The Evil Bread

We live in divided times. In one corner, artisan bakeries bloom; in the other, gluten-free salads bars sell out in seconds. And there’s no sign of breaking bread soon. So, who’s right? Is bread a dirty word? Has its carbs and gluten been poisoning us for centuries? Or have we all just gone starch raving mad?

What is it?

The ‘oldest food in the world’. An igloo of breadcrumbs. The food you give to ducks for free. Sober beer.

What are people saying about it?

“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” – Jesus of Nazareth.

“Me? Give up carbs? Over my bread body!” – Your aunt’s ‘hilarious’ kitchen canvas.

“My mom insisted on multigrain bread and never allowed soda in the house,” – Vin Diesel.

What’s all the fuss about, then?

Despite the fact that people were eating bread when Britain was still a peninsula, many of us now seem unsure of this once holy food. Thanks to a growing culture of gluten-free and carb-free diets, a massive 50 million fewer loaves were sold in the UK in 2015 than the year before, and according to one survey by Grocer, 15% of us have cut baked goods out of our diets all together in favour of salads and other ‘healthier’ options.

Oh no! In case we run out, how do I make it?

Just like dynamite, bread has four ingredients. Unlike dynamite, these ingredients are flour, yeast, water and salt. First step: mix together well. In an act of self-destruction, the amylase enzymes in the flour will soon break down the starch into glucose.

Then comes the most crucial point in the relationship between you and the dough: it needs you to knead it. This gives the dough a bit of air, allowing for aerobic respiration and the yeast to metabolise the glucose into CO2 and water. But unless you’re kneading it in a wind tunnel, there’s always going to be some anaerobic respiration, too, which produces CO2 and ethanol.

Yeast isn’t the only active ingredient, though. As the two proteins that constitute wheat flour, glutenin and gliadin, combine with the water they form the composite protein gluten. These gluten strands begin to interconnect and form a lattice within the bread, giving it its elastic property and deliciously doughy texture.

When baked at around 200˚C, the CO2 gas causes the dough to rise and, poetically, the ethanol sets up the bread with holes it can never fill.

So what’s the deal with gluten, then?

Of course, your opinion on bread also depends on whether you’re gluten intolerant or intolerant of gluten intolerants.

About 1% of the population has coeliac disease, an autoimmune condition where the body mistakes gliadin for a foreign, harmful toxin and so attacks both the gliadin and the delicate, hair-like microvilli of the intestine. With a damaged and reduced surface area, the intestine can’t absorb essential nutrients as well as it did, which can cause diarrhoea, abdominal pain and bloating for sufferers.

Many people now claim that a gluten-free diet is beneficial for everyone’s health, while comics like Jimmy Kimmel have compared it to Satanism. Simply put, if you’re one of the 1% with coeliac disease, then yes, put down that baguette join the revogluten! But if you’re part of the 99% of people who don’t have coeliac disease (which, statically speaking, you probably are), don’t chow down on that ciabatta just yet. There’s more to learn.

What? But I don’t have coeliac disease!

Even so, these health-fad products may actually be beneficial to you. Maybe.

Many without an immune reaction now claim that gluten causes them gut pain, headaches and bloating. The condition has been dubbed non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), and there have been claims that up to a fifth of the population have it. One study conducted by the Monash University in Melbourne, Australia even found that when 34 non-coeliacs with gut problems went on a gluten free diet their symptoms cleared.

However, science is nothing if not thorough, and while the symptoms did abate, there was no reason to assume that it was due to the lack of gluten in the volunteers’ diets. In fact, when the same experiment was conducted by the same university but with the addition of a diet low in a small group of sugars known FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols), there was no difference between the symptoms of the gluten and FODMAPs free diets, indicating that gluten may not be the root cause of the problem.

So, many people who claim to have strong reactions to gluten may in fact be reacting to the natural FODMAPs found in wheat. But sadly, fermentable-oligosaccharides-disaccharides-monosaccharides-and-polyols-free bread just isn’t as catchy.

Well? Can I still eat my morning bagel or not?

It depends. If you get gut problems from wheaty foods, cut them out and see if you feel better. If you don’t, then there’s really nothing to worry about. Get down to your local artisan, look that baker right in their beanie and order yourself some fermented wheat!

Well that’s a loaf off my mind! Oh, but what about ducks?

Studies have shown that throwing bread into ponds and lakes starves ducks of vital nutrients and attracts predators like rats. So keep that wheat to yourself!

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