Bread Can Be Nutritious, But There Are Rules
Modern-day bread is the consequence of shortcuts made at every stage of its production. As a result, the human staple for millennia has now become junk food. It’s low in nutrients, high in energy, easy to eat, cheap to buy, and ubiquitous. Modern bread is also hard to digest and problematic for a burgeoning group of people. The old fashioned, ancient food is none of those things, for a whole host of reasons.
When the soil is rich, and the grains are processed appropriately; the end-product is a world apart from the highly processed, hyper-palatable pap you see on the shelves today. For many, bread can be nutritious if we use the keys, handed down to us by our ancestors to unlock the nutrients inside the grains, and banish their chemical defenses.
Here’s why you may want to make some changes to your daily bread, read on.
Grains in the human diet
Grains, the main ingredient in bread, have been in the human diet for a minimum of 105,000 years, budding in parts of the ‘fertile crescent’, an area spanning the Middle East in which ancient humans flourished. We’ve been milling grains for at least 23,000 years, and storing them before domestication for about 11,300 years. But, the first evidence of bread making was collected by a meticulous archaeologist, sweeping charred bits from around a fireplace that were later dated to 14,000 years old; the oldest bread crumbs in the world.
The archaic flatbread was made from wild einkorn, a type of unadulterated wheat that’s making a comeback as artisan bread in flashy restaurants. Other grains that have traditionally been used to make bread include, rye, spelt (Dinkel), corn, Teff, Kamut, emmer, and many others. Each has its idiosyncrasies, from growing, processing, cooking, to flavour, and nutrient content.
However, one thing they all had in common was how they were carefully processed. You may think ‘processing’ denotes a modern action, but humans have processed grains in low-tech ways, for important reasons, over millennia. Grains of all kinds, to varying degrees, contain defensive chemicals that human digestive tracts are not well equipped to deal with. Collectively, they are known as anti-nutrients.
We don’t need to evolve to eat grains
Herbivores have a digestive system that effectively grinds, soaks, and then ferments grains — pre agriculture these would have been wild — and other plants so they can extract the nutrients effectively. Humans are not herbivores, and so you shouldn’t skip the steps, which amount to predigesting hard to metabolize components using simple tools.
Tool usage has a direct influence on the stresses provoking adaptations and evolution. By predigesting grains in low tech ways, and making them easier to assimilate, our digestive systems have not evolved to perform the same task.
the ‘oysters & corn tortilla’ gang absorbed none of the zinc in the meal.
The basic steps of soaking, sprouting, and fermenting can be performed with just a bowl, some water, and little else. To this day, those with the least possessions ensure these traditions are honoured, when shortcuts are applied, problems arise. When the poorest populations rely on food aid, rather than preparing the foods themselves in traditional ways, a serious nutrient deficiency disease can manifest.
Nutrients & Antinutrients
Grains, when the soil permits, contain diverse B vitamins and minerals. So, if you eat them, you’ll obtain those nutrients, right? Sadly, it’s never that simple. Grains and other plants, including nuts, seeds, and legumes, contain chemicals that help ensure the seed survives to sprout into a plant and prolong their species’ existence. They include phytates, lectins, oxalates, gluten, and others. These troublesome components prevent micronutrients from being absorbed and cause inflammation in some people.
A study by the USDA, in collaboration with the Institute of Central America, demonstrated something quite remarkable about the effects of antinutrients in normal foods. Using blood to evaluate the bioavailability of zinc from oysters, the scientists tested three groups: Oysters only, oysters & corn tortillas, and oysters & black beans. Have a look at the line chart below.
After the test meal, the ‘oysters only’ group measured high for zinc, the level rising straightaway as expected because the shellfish are excellent sources of the critical mineral. The ‘oysters & black beans’ group had reduced levels of zinc absorption, but the ‘oysters & corn tortilla’ gang absorbed none of the zinc in the meal. The researchers also demonstrated a similar, but not as dramatic, effect with white bread in place of corn tortillas.
When corn (maize) was first brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus, after his successful 1492 mission to the Americas, it took off quickly. Corn has a higher yield than the European grains of the time; rye, wheat, and barley. But it carried with it a hidden curse. The Aztec and Mayan civilizations had learnt, probably the hard way, that corn needed processing before eating.
The next logical step was to blame the victims by claiming they were Vampires right up until the 20th Century when scientists discovered the truth and the simple remedy; appropriate food preparation.
The ancient Central Americans had a trick up their sleeves. They used limewater, an alkaline solution, to soak corn overnight before cooking. The limewater breaks down the antinutrients in corn, giving our digestive tracts the ability to extract the nutrients that are, without the preparatory step, locked away and untouchable. Although the ancient people’s couldn’t tell you what the mechanisms were, they knew it was a step not to be missed.
However, those growing the hardy crop in the Dark Ages, Europe, had no idea. Starting centuries before science advanced enough for answers, people were afflicted by a nightmarish disease called Pellagra, see the image below.
The vitamin B3 (niacin) deficiency disease is classified by four ‘Ds’: Dermatitis, diarrhoea, dementia, and finally death, and reached epidemic proportions at times. By 1735, the learned of the time suspected a connection with corn, but couldn’t puzzle it out. After all, the Central Americans ate more corn, but pellagra seemed not to touch them. The next logical step was to blame the victims by claiming they were Vampires right up until the 20th Century when scientists discovered the truth and the simple remedy; appropriate food preparation.
The traditional techniques; sprouting, soaking, fermenting, and cooking, are low-tech ways of processing foods that have been done for millennia and are still taken seriously by traditional cultures, and foodies. Modern science, as ancient wisdom had done with trial and error, has determined how effective these simple techniques are for improving the bioavailability of nutrients within foods, and deactivating the chemicals that do cause real harm to some.
Shortcuts with a sting in the tale
The first major change in processing began when stone mills were replaced with steel ones, in the 1870s. They were faster and more effective at pulverising grains into flour. For the first time, parts of the grains could be separated easily, leaving a pure white flour, finer than anyone had ever seen.
White flour is so devoid of nutrients; it can be kept almost indefinitely and shipped vast distances without being half-eaten by bugs. Intensive production and storage on a huge scale were ushered in. Vast tracks of land, far away from the eventual bakers, were set aside for growing wheat. Within a decade of the introduction of the new steel mill, stone versions were set aside, and the first truly industrialized food was born. White bread became cheap and available to the masses.
Eighty years into the future, starting in the 1950s, wheat went through some dramatic changes and became what we know today as modern, or common wheat. It’s a cross-pollination of naturally evolved grains to produce a ‘dwarf variety’ that now accounts for 99% of the world’s grain. The Nobel laureate, Norman Borlaug developed the stubby, high yield and resilient crop. But it was one just one piece in a farming coup known as the ‘Green Revolution’.
Low tech agriculture became high tech production. Borlaug’s new wheat slotted perfectly with other advances in agricultural technology, from new management strategies to synthetic fertilizers. Grain crops were drenched in chemicals on a scale unseen before; the yields were world-changing. By all accounts, it was a staggering success. Quantity skyrocketed, quality nosedived. Something was missing, the nutrients.
Modern farming techniques have depleted soil of its nutrients. Year on year, fewer nutrients are passed into edible plants. Then take away the most nutrient-dense parts of the grains during milling into white flour, and you have a product so devoid of nourishment that synthetic fortification becomes important to prevent deficiencies. But what about whole grain varieties, surely they have more nutrients?
Whole grain bread does contain more nutrients than white bread, but they cannot be accessed without the predigestion of traditional processing. White bread has fewer antinutrients than wholegrain bread because the bran and germ are milled away to make white flour. But that’s not a reason to choose white over wholegrain bread as I will explain a little later. Modern bread, both whole grain and white, have additional problems.
Modern yeast came into being in the 1860s but didn’t catch on because sourdough starters (the old fashioned way of rising bread) were entrenched and they self perpetuates with a little topping up. However, the convenience eventually cut through the hassle, and bread-making went from taking days, to hours. Hallelujah. Yeast became the modern baker's delight. Loaves were consistently soft, light, and airy like a featherdown duvet.
White bread was advancing hand in hand with the demand for convenience foods; it was perfect for making sandwiches or smearing margarine and Nutella over before rushing out of the door. But, unlike sourdough, baker’s yeast is no key.
Modern yeast helps dough rise at such a rate that the nutrients are not freed from their chemical cages. Antinutrients remain intact, able to play havoc with your digestive system, and for some, don’t they just.
quantity has trumped quality, to the detriment of our health.
Steps not to be missed
Getting bread to rise in the old days was done with the acidic process of fermenting a portion of grain and creating a ‘starter’. This made the bread ‘sourdough’. The enzymatic process effectively breaks down the antinutrients, releasing the vitamins and minerals within the grain. Using a sourdough will give you access to nutrients and deactivate the troublesome components. This is a better option than modern white bread which gives you very few nutrients and lots of calories, a modern phenomenon and something I rail about often.
Another traditional technique is sprouting. The antinutrients within deactivate as the grain begins germinating into a plant, allowing easier access to the nutrients by our basic digestive tracts. Sprouted grains can be made into bread, and have been shown to have less effect on the blood sugar after eating.
Soaking, the first step in sprouting is the most basic of the three processes I have mentioned but is critical depending on the grain and the solution used. Chemicals within the grain are leached into the solution and thrown out after the allotted time is up.
You can still enjoy bread
Obviously, this is not relevant for those with Celiac disease, or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or other grain-based health issues. However, if you experience mild symptoms after eating bread, the following swaps could be a fantastically positive step for you. (Anecdotally, my hands and feet get cold after eating modern wheat. I stopped eating it a decade ago).
The first step I recommend people make is to swap the bread they buy for something that has been unhurriedly, traditionally processed from start to finish. An organic rye or spelt wholegrain, sourdough is a good start. If that’s a step too far, opt for a white wheat (100%) sourdough, it’s not bursting with nutrients, but it’s easier to digest.
Another option is that you try making a traditional sourdough, and or sprouted bread, at home. The hobby is a real art form with clubs and competitions sprouting up all over the place.
If you’re worried about the cost of traditional bread, it is more expensive but worth it for the reasons I have included, try eating half as much and never throw any away. Bread freezes very well in slices that can be popped into a toaster easily.
Modern bread, whether it’s whole grain or white, has broken the rules observed after generations of trial and error; quantity has trumped quality, to the detriment of our health. The shortcuts taken at each step of bread’s production have created a modern product that is a shadow of its former self, containing few nutrients but retaining the antinutrients. A terrible twosome that is turning people away from the staple and may be contributing to chronic inflammatory conditions.
Bread prepared with nutritious grains, traditionally processed is nourishing and healthy, for many. Modern science agrees that the simple processes discussed are valuable, and recent applications are being developed to go some way towards addressing the global problem of nutrient deficiencies.
There are additional problems with modern bread, including certain chemicals, preservatives, dyes, stabilizers, enhancers, etc., but I think many people are aware of these issues.
Don’t expect old fashioned bread to taste like the modern bread you may be used to. Some, especially sprouted grain loaves, are an acquired taste. But, I urge you to try some, I’m sure you’ll find one or two that suit your tastes.
Remember, you’re swapping antinutrients for nutrients, which is a bonus in anyone’s book.