended for use as animal feed.

The problems are compounded at the miller's. Historically, grain was ground and bolted (or sifted) to remove the coarsest bran. This made nice bread with good taste and nutritional qualities. Now, grain is ground and broken into what millers call "streams" which are different parts of the grain with different characteristics. The different streams are used for different purposes. Several of the streams are recombined to make baking flour. It is worth noting that one stream is used by vitamin companies to extract vitamin e. Flour has a reduced vitamin e content, and as a result the consumer has to buy vitamin e supplements - made from the same grain that made the flour! What's wrong with that picture? The nutritionally denser streams are used to make animal food.

The next problem occurs at the bakery. Historically bread was given long rises. It takes sourdough, the classic leaven, a while to work. Among other things, sourdough acts as a dough conditioner, modifies the proteins in flour so they are more digestible, reduces phytates and increases folic acid levels in the bread. Many of these things happen, though to a lesser degree, with long yeast based rises.

However, since WWII mas market bread has become much more common. To make this bread, dough is mixed at very high speed to incorporate air into the dough. Large amounts of yeast are used - between 3 and 20 times the amount of yeast per loaf that a craft or home baker would use. The bread in a modern bread factory is cooling in the delivery truck about an hour after it was mixed. To allow this high speed processing the baking industry relies on additives to dough that make it more workable. The carcinogenic chemical additives of the 1950's and 1960's have been banned. Instead we are using products derived from fungal growths, called fungal amylases. Since the amylases are destroyed in baking they are considered to be processing aids and do not need to be listed on the labels in most countries.

However, the effects they have are still obvious in the loaf. Bread that remains squishy soft for a month or more. Andrew points out, the amylases have never been tested as a cocktail, that is mixed together the way they are used. Even if one is willing to concede they are safe individually, what happens when they are combined? One of the amylases converts gluten into a form that is especially problematical for celiacs. Is this why we've seen a sudden increase in celiac disease as well as other wheat and gluten intolerance issues?

Along with this, we've seen a decline in bread consumption. Mass market bread just isn't satisfying any more. Many people complain that bread sits heavily in their gut and they don't like the way it makes them feel. And somehow the bakeries seem to think it's the customers fault. I don't know of any other industries that blame their loss of sales on their customers, ignoring fundamental issues with their products. Oh, wait - one just came to mind. Detroit car makers, though they have gotten better.

It is time to educate people about what bread was, and could be again. We need to remind people that bread was once a wholesome, enjoyable food that sustained us for thousands of years, and that it could be again.

Maybe it is time to start an American "Campaign for Real Bread" modeled after the British "Campaign for Real Ale" and the American craft brewing movement.

At the end of the bake, what really scares me is - I can see what's happening to bread, because I understand bread. But, what is happening in other food areas? Areas where I don't even know what to look for? How many formerly wholesome foods have become toxic? Is the rise in food allergies and sensitivities largely because we've been playing with our food in ways far more sinister than anything our mothers feared? Maybe we'd all be better off if the food scientists mothers had let them smear their faces with their food and stuff it into their diapers.

On a personal front, I've been making bread with long rises for a long time. Now I'm looking for bolted flours made from heirloom wheats. Heartland Mills offers one, based on the old "Turkey" wheat variety. I have 20 pounds on order. After the baking test, which will happen after I am off the first phase of the diet, I'll comment on the breads and flour here. I hope to be baking in early August.

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