The problem of gluten intolerance

Written by Warwick Quinton. Posted in Information

A bit of background to this article:

  1. I am not a 'trade' baker. I am self taught. I only ever wanted to make naturally leavened breads, and when I first wanted to know all about this craft, a quarter of a century ago, there was no one to teach me. There was no internet either, and very few bakeries making this type of bread in Australia. There were some hard to find books, which helped enourmously. And what was happening overseas was a world away, so I had to figure everything out from scratch. 
  2. I am not a scientist. I do have a fairly methodical mind, though, and I have absorbed lots of the science behind what I do over the years. This was for practical reasons - I made so many mistakes I had to figure out what happened!

Woodfired sourdough baker

So I was in an ideal space to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. And reinvent it I did. Mostly by trial and error. Making bread taught me the basics of scientific method - that is, when you are experimenting, try to change one thing at a time, so if something you have done works (or doesn't), then you know what it was. If you change more than one thing at a time, you will never know which thing worked!

The magic of experimentation is that if you keep trying stuff out, eventually something works. This article, I guess, shows that organic science is often where all the good stuff happens.

Bread for Health, not for dough!

A very formative thing for me was how I came to make bread. In the beginning, I was attempting to make bread for a girlfriend who had candida. She simply demanded that I should make some bread that didn't make her unwell. We both knew that the bread couldn't contain refined yeast, and that became the mantra. Thus,  I was coming from a different place to most other bakers. I was trying to make bread to solve or assist with a health issue, not for personal satisfaction or even as a career.

I arrived at the wonderful discovery of dough fermentation, of wild yeasts, and of the amazing flavours released when these two elements got together. And I discovered that people craved deeply for this flavour. And yes, my girlfriend was only one person who helped me to learn how to make truly health giving bread. There were all sorts of natural health practitioners who provided clues, as well as other people who just kept feeding into the process, people who had special skills like food technologists and old retired bakers, all helping me to understand what was being created was actually needed (kneaded? There are so many bread puns!) by more than just my girlfriend.

My own body was teaching me too - I learned that fermentation in my tummy was a good thing. The more slowly I could ferment the dough, the better it tasted, and the better it felt when I ate it. No bloating belly, no skin rashes, no tiredeness. 

I also learned that store bought bread was not so good for me. I would bloat up, and sometimes I would have excema issues whenever I would eat too much manufactured bread, even the 'wholesome' stuff. I had my theories as to why, but it has taken many years to really get the science sorted. It turned out that lots of people were having issues - and many have since been diagnosed with gluten intolerance. 

Making dough in the slow lane

It took me an equally long time to get the economics of this breadmaking quest sorted. Once I had become obsessed, people kept asking me to bake bread for them too.  All this breadmaking was getting in the way of making a living. Eventually, I had to quit my day job.  I figured that if so many people wanted this bread I was making, surely I could make enough money to keep the bills paid. I soon discovered that the way I was making bread - really slowly, with nothing but super duper organic ingredients - was expensive, both  time wise and with the cost of ingredients themselves. The slow food movement had not yet been born - nor had social media. I had to find a new way to communicate my discoveries so that people would be happy to part with approximately twice to three times the price of a standard loaf. I considered that it took three or four times as long to make for only twice the price of ordinary bread. That's efficiency right there. But would anyone believe me?

It turned out that good old fashioned word of mouth did the job - but my insistence upon natural fermentation meant that I was going to be doing it tough financially till I figured some things out to make this bread more efficiently. 

Back then, fast was in fashion. Fast food, the fast lane, live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse.  How could I communicate that slow was good? That good for you was also good? 

It has taken me twenty years to convince enough people to rethink things. And I have lived most of those twenty years with less income than the 'trade bakers' I once employed. And all I have ever been interested in making is 'real bread' - bread that satisfies the soul, the senses, and the body. Bread that definitely won't kill you.

By the way - these days, twenty years on, the per kilogram price for real bread is identical to manufactured 'artisan' breads. Proper bakers are an ingenious lot, and we have worked out how to create economies of scale to service our market at a reasonable price. The volume of our loaves is usually a bit smaller, but a kilo of real bread, made by hand, costs about the same as a kilo of manufactured fancy 'artisan' bread. By the way, the term 'Artisan bread' has been taken up by the corporation now, so it is a deeply polluted catchphrase, betraying the honesty genuine artisan bakers have brought to this newly reinvented craft. The rise in popularity of our boutique breads has meant that higher prices could also be charged in the supermarket for their versions of boutique breads. So our labours have redeemed the price of bread, in a way. Only the corporation, with it's clever marketing and fast lane breads, makes plenty more dough than we do - because they use every trick in the book to make these breads quickly and cheaply.

The fact remains that nine tenths of the bread sold in Australia and overseas is not 'real bread'. Manufactured bread is highly profitable to make when produced in large enough volumes - particularly when a bread factory can make thousands of loaves every couple of hours.

So the question of economics is behind the problem of widespread 'gluten' intolerance. Make it cheap and quick and available - we will eat it. But to do this, you need a bit more than flour, salt and water.

So what's wrong with cheap loaves? 

Let's have a look at the ingredient list on any supermarket bread.

There are malts and caramels for colour, preservatives for shelf life, soy products (cleverly labelled) for their bread 'improver' qualities (dough ripeners, yeast foods, gluten strengtheners), yeast, ascorbic acid (also called 'vitamin C'), again for gluten strengthening qualities and thus to give more rise), starches for amalayse, and consequently bleaching (dough and crumb brightness), as well as various other colourants and rising agents, usually labelled as innocuously as possible, making all these additives sound 'natural'. 

Nothing could be further from the truth.

These additives have numerous commercial purposes - extending shelf life, answering a market perception, making a loaf of bread bigger (thus using less ingredient and taking up more shelf space), making the bread cook faster, making the dough rise faster, making the doughmaking process simpler (deskilling the workforce), making the crust an appealing colour under flourescent lighting, as well as satisfying numerous governmental requirements (thiamine must be added to flour in australia, for example, for reasons that have very little to do with breadmaking, and plenty to do with the manufacture and consumption of alcohol). So mostly, all these chemicals create something that looks like bread. Thus, they are marketing devices. They are also often referred to as 'bread improvers'. Even this name is itself a marketing device. 

An unintended effect of all these 'marketing devices' is to kill the customer, slowly. 

Bread improvers, by any other name, are another creeping assassin, responsible for the great 'gluten intolerance' issue faced by all of us - I hasten to add that I am not 'gluten intolerant' because I eat my own bread - but it affects my business, because I have to deal with the mess that other 'bakeries' have created. I use the word 'bakery' accidentally - it too is a marketing term, actually meaning in this case a 'food factory for a baked goods production line'. 

What is 'gluten intolerance', exactly? 

This is a huge subject, full of jargon. I dare to say it's fashionable to be gluten intolerant these days.  Can I just say, for now, that 'gluten intolerance' is more than likely an intolerance to a substance called 'gliadin', and that if you make bread properly, gliadin is not present? 

Gliadin is one of the primary components of gluten - the other is called 'glutenin'. Gliadin is pretty gluey, and tends to cause the hairs in your oesophagus to lay down over time. But fermentation breaks down gliadin - and slightly acid environments like the ones found in natural sourdough fermentation - causes gliadin to be absorbed into the process - or at least, scientifically speaking, the peptides produced when our digestive juices are added to it become digestible. 

That's why people have no problems eating slow fermented sourdough bread. I know this. I have met and supplied my bread to thousands of people who have been 'diagnosed' as gluten intolerant. They tell me over and over again that they can somehow eat my bread, but very few other kinds of bread. I have always believed it is largely to do the way proteins change in slow fermented breads. Science is beginning to back me up. A quick search online for gliadin, and you will enter a vast universe of fairly recent science explaining how gliadins and glutenins create peptides when digested, which can cause issues in the gut. Dig a bit deeper, and you will find even more recent science showing that fermented dough actually changes protein in wheat and renders this protein not only digestible, but also nutritious. 

Interestingly, the slower the fermentation, the better. 

Conversely, this is why commercial breads are actually toxic. Fast fermentation, known as 'rapid dough', 'no time dough', or the 'Chorleywood process', preserves gliadin in the finished bread, because there has not been enough time or acidity to break it down. For many years, these processes were seen to be wonders of modern science - in the same way that asbestos once was.

In time, the truth of our folly will out. Not only have we been killing our customers, we have been deflating the price of the staple of life through relentless hastening of the production process. Not smart marketing, after all.

Keeping it Real Light Rye Sourdough Bread

The real bread movement, like the slow food movement, is beginning to change this situation. Worldwide, a new breed of artisan baker (let's just call them 'proper bakers') is being born, and in many cases these bakers are committed to remaining 'the village baker'. Small is good, as keeping the dough slow is hard to do when the scale of production ramps up. 

Together, we have been educating our customers about the real advantages of eating real bread. Not only health, satisfaction and wellbeing, but through the connectedness of the baker to their customers, and the subsequent building of community - through things like grower's markets and pop up shops, where artisan producers of all kinds can be sought out. 

The further I go down this path, the more I can see the amazingness of things. I had no idea what I was doing all those years ago. I wasn't aiming to become a baker someday, and certainly not someone who spends as much time as I do playing around with every aspect of the baker's craft. I did know that I was making something that people responded to very well, and in following that, much has been learned. The beauty of it is that the art of baking itself is like a never ending source of information, and a powerful conduit for learning about all kinds of things one wouldn't necessarily automatically think of when one combines flour, water and salt with fire and a bit of curiosity.