Disclaimer: this will be in no way a complete exposition of bread, bread-making, flour, grains, the wheat "nemesis", or this gluten-free health craze. This will be the first of many brief discussions intended to expose the severely flawed approach to industrialized bread-making (and food-making!) in this country.
Disclaimer Part II: I am not a baker, I don't profess to be a baker, I am just not that savvy. If you are a baker reading this, and you find any of this information to be in error, please let me know! My goal here is to vindicate those bread bakers out there who know what they're doing and who are making nutritionally-sound, delectable, REAL breads. If that's you, let it be known!! And thank you!
Disclaimer Number Three: Yes, unfortunately, you can eat too much bread. You can eat too much of anything. All things in moderation, please, including moderation.
"Bread" is not "bad for you". In fact, "bread" can be a ridiculously nourishing food. And for those endurance athletes among us who aren't afraid of eating carbohydrates, "bread" can be an insanely powerful food to get you through those silly miles.
So, for starters, pun intended, let's talk about starters. What four ingredients do you need to make bread? Water, flour, yeast, and salt. Do you know what most industrialized bakeries use for yeast?
Packaged yeast. What is that stuff? I'll admit, I've used it before. Yeah, you have to activate it first with a little warm water and sugar, and then you add it to your flour so that the dough will rise.
But do you really know why yeast is part of bread-making? Do you know that yeast is naturally occuring in the environment all around us? Do you know that to make honest to goodness nutritious bread, you don't need to use these little yeast packets?
You could simply let water and flour sit together in a bowl, and the yeasts and bacteria present in the natural environment will begin to "work" on the sugars in the flour. This process of yeast and bacteria "working" on (you could also say "eating" or "metabolizing") the sugars in the flour is called fermentation. We see fermentation in beer, wine, sauerkrauts, kombuchas, miso, this list goes on.
Apart from causing the bread to rise, do you know what's happening in fermentation, and why it should be a process that is allowed to happen for days as opposed to hours? (Most industrialized breads - think Pepperidge Farms, not to be a name-caller here, ahem - do not allow the fermentation adequate time.)
In the process of bacterial and yeast fermentation of the flour, the phytic acids and enzyme inhibitors (I'll write more on these in later posts) inherent in seeds (remember, flour, historically, and in the best-case scenario, is the seed of the grass plan - wheat, rye, oat - that has been ground down - milled - into a fine, fresh flour) are broken down and deactivated.
That was a mouthful, or an eyeful.
Let's look at that again: phytic acids are a natural component of grass seeds - i.e. wheat seeds, wheat berries! These acids are typically found in the bran layer of the seed (think "fiber" on your food label) and they bind easily to calcium, magnesium, copper, iron, and zinc. So, if left as they are in the whole wheat berry, for example, the phytic acids will bind these important minerals found in the seed or found in other foods you might be ingesting at the same time you ingest the wheat (berry or bread). By letting flour ferment naturally, and for more than a few hours, the yeast and bacteria break down these phytic acids, allowing your body a better chance to absorb these minerals.
Similarly, seeds naturally have enzyme inhibitors in them. (Think about it, what's the biological purpose of a seed? Why wouldn't it have enzyme inhibitors - we can talk more about enzymes later, but in brief, enzymes are the "go" molecule of life, enzymes are what help to make reactions happen in your body and in other living organisms. So, enzyme inhibitors then, are molecules that halt the action of enzymes. Seeds would naturally have enzyme inhibitors in them because the seed is going to wait for the most ideal environmental conditions before it decides to open up and sprout a new plant.)
So when we decide to eat seeds, we are naturally eating enzyme inhibitors. What does this mean in our bodies? It means we're going to have a slightly more difficult time digesting the food. Ever heard of soaking your seeds? That's what natural fermentation of bread is. SEED SOAKING. More or less. In letting the flour ferment naturally, these enzyme inhibitors are also broken down - they become inactive! - thus allowing the enzymes in the seeds to start working! These enzymes actually help your body digest the rest of the grain (seed/flour/bread).
What's the point of all of this? The point is not all breads are created equally. Some breads are made the right way: whole seeds are milled freshly, daily; the flour is then allowed to ferment, slowly, over the course of several days; the dough is baked; the bread is made and enjoyed within 1-3 days of baking.
Some breads are made in other ways that are very much less-nourishing and more damaging to the human body: the seeds are stripped of their inherent three parts (bran, germ, endosperm), leaving just the endosperm to be milled; some aspects of bran (from the same seed, or from other seeds, or from the lab) might be added back into the "flour"; some form of activated yeast is added to the flour and given a couple of hours to do its job; the bread is baked, packaged and shipped to a grocery store near you! Oh yeah, and somewhere along the way, preservatives and flavor-enhancers (many of which have been indicated in cancer development) have been added to the bread to try to give it flavor that was never allowed to develop naturally (via slow fermentation) and to make the bread shelf-stable so that you can still buy it "fresh" one month from now.
Have you ever had bloating, gas, indigestion, reflux, incredible energy slumps, or other adverse symptoms after eating bread? I sure have. Have you ever had bread and not felt any of these things? Have you ever had bread and felt like you're on Cloud 9? Have you ever eaten bread and then run your best marathon, half-marathon, ultra-marathon? I have.
You'll see me advocate for Flour City Bread Co in Rochester. You may have heard me shout out to the folks at Naked Bread in Geneva. You may know some other killer folks doing bread the right way. If you eat bread, eat bread made by the process of slow fermentation. Eat REAL bread.
Like I said, this post was in no way meant to be a complete look at bread, flour, grains, or fermentation. It would take me a lifetime to write. And it would take two lifetimes to read and digest. This is step one, page one. We will come back to this topic again, again, again, and again.
For further readings on bread and fermentation, here are a couple links:
Berkshire Mountain Bakery, The Bread
Weston A Price Foundation, Against the Grain
Also check out the short segments in these books on fermentation in bread-making:
Katz, Sandor Elliz. Wild Fermentation. White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing; 2003.
Fallon, Sally and Enig, Mary. Nourishing Traditions. Washington DC: New Trends Publishing; 1999.
And as always, please comment, ask, or tell you stories on bread, running, eating, and all things food!