Before we begin, a little background. In a past life I was thisclose to becoming a baker. I had no idea what it would mean to be a baker, I just knew that making good bread was worthy of a lifetime of study and appreciation (Incidentally, this is the #1 reason not to start a business, as you can read here.) I was really making bread from scratch: I was milling my own organic wheat by hand, five pounds at a time. With this flour, spring water drawn from a bubbling brook 50 feet away, and a pinch of salt as my canvas, I set out to create a masterpiece.
After 18 months of way-too-early mornings and a change of address, I put baking on the shelf for a while. I had learned that some bakers nurture their own sourdough starters for years, to develop just the right properties of crumb and crust. This wouldn’t work for me, I thought at the time… and besides, I had noticed that I felt better when I didn’t eat bread. Suddenly ‘Gluten-Free’ had a whole new appeal for this almost-former-baker.
The honeymoon only lasted about two weeks, though it has taken me over ten years to organize my thoughts on the subject.
Gluten-free as a business case makes phenomenal sense. The rise of social media coupled with the simultaneous increase in gluten sensitivity just helped it spread that much more quickly. Customers voted with their dollars, small nimble companies took notice and increased their gluten free selection… only to be swallowed up by larger companies looking to leverage the expanding trend. When Pizza Hut gets on board, you know they mean business.
And yet… who says something has to taste good for it to be a commercial success? The genius of the gluten-free revolution is that bread is as much a medium for social exchange as it is a food. Perhaps even more so, since it’s ubiquitous. Can’t eat bread? You’re not just missing out on the calories: you’re missing out on friendship and community. That’s the chord struck by gluten-free brands, with phenomenal success.
An examination of the exponential growth of gluten-free as a lifestyle and a category will reveal that when it comes to food, nutrition and flavor are often the last considerations.
With this post I’d like to highlight three overlooked characteristics of the wheat we eat that can help us all enjoy our food more… and maybe even spark the rise of new businesses to meet an unforeseen demand.
Wheat – It’s Not What It Used To Be
“If people are sensitive to gluten, then gluten must be the problem. So let’s create products for them that are totally free of gluten. Problem solved.” OK… but this makes gluten-free look like a solution in search of a problem, not the answer to our prayers.
Since the early 20th century wheat has been hybridized countless times to isolate a handful of traits that are useful to commercial bakers, regardless of how it might affect our health. Even worse, during processing wheat is stripped of its germ and most of its bran. What shortens the shelf-life of the finished loaf (the high oil content of the germ) also happens to be the most nutritious part of the entire plant.
People don’t specifically want tapioca starch, potato starch, and white rice flour when they eat bread. What people really want is to break bread together, and enjoy it without fear or anxiety. Gluten-free breads give us this opportunity, but only by sidestepping the abuse that most wheat endures as it is transformed from seed to loaf.
The New Farming
In Daphne Miller’s book Farmacology, she discusses other cultures’ attitudes towards wheat, most notably Italians. In one of her public appearances late last year, she elaborated by describing the process by which wheat in Italy is harvested and cured before being milled. So what’s different? Nothing.
The Italians (and many other cultures) have been harvesting wheat the same way for hundred of years: grow it in small plots, harvest it by hand, bind it in shocks, leave it to germinate and cure in the field for a few days, then thresh it and package it for shipment to the local mill. This careful process, carried out at a human pace, allows the wheat to sprout and helps remove various anti-nutrients before it’s ground into flour. In these few short days, nutrients become more readily digestible and the large molecules of gluten begin to unravel.
What’s different is the way we harvest wheat in America.
A process that used to take days is now accomplished in seconds. The wheat is harvested and threshed by giant combines which mow down millions of acres at a time. Worse, the wheat is already dead before the harvest begins: many farmers who raise wheat spray the fields with Glyphosate (Roundup) before harvest, since this forces the wheat plant to use its last remaining energy stores to create even more, and plumper, wheat kernels.
Besides percolating into the groundwater and being taken up by neighboring fields downstream, some of this invariably finds its way into the wheat itself, into the flour, and onto the shelves of our supermarkets and kitchens.
The modern-day cultivation of wheat is extremely centralized. Even if only 5% of all farmers apply Roundup to their fields, their crop is bound to be co-mingled with their neighbors’. Once you spray it, you can’t take it back.
By the time it’s transformed into bread, modern wheat still retains all its anti-nutrients – natural defenses the plant evolved to protect young shoots from being eaten by animals. Without the chance to germinate in the field, the large gluten molecules remain as tightly bound as a ball of twine. Finally, traces of Roundup and many other chemicals linger in the final product.
Is it any wonder that many of us have trouble eating wheat? After preparing it the traditional way for thousands of years, changing everything for the worse in the span of a generation is probably not the best way to nourish each other.
Once again, gluten-free bypasses many of these obstacles… yet trades them for an entirely new set of challenges which are far more subtle.
- Anti-nutrients? The ingredients in gluten-free bread have been grown and harvested in exactly the same way as wheat.
- Roundup? While wheat may take the spotlight since it’s one of America’s most heavily treated crops (alongside corn, soy, and cotton), if the ingredients of gluten-free bread are being grown in a Conventional way there will probably still be traces of these chemicals in the final product.
- OK… but what about evolution and our digestive systems? We’re doing things to wheat now that are unprecedented… and we’re doing much the same with the ingredients in gluten-free bread. We couldn’t imagine how our bodies would respond when we started making wheat bread in hours instead of days. We might be in for a similar shock if we combine a dozen unrelated starches in entirely novel ways (I’m looking at you, frozen “bread” made from potato flour and white rice flour sweetened with grape juice concentrate).
But hey, at least none of these new products have gluten!
Anyone want a cookie?
The first two factors above are kept out of view of most of us, but this one almost goes without saying. We simply eat too much bread, and the two factors above compound the consequences of our indulgence. Cakes, cookies, crackers, muffins, biscuits… we eat enough to fuel our bodies for a marathon every day, though hardly any of us burn this many calories in a week.
I’m not a nutritionist or a dietician, though from personal experience I can see a few reasons why our consumption of these products has skyrocketed:
- It’s easier than ever: When I was making bread by hand, I experimented with grinding the wheat extremely fine and sifting off all the bran, for use in pie crusts and other pastries. Setting the plates of my mill so close together meant that it took an incredible amount of effort to produce even a small amount of light, fluffy flour – the kind of flour that gives us more starch and less fiber, making it harder on our digestion. But nowadays hardly anyone grinds their own flour, so we don’t realize how much extra work is involved in creating the ingredients for that brownie or cupcake.
- Food is subject to inelastic demand: You can’t arbitrarily make someone eat twice as much by cutting the price of their food in half. But food manufacturers have done something similar with modern processing methods: remove many of the nutrients from food, and people will keep buying and eating your product past the point of ‘full.’ Nutrients produce satiety, but the so-called ’empty calories’ in products made with refined flour just make us crave more.
The gluten-free versions of breads, cakes, and cookies are identical to those made with wheat. It’s just as easy to purchase a gluten-free cupcake as it is to purchase one made with wheat. The former doesn’t have gluten… but it has the same amount of sugar as the latter (and potentially even more), plus we’re asking the body to digest something completely novel. We’re just trading one problem (gluten) for another.
And though I cannot prove it, we may even end up eating more of these gluten-free treats than their traditional counterparts. Our bodies have adapted to digest the nutrients in wheat after they have been combined with butter, salt, and sugar. Try saying the same of a loaf made from potato flour, tapioca starch, and white rice flour. Completely different story, and we don’t know how these products might affect future generations.
Alarmist? Of course, but more than anything else I’d like people to be conscious of the food they’re eating and the business problem they’re trying to solve. You don’t have to do both in the same bite, but it matters that we all learn to trust our gut and look in the right directions: inward, to determine what our bodies have craved for thousands of years, and outward, to determine how we can perpetuate these foods for all to enjoy.
Again, gluten-free has seen such astounding success because it helps people reconnect: it’s a thin layer of mortar which bonds the bricks of community. But don’t stop with that one thin layer! There is an incredible business opportunity here for people who want to make real, good bread. All of us want it, and bakeries such as Farm & Sparrow, Tabor Bread, and The Mill are serving their customers with the real deal.
Real bread is hearty, toothsome, and satisfying. Brief germination of kernels in the fields was followed by the natural fermentation and leavening of the flour, which in some cultures lasted days. This removed anti-nutrients and unraveled gluten molecules even further. On top of this, real bread was usually consumed with a corresponding amount of real fat, which not only helped us absorb the nutrients present in the bread but also slowed the uptake of sugars into the bloodstream (I will share my thoughts on real fat in an entirely separate post). Perhaps most importantly of all, each of these steps contributed to the flavor of the final loaf – as anyone who has enjoyed a slice can tell you.
Manufacturers of gluten-free products have expanded across the country so quickly thanks in large part to modern technology. The products can be made quickly, which makes storage easy and enables massive centralization and streamlined distribution. For a product like naturally leavened, real bread – which can take up to three days from milling the flour to final product – existing methods of manufacturing and distribution would have to be adapted. In a very real sense, the companies which make gluten-free products are simply taking their cue from the makers of white bread 50 years ago. They created helped create the market they planned to serve. Many of us in America have no experience with real bread, so even if someone was making it on the same scale as a gluten-free product… who would buy it?
For starters… just about everyone who lives in Paris. The name of Poilâne has been synonymous with real bread for the past eighty years, though unfortunately it hasn’t made much of a dent on Americans’ eating habits. And Poilâne is only one of the most famous of these bakeries scattered around the world. There are businesses like Farm & Sparrow and Tabor in almost every country where bread has been a part the national diet.
Somehow, over the last few decades we have convinced ourselves that our food comes to us from far away, from people we do not know and will never meet. We don’t know how it’s made and most of the time we don’t ask what’s in it, we only want to be reassured that it won’t harm us.
There is a better way.
Today’s recipe is not something you can print on an index card, but rather a way of life. If you want to experiment with making real bread, you can start with Einkorn flour – which is about as far from most of the wheat grown in America as you’re likely to find. If you want to dig in and make real bread from seed to loaf, this is the book that explains it all. This is a big commitment, and if you want to do it right you need to invest in the right tools. This is the mill I used, and it’s still the best one available.
With these tools and a new perspective, I hope you’ll enjoy real bread for the first time. Though be careful (and I won’t be the last one to say it): no matter how good it smells, do not slice into a loaf of real bread while it’s cooling!
Please note that some of the links in this post may take you to affiliate sites. To read my full Affiliate Disclosure please click here.