After a much longer hiatus than I anticipated, I'm finally back to follow up on my last post on how to create a sourdough starter. This time, I want to argue for why you should bake with homemade sourdough cultures.
First, though, let me be honest: Baking your own sourdough bread takes time, effort, and patience. This is no convenience food, nor should it be. So why bother to go to the trouble? For me, the reason is simple: homemade sourdough is the only bread I can eat without triggering both immediate mast cell reactions and long-term mast cell complications. That's a powerful motivator. But I'm not the only one who's ever struggled with bread - we seem to be in the throes of a cultural backlash against it, judging by the enduring popularity of "gluten-free" alternatives. After a lifetime of trial and error on this issue, I'm going to say that it's not actually the wheat that's the problem; it's all the bad things we add to the wheat.
Think about this: "gluten" allergies are a peculiarly contemporary phenomenon. For ten thousand years, and maybe longer, human beings have eaten wheat gluten, largely without incident, until now. Yes, there have likely always been people with legitimate celiac disease, like my uncle, who can't even eat store-bought, already-shredded cheese because a common ingredient used to keep the shreds from clumping together is some kind of flour or other wheat-gluten product. But this pervasive conviction that so many of us are "gluten intolerant"? It's pretty new and seems to have coincided with the rise of genetically modified foods, mechanized farming dependent on chemical fertilizer, pesticide use for insect and weed control, and the increased introduction of stabilizers, fillers, additives, and preservatives into our food, or even, increasingly, taking the place of our food.
One of the best articles written on this subject is Michael Specter's The New Yorker piece from 2014, "Against the Grain." Well-researched, long-form journalism can change your thinking, if not your life, and this one had that effect on me. A few stats from the piece:
- About 1% of the population suffers from bonafide celiac disease (an extreme intolerance to wheat that can be reliably diagnosed by testing for a marker), and the other 99% "rarely gave gluten much thought" until the 2010s, when gluten intolerance really became a thing.
- No other food source provides as much nourishment as wheat, and it also provides a full 20% of global calories.
- Gluten-free is a big business. Since The New Yorker stats are now a bit dated, here's one from this year: The gluten-free market was estimated at $22 billion in 2019 and is expected to reach $36 billion by 2026, according to Global Newswire.
According to Specter, there are two things going on with wheat that warrant investigation: 1) the incidence of diagnosed, verified celiac disease has quadrupled in the past sixty years, and 2) about 20 million people (and probably more now) do not have celiac disease but associate gluten with their health issues. Scientists do not know why celiac has increased. Nor can they explain the gluten-intolerance phenomenon.
So Specter consulted the research on gluten, and here's what he found: Studies did not conclusively show gluten to be the true trigger of symptoms. Instead, the evidence pointed to a group of foods called FODMAPs as the only real culprit in case studies. In the past seven years, more people attempting to chase down the source of their digestive issues have since shifted over to low-FODMAP diets, but such diets are harder to observe than the gluten-free, and far less popular (or trendy).
So why do people think they feel better because they've adopt a gluten-free diet? Specter offers one possibility:
Cutting back on foods that contain gluten often helps people reduce their consumption of refined carbohydrates, bread, beer, and other highly caloric foods. When followed carefully, those restrictions help people lose weight, particularly if they substitute foods like quinoa and lentils for the starches they had been eating.
But those who see results from a gluten-free diet are the few who've managed not to succumb to the temptations of today's gluten-free packaged food offerings. Specter makes an excellent point about such grocery-store staples: They ain't health food. I noticed years ago by reading labels that gluten-free food often contains more sugar and fat than their wheat-filled counterparts. A celiac disease specialist interviewed in the piece says, "Often, gluten-free versions of traditional wheat-based foods are actually junk food."
Side note: It's the same with vegetarianism and veganism. People often perceive themselves to feel better after going that route, likely due to some health benefits gained from an improved diet overall. But the pitfall is that a lot of meatless products - especially meat "replacements" - are laden with unhealthy components, or outright stuffed with additives and fillers. And don't get me started on vegetarians who basically load up on cheese and other dairy products to fill the void left when they take out meat, a trap I once fell into myself.
So gluten-free diets are neither scientifically proven to work, nor from a nutritional standpoint are they a good solution. But still: Celiac has increased fourfold, and people report experiencing symptoms associated with wheat products. For Specter, this meant taking a look at how exactly wheat and the products made with it have changed in modern times. He contrasts the traditional way of making bread to today's largely artificial method. For tens of thousands of years, bakers used only water, flour, and the fermentation process to create a sourdough culture, and to that, they added more flour and water, a little salt and kneading, and after baking, they had their precious loaf. Today, the standard is much less, shall we say, organic:
In place of hydration, fermentation, and kneading, manufacturers save time by relying on artificial additives and huge industrial mixers to ram together the essential proteins that form gluten.
One of the components frequently added to wheat products is vital wheat gluten. Most commercial bread available in grocery stores today - and yes, that includes your favorite ridiculously overpriced brand of organic, whole-grain, non-GMO whatever loaf, has had loads of vital wheat gluten added to it. Described by one blogger as "your normal wheat flour... on steroids," it's basically wheat with everything else removed, or only the gluten. Specter rightly questions whether the gluten-intolerance problem stems from all this extra gluten we're ingesting, the effects of which have never been properly studied.
But I want to stay with that mention of artificial additives and huge industrial mixers to expand the problem beyond just vital wheat gluten.
As I mentioned in my post on how to create a sourdough culture, my go-to resource is Ed and Jean Wood's Classic Sourdoughs: A Home Baker's Handbook. In the introduction, the Woods hit on the crux of the problem with today's bread:
Within just the last hundred years, there have been monumental changes to what we call bread, and these changes are mostly for the worse. Not only do huge baking machines now dominate the production of bread, the baking industry adds a plethora of chemicals to flour and dough to change their physical characteristics and improve their 'machinability.' These include surface-active agents (surfactants) to help doughs go through machinery without sticking or tearing, other chemicals to soften the final bread texture or strengthen the dough by modifying the gluten, and a host of emulsifiers just to improve the mixing characteristics or increase shelf life. All of these additives have one thing in common: no, or very limited, nutritional value. At least one of them, potassium bromate, has been banned worldwide as a potential carcinogen.
In centralized industrial bakeries, large baking conglomerates produce packaged breads and refrigerated or frozen dough for distribution to retail stores and local bakeries. The distribution of industrial bread doughs means that even if a bread is baked fresh at a local bakery, it often still contains all the additives and chemicals included by the wholesale producers to grease its progress through the massive machinery - and none of the beneficial microflora that make bread taste like bread. And this is not only an American story: the deterioration of bread quality is a worldwide phenomenon, occurring in the European heartlands of great bread.
So you might ask yourself: Are you really "allergic to" or "intolerant of" wheat, or is your body trying to tell you something about all the things in your bread besides wheat? As someone who's gone gluten-free a few times in my life, I can tell you, it's probably not the answer, at least not long-term.
Of course, if you don't want to eat wheat, don't eat wheat. If you feel better without it, by all means, avoid it. I just think you need to take a good, hard look at what you're really eating, with our without wheat in your diet, how it makes you feel, and why. And if you miss bread and want to find a way to bring it back into your life in a much more positive, nourishing way, then I say go out and capture yourself some wild yeast. Bread's not called the staff of life for nothing, you know.