Good as a bread… or not?
Discovering the healthiest bread
In 2018, the modern archeology made it known to the world that bread was already present on the tables of Homo Sapient in the Stone Age, some 14,400 years ago. This discovery makes us understand two fundamental things about the food choices of our pro-pro-pro-progenitors: firstly, human beings began to include bread in their diet before they began to cultivate wheat (agriculture did not begin until 4000 years later); secondly, prehistoric humans ate not only for nutritional reasons and thus accumulate the calories needed to cope with life, but also to make some important event special for the community. This can be guessed from the fact that the necessary operations such as collecting wild cereals, grinding them to obtain flour, forming the dough from which to make flat-bread (the reports show us finely stretched breads only 5-7 mm thick), cutting wood for the fire and finally cooking them, required a caloric expense far greater than what was earned from the wild cereals making up the flat-bread itself. Evidently the spirit was also asking for its share.
Some cultures still share this characteristic culinary tradition with their ancestors, just look at the Catholic world when receiving the host, which is a type of unleavened bread but representing something very deep; or the Jews and their matzah, which is also an unleavened bread, during Jewish Easter.
My name seems to pay homage to the sacred food: Başak means “ear of wheat” in the Turkish language.
Transcendental imprinting aside, there is another reason why wheat and consequently bread has been present on tables since the earliest times: its absolute goodness, combined with the possibility of being used as a vector to transfer food from the plate to the mouth. On the other hand, the flat breads found by archaeologists do not seem to me very different in shape and therefore in use, compared to those of many current populations eat in the Middle East.
Although the first forms of bread – unleavened – already existed 14 thousand years ago, bread as we know it today had to wait another 11 thousand years to appear on the gastronomic scene. Thanks to modern archeology we can estimate that in 3,000 B.C. the first fermentation experiments were carried out on the banks of the Nile in Egypt. Leavening was obtained by means of sourdough starter, a mixture of “wild” yeast and lactic acid bacteria present in the environment, in the flour bran and also in the hands of the baker. Its goodness was appreciated by almost all the peoples met along its way, as far as the ends of the world, in the following years or centuries.
Who would have thought that one day this millenarian tradition would be forgotten in order to facilitate the manufacturing processes, to homogenize the final product and make it more palatable, therefore more marketable for consumers!
Today, a large part of the population sees bread as a poison, a carrier of diseases, given the gluten contained in wheat and considered guilty of many health problems. But to blame gluten as the only accused of intestinal inflammation (for example), would be neither honest nor scientific. The non-celiac sensitivity to gluten, or simply the inflammatory power of wheat or bread, leads us directly to the crucial question: is wheat the real culprit, or the various stages, i.e. how do we grow, work and transform it into bread?
Industrial (conventional) bread versus traditional bread
Those who had the chance to taste a good (and healthy I add), naturally long leavened bread, would have immediately noticed some organoleptic differences: now let’s see them from other points of view.
On the one hand we have a bread made with white flours (mainly wheat), produced by intensive agriculture based on the excessive use of fertilisers and pesticides, which are ground with industrial cylinders, then refined with the addition of a mix of strong but non-traditional flours (soy, manitoba etc.), additives, enzymes, by usage of brewer’s yeast which allows a growth of volume (sorry but I can’t really call it fermentation) obtained in just 45 minutes.
On the other hand we have a bread made with brown flours (mainly spelt, rye etc.), stone-ground, wholemeal, without adding anything but salt and water; use of sourdough and of course 12-48 hours of fermentation.
Although the two breads share the main two ingredients (water and flour), the cooking equipment and perhaps the shape, they actually differ enormously.
The flours, for example, are different, because the type and percentage of cereals used, as well as the degree of refining and grinding of the grains, are different; in the same way the type of yeast used, the fermentation time, and certainly the ingredients and additives contained in modern bread today, are totally different. And so many differences obviously generate other specific peculiarities: different storage times and certainly the taste, texture, digestion and clearly the effects on the digestive organs, one on all the intestines.
Who is the culprit: gluten?
The long fermentation process of naturally leavened bread made in the old-fashioned way reduces some toxic parts of the gluten, for those who react to it (says Peter Green, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University). So the differences that distinguish the flours greatly influence the two final products, and their effects on our bodies.
But gluten perhaps has nothing to do with it, or not for everyone.
In fact, for some years now we have been talking about FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols) and their probable association to intestinal disorders. Just think about that the fermentation that takes place with the natural leavening process is also able to reduce the levels of FODMAP, so much so that people sensitive to FODMAPs, are able to consume sourdough spelt bread, despite it naturally contains gluten.
But perhaps not even FODMAPs alone, can explain how has changed “our daily bread” from a healthy and probiotic food as it was, to a potential irritant of the intestines.
The white bread that everyone appreciates
The industrial bread is made with white flours selected thanks to the help of genetic technology, in order to obtain the most suitable breeds for certain uses, i.e. stronger and therefore containing more gluten; these flours are able to retain an enormous amount of air (CO2) produced during fermentation, thus giving rise to the creation of a light, voluminous bread, soft inside and crunchy outside. But with this description, the “positive” characteristics of modern industrial bread (and homemade with the same ingredients) are concluded.
I often read that many people are looking for the perfect bread recipe based only on the criteria just described. Probably because they ignore the danger or, worse, they don’t care; but since I don’t intend to leave anyone behind, I will explain how things really are.
In the meantime, let’s see how the flour we find on the shelves at a cost of 1 euro or even less, is different from the others.
Choice of raw materials
How wheat is composed: starting from the outer layer we find bran, wheat germ and endosperm. Most of the nutrients are concentrated in the bran and germ, which make up about 28% of the grain. Many people know that flour and whole grains are better than refined ones. However, while bran can be a fuel for the bacteria that populate our intestines, it certainly acts as a “cutter out of control” against the ligaments of the dough structure, used to retain air. This is why, in order to eliminate such problems, we have been refining flours for centuries with the aim of developing their improving characteristics in the food sector.
The term “whole” indicates the presence of all three layers.
When we refine the flour industrially, the external part (bran and wheat germ) is removed, together with dietary fiber, antioxidants, vitamin B and E, folic acid, zinc, selenium and magnesium; but also substances of high biological value such as cholesterol reducers, insulin regulators, anti thrombotic agents, phytoestrogens. In practice we are left with only the endosperm which contains mainly starch and protein, in other words mostly gluten.
So, for 1 euro per kilo, they give us the famous empty calories, disguised as deliciousness, which are not good neither for the liver, the figure nor our microbiota. Refining, allows us to have fabulous sweets and breads, but it certainly interrupts a millenarian balance.
To refine, or rather to separate the flour, we must first grind it. The famous windmills used to use large stones, which turning at low speed, were not able to increase the operation temperatures and consequently they could preserve the germ, bran and their precious content intact.
But unfortunately the wind today there is, tomorrow maybe not, and modern times do not foreseen these breaks, so we have adopted industrial mills, consisting of steel cylinders rotating at high speed; which generates important temperatures, thus damaging the fatty acids contained in the germ, and with them the vitamin content. Standardization wins on all fronts and there are now very few, very few mills in the world that still use millstones.
The long fermentation obtained with the sourdough was originally used to exploit flours with a lower gluten content; the selection techniques to create wheat species with the desired characteristics were not yet advanced to this point; and there was clearly no excessive use of additives such as oil, sugar, stabilizers, emulsifiers, oxidizers, gums and enzymes (amylase, protease, hydrolase, lipase and lipo-oxygenase) or vital gluten, now normally used standard ingredients.
And here we have once again bet on the losing horse, believing that we had won!
Brewer’s yeast reduces time, which is an excellent news for the “time is money” generation. It also leaves no acidic and weird taste. It can be found everywhere, in every season, it is not capricious and always guarantees the same result… nevertheless it does not contain any fatty acids nor organic acids, of which our intestinal bacterial flora, as said, is crazy about them: actually, one of the greatest merits of brewer’s yeast is actually its greatest flaw!
The sourdough starter, on the other hand, has very important prebiotic effects. Because the lactic acid bacteria present, in addition to nourishing good colonies, are also able to reduce the sugar content, allowing us to obtain a bread that is perhaps less voluminous, but also more suitable for people who need to keep glucose levels under control.
But there’s more.
This starter is full of “useful” organic acids, while it is poor in harmful ones. The long fermentation bread made with the sourdough starter, has much less phytic acid: an anti-nutrient responsible for preventing the body from absorbing proteins and crucial minerals such as iron and calcium, the latter being then transformed into insoluble salts.
The long fermentation and the presence of organic acids increase the activation of the endogenous phytase, with which it is possible to degrade the phytic acids (the phytase is their enzyme), reducing their concentration even by 60%. Therefore the bread generated with the traditional technique does not hinder but rather improves the life in our bowel; consequently we live better as well, as we owe our health, in no uncertain terms, to our microbiota.
Finally, lactic acid bacteria not only give the final product a particular taste, but also provide organic acids and fatty acids, in addition to substances that can be defined as bacteriocins, inhibiting the proliferation of other pathogenic bacteria; this also explains why bread produced in this way does not mold as easily as conventional bread, allowing us to enjoy it for as long as possible.
In short, I think I have given you enough reasons to regain possession of this traditional technique to produce a healthy bread as it once was; maybe you may not like it as much as a voluminous, light and delicious baguette, which in the end would become a virtue: you will eat less bread so as not to take extra calories!
In conclusion, if you are convinced to follow me in this revolution, maybe you are wondering where you can buy the sourdough starter; well, if you don’t find anyone willing to give or sell you some, you should absolutely read the instructions in the article “How to make an easy Sourdough starter“.
And, the best method to make a bread? Don’t worry, here is the perfect recipe for a healthy bread.
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