Bread, the busy parents’ saviour: a slick of vegemite, a dip of yolky egg, a spread of homemade jam and your small ones are ready for the day.
I’ll bet some industrious mammas and pappas reading this are relaxing with a cup of coffee or herbal tea (depending on how last night went) and the sweet-warm smell of bread baking in the oven. Heaven!
If you are anything like me, though, all your best, bread-making intentions may have slipped further and further down the household list usurped by all dull detritus of daily life!
Take a trip down any Kiwi high street though and you will discover a quiet revolution: billboards advertising Gluten Free and Organic baking are springing up everywhere. From Herne Bay to Haast, we are slowly realising that not every loaf is baked the same.
One of the lynchpins of this quiet revolution is organic baker, Robert Glensor. Having lived on his own organic smallholding since the seventies he has certainly earned his chemical-free stripes. Back in 1996 his organic bread bakery ‘Purebread’ became New Zealand’s first Bio-Gro certified organic bread. “Have you ever had that ‘oooh I feel full feeling’ after a sandwich or two?” he explains. “Highly likely that it is an issue with digesting the food.”
Unlike most commercial bread, Purebread uses only organic flour and a slow fermentation process – basically, how our ancestors have made bread for thousands of years, more on that later. This contrast begins to answer a question which has been spinning round my head for a while now: if we’ve been eating bread for so long (basically since humans ditched the woolly mammoths and took up farming) how can it be so bad for us? It seems that there are two answers for this: the processing, and the pesticides.
Cast your mind back to post-war Britain just before the sixties began to swing. Post-war food rationing is still a raw memory, only ending in1954. Food shortages have profoundly affected the country’s psyche (to this day my British mum’s rationed childhood means she freezes rindy ends of brie in a bid to ‘waste not want not’). As a result, the men in white coats are busy devising food production methods to ensure that the country will never be so reliant on food imports again. So far so good you may think.
It is 1961: The Beatles take on Epstein, Cuba adopts communism and The British Baking Industries Research Association develop the super-quick Chorleywood Bread Process (imaginatively named after their base at Chorleywood). From flour to a sliced loaf in three-and-a-half hours using Britain’s poorer quality domestic wheat that is useless for traditional forms of bread making. Fast-forward to 2011 and this process is now used in 80% of New Zealand’s factory produced bread.
What’s the problem you may ask? It is still bread after all. Well, that depends on your definition of bread. Pressure group The Real Bread Campaign defines bread as a foodstuff which only contains flour, water, yeast, salt and nothing more. The CBP in contrast, relies on a cocktail of additives to mimic the taste and texture of ‘real bread’ and to ensure the mechanised process works. Fancy some palm fat on toast for brekkie? How about a cheese and ham sanga with a dollop of monoglycerides and a soupcon of lipoxygenase enzyme? Delicious.
The main reason though that this super-speedy, super-mechanised form of bread making sets our tummies a-gurgling is that there is no time for friendly bacteria to pre-digest, or ferment, gluten in the wheat flour. Could this be one of the factors in the rise of gluten intolerance? A recent study which compared the blood of 10,000 people from 50 years ago to 10,000 people today found that full-blown celiac disease has increased by a stunning 400 percent. No figures exist on the increase in gluten intolerance as, according to Mark Hyman MD in the Huffington Post, around 99% of people with gluten intolerance aren’t even aware that they have a problem.
Knowledge about the affects of different forms of bread making on human health is not new. Two and a half thousand years ago Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine wrote: “I know, too, that the body is affected differently by bread according to the manner in which it is prepared…. How can anyone who has not considered such matters and come to understand them possibly know anything of the diseases that afflict mankind?”
I’m keen to find out more about traditional bread making so Purebread’s Robert explains the fermentation process to me: “Mix the bread, cover with a tea towel and put into the hot water cupboard overnight. The dough rises and bubbles away allowing the natural enzymes and microorganisms to get working and break down the complex carbohydrates (they digest the gluten and other potentially troublesome grain proteins).
Essentially making the bread much more digestible and in doing so making any nutritional values that may be present, available to our bodies.” A sourdough starter is used to kick start the fermentation process (see the info box). Like so many things in life, it’s clear that nature doesn’t need any ‘help’ from us.
Amazingly, the types of enzymes and microorganisms that thrive naturally on the living wheat grain’s surface are exactly suited to pre-digesting or fermenting wheat flour. Nature has done all the work for us, all we need to do is step back and allow the process.
Sprouting grain is in essence the reverse process to fermenting, with similar benefits. It makes the grain easier to digest and multiplies by many times the available nutrients. I once had a fascinating conversation with a farmer’s market stallholder who claimed that before farming became super-efficient and mechanised, wheat sheaves were often left in the fields for days naturally sprouting in the heat and occasional rainy-damp of summer. This makes sense, and a quick google search suggests it could be true. It is a lovely image: Mother Nature gently sprouting wheat berries with her sun and rain ready for our mills!
So not only did our ancestors eat properly fermented flour, but before that the grain itself had sprouted. In fact, they had a doubly whammy of nutrients in their daily bread, no wonder they loved it so much: Egyptian tomb scenes depict figures processing grain into bread; one of Christianities most famous prayers asked for a daily dose and Lammas Day on August 1st was dedicated to the celebration of bread.
From Ethiopian Injera bread to the Essene’s ancient sprouted bread, worldwide cultures instinctively knew how to render their bread healthy and digestible.
You may have heard of the Safe Food Campaign’s Dirty Dozen, a roll call of pesticide-laden fruit and vegetables. Bread and wheat come in at number five this year. Of a sample size of 232 loaves, 79.3% contained a range of different pesticides, 23 types in all.
In reality, little is really known about the effects of pesticides in our foods. Alison White, author of the Safe Food Campaign, explains: “Many of these pesticides have not been adequately tested to see what effects they may produce, particularly long term ones. The little testing that is carried out does not reflect actual human exposure to a multitude of chemicals, nor does it usually test the most vulnerable – the foetus and young child.”
“We do not know enough about the effects of these chemicals in our food,” she continues. “However, there are various serious long term effects associated with particular pesticides that are found in our food, including endocrine or hormonal disruption, cancer, immune system suppression, nervous system damage, genetic damage and birth defects. We also know that various pesticides used to grow food have damaging effects on wildlife and the ecosystem.”
In 2007 more than 200 international scientists released The Faroes Statement, which argues that foetuses and young children must be protected from the toxic chemicals in their food, which could cause serious disease later in life and even afflict their children and grandchildren.
White expands on the topic saying, “Exposure to pesticides may result in an array of health problems including diabetes, attention deficit disorders, prostate cancer, fertility problems, thyroid disorders and even obesity. If the foetus is exposed to even a minute amount of an endocrine disruptor at a particular time, then growth of critical organs and functions can be skewed. Reducing the exposure of the foetus to organophosphate pesticides, in particular, could reduce the risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.”
An organophosphate insecticide called chlorpyrifos raises particular concerns. According to The Food Safety Campaign, it has recently been found in NZ bread, amongst other non-organic produce including celery, peaches, apricots, apples, pears, mandarins, oranges, raisins, sultanas, grapes and tomatoes. A 2006 study found that babies who were exposed to chlorpyrifos in the womb (detected in the umbilical chord) were more likely to have poor mental and motor development by three years old and an increased likelihood of behavioural problems.
For parents, this makes worrying reading. The clear solution is to buy organic, White’s agrees: “If you buy organic at least the foods listed in the NZ Dirty Dozen, then you will be significantly reducing the pesticide load on your body. This is particularly so for infants and children, as they take in more food in proportion to their body weight than adults do, and they also tend to eat more of the types of food that are heavily sprayed, such as fruit. Indeed, an American study has found that if children eat mostly organic food, then the average amount of organophosphate residues as measured in their urine is nine times lower than those children eating conventional food.”
For some parents though, buying one hundred percent organic food simply isn’t financially viable. If this is the case, it is definitely worth taking White’s advice and researching which foods have the heaviest pesticide load (check out http://www.safefood.org.nz/dirtydoz.htm). Bread is one of them so simply by switching to organic bread you can make a huge reduction in your family’s pesticide intake.
What is sourdough?
Sourdough is a name for a mixture (dough or batter) of water and cereal flour containing a culture of naturally occurring yeasts and lactic acid bacteria. It is often also used to name breads and pancakes made using such a culture.
Yeasts and bacteria are present all around us – for example in the air, soil and water. Those well suited to bread production are found in relatively high populations on the surface of cereal grains, such as wheat. By grinding the grains into flour and providing a suitable environment for these microorganisms to thrive (basically by adding water, maintaining an appropriate temperature, and providing food in the form of more flour) these populations can be increased in size and concentration, where they co-exist in a symbiotic relationship.
Eventually there will be enough yeast cells giving off carbon dioxide as aby-productt of their respiration to make bread rise. The interaction of the yeast and the natural enzymes they secrete will have a beneficial effect on the flavour, texture and aroma of the baked bread.
At the same time, the populations of bacteria will increase. The interaction of these bacteria and the products of their respiration (including lactic and acetic acids) also contribute to the flavour, texture and aroma of the bread. Additional benefits in a genuine sourdough include slowing the staling of the loaf.