How well do you know your daily bread?
At one point in time every home would have had a baker, every kitchen been a bakery, with daily bread crucial to the sustenance of the family. I’m not talking breadmaker machines and bread pre-mixes. I’m talking old school fermented, leavened, kneaded bread. The kind that we have been making and eating for thousands of years.
I don’t know many people who make their own bread anymore. Including myself, I confess.
For a lot of families, bread makes up a large part of their diet. Breakfast and lunch often consist of it, along with an after school snack of toast too. So what is in this ubiquitous staple, where is the flour grown and how? Do you know what’s actually in your daily bread?
Recently while looking up the latest ‘dirty dozen’ list for New Zealand foods I was reminded of the high level of pesticides used on wheat crops. In the latest NZ Food Residue Surveillance Programme they detected 23 different pesticides in a sample size of 150 wheat containing products. Where are these contaminants on the label? How do we avoid serving up pesticide cocktails to our kids if we don’t have this information? There is no current requirement for labelling of pesticide residues in foods and as a mother, quite frankly this makes me a little mad.
But maybe I have nothing to be concerned about. What exactly are these pesticides and can they cause any harm?
Well, the answer is it depends who you ask. The current guidelines regard all chemicals safe until there is overwhelming evidence proving harm. This policy only favours the manufacturers and users of the chemicals, not us or our children. It certainly seems backwards to me.
Unfortunately children have a unique vulnerability due to their size. They eat more food in proportion to their weight than adults, and they tend to eat many more wheat/bread products than us.
One of the pesticides that worries me most is organophosphate which makes up about 50% of the killing agents in common pesticides. It seems to be a potent disruptor of the endocrine system (effecting our hormones) and the brain and central nervous system. Being a neurotoxin it’s been shown to impact neurological development in the womb with effects on a child’s development and IQ even 11 years after birth. The endocrine disruption has potential to increase our risk of certain cancers.
Yeah, still a little mad!
I guess the bottom line is that in order to avoid these chemicals we need to be buying organic bread or flour.
Types of bread
Flat bread is lovely. It was the staple of early civilizations dating back 30,000 years and is still a popular food in many cultures. There is nothing quite like a naan with your curry. But fermented bread is in another league. The crusty outside, the soft middle. The way fermentation transforms simple flour and water is quite a remarkable thing of science, or nature really. For roughly 5,000 years we have been making bread with the help of natural fermentation. They think the Egyptians discovered the method by mistake when some dough was left out over a few days and with the help of wild yeast spores in the air and naturally present in the grain, it grew and frothed away creating a ‘starter’ as we call it now. This, added to their normal flat bread dough resulted in a rather inflated loaf of loveliness. I wonder if they took to it at first? It must have seemed a little magical.
Since then fermented bread has had a glittering career. Sourdough starters became prized family possessions. The baker would save a piece of the ‘mother dough’ from the previous batch of bread, letting it ferment for a few days before adding it to the new batch. A process that relied on time and nature. Sometimes there would be a mother dough for the whole village, and explorers would take their own starters on voyages to keep the crew in supply of fresh bread.
This method has stood the test of time and remains the method used in the best bakeries around the world. I’m told there are century old starters still in use in various French restaurants and San Franciscan bakeries. No commercial additives or manufactured bakers yeast, just ancient tradition and time.
The world of breadmaking changed forever in 1961 with the invention of the chorleywood bread process. High speed mechanical mixing whips up the dough with the addition of (lots of) yeast, sugar, fat, salt and other chemical ‘helpers’ in the efficient period of 3-4 minutes! The speed is such that intense heat is created which requires management with cooling systems and a ‘recovery’ period for the dough of 5-8 minutes. Then comes less than an hour baking, followed by cooling and slicing, meaning the bread can transform from flour to a sliced, bagged loaf in 3 hours flat.
Apparently 80% of factory produced bread in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and India are now made in this speedy fashion.
The problem I see with this way of making bread can be broadly simplified to the lack of that magical natural fermentation, and the need for the chemical ‘helpers/accelerators’. Two unfortunate symptoms of the chorelywood bread making process.
Why is fermentation important?
Fermentation helps to break down phytic acid
Phytic acid is naturally present in many grains (and nuts, seeds and beans) and acts as a chelator of important minerals. In other words, once in the digestive tract, phytic acid shakes hands with iron, calcium, magnesium and zinc and wont let go, dragging them out of the body before we can absorb them. The production of lactic acid during the fermentation process is a great antidote, as lactic acid breaks down phytic acid, wonderfully negating this undesirable problem. The longer the fermentation process the more beneficial lactic acid is produced. We can thank lactic acid for that distinctive sour taste of sourdough too.
Fermentation lessens the impact of gluten in the gut
During fermentation the wild yeast and lactobacilli bacteria produced, start to break down and digest gluten. This is not to say that coeliacs can eat naturally fermented bread, but I have many clients who’s normal discomfort is non existent with fermented bread. I was first alerted to this by reports from clients that they suffered none of the usual pain and discomfort from bread while on holiday in Europe. I’d say fermentation was the key for these usually wheat intolerant travelers. And I dare say this huge change in the method of making bread since the 60’s has contributed to the rise in gluten intolerance over the same period.
So next time you grab a slice of bread or make a sandwich for a little loved one, consider this: Anything worth doing takes time, patience and love.