It seems that every new bakery, restaurant, and grocery store is touting new and improved gluten-free products, advertising them as a healthier option, and selling them at a higher price point. But is this really the case? When did gluten intolerance develop and why is it affecting us now? For years, grain has been the most basic food source across many different cultures, and yet all of a sudden, we can no longer process it. It makes one wonder, is gluten really to blame?
What is Gluten?
Despite this word being thrown around carelessly, (I hear people talk about gluten as if it was a celebrity idol), most people don’t really understand what this word means. After gluten-related-remarks of friends, colleagues, and family members, I ask the question, “What do you think gluten is?”. Doing so showed me that a majority of people do not actually know. At least, that’s what I gather from the stammering, the confused stares, and the compilation of random scientific terms that never quite cohesively explains what they believe gluten to be.
In short, gluten is created by two proteins that are found in grain. When combined, these proteins create a gluten network that allows the bread to retain its structure, once baked. Essentially, it’s what gives bread it’s beautiful form.
Why are people allergic to gluten?
As with other hypersensitivities that one develops, a common reason why we become intolerant to things is the fact that our body does not have the ability to process frequent exposures to said thing. Our bodies are very capable of processing many different types of food, but not in excess. Think of Diabetes, for example. At some point, the body will be at its highest capacity to tolerate an exposure to something external, and any additional exposure will cause a warning sign to be sent to you, in the form of inflammation. It’s your body’s way of saying, “That’s enough!” Interestingly, the body takes an adversity to the thing, in much the same way that a person becomes traumatized by a past experience and tries to avoid it at all costs.
The gluten-allergy that I speak of differs from a gluten-intolerance that one is born with, such as in the case of Celiac disease. Barring any congenital diseases, gluten-intolerance is more commonly developing in adults. But we’ve eaten bread for AGES! Why now? What is it, really, about gluten that’s got us all feeling queasy upon hearing the term, as well as ingesting the stuff?
The Post-Industrial Era Revolutionized Bread
Prior to the Industrial Era, there was no such thing as mass production. We had very slow methods of production, and because of this, we were producing way less. Bread was no exception. In the olden days, bread was made using left-over yeast from beer production. The yeast was mixed with flour, water, and salt, and we relied heavily on these rapidly replicating micro-beings to ferment the flour. By fermenting the flour, they were building up CO2 within the bread, thereby aerating it, and when it was baked off, the aeration causes the bread to rise. The yeast dies off in such high heat, but the evidence of their work lies in the beautiful air pockets, or “holes”, in the bread. As CO2 tries to escape, bubbles will form on the crust of the bread, particularly in sourdough. This entire process required one thing that our generation lacks, which is time.
After the Industrial Revolution, our focus suddenly shifted towards mass production. We valued consistency in results, to the point where we replaced humans making art with machines making, well, everything. We valued our time, and ironically, lost it all. We filled our lives with all the conveniences ever at our fingertips. We chose more, and more of the same, and more of the same at this very moment.
How Wheat Changed
When this happened, we changed a number of things with our bread production, one of which was the composition of wheat. People argue that wheat has not been genetically modified and the wheat composition cannot possibly be blamed. However, what people overlook is that we have hybridized our wheat. Hybridization means specifically choosing certain strains of wheat for certain character traits that are favorable (to the producer). What happens when we select in this way is that we reinforce those characteristics, skewing the grain towards a direction, and we get a wheat that is completely different than the one we had a hundred years ago. In fact, modern wheat is shorter, browner, and far higher-yielding, with dwarf wheat and semi-dwarf wheat crops having replaced their taller cousins. These wheat strains require less time and less fertilizer to produce a robust crop of wheat berries. In essence, these grains have less time to grow and thereby less time to gather nutrients from the soil. So we’ve selected for wheat that allowed us to make more of it, but selected for the varieties that will give us very little value in return.
Wheat is not the only one to undergo change. It is important to note that the way we store flour these days is dissimilar to the way it was stored before. Actually, before, we hardly stored flour long-term like we do now. Between milling the grain and using the flour, the flour loses the nutrients (what is actually beneficial about grain) but keeps the fiber. It becomes stale, thereby reducing further the good properties that it once contained.
How We Changed
Additionally, previous to the Industrial Era, bread did not have the ability to become a beautiful loaf without giving it time. If you mixed bread and threw it into the oven, what you’d get is a flat, dense pancake. In order to be able to mix bread and immediately bake it, we did a number of things, one of which was switch to commercial yeast.
Commercial yeast is active, but is not a live culture. You can buy commercial yeast from the store, and store it in the fridge or pantry without needing to do anything to it. A starter, which is what we use at Aero Bakery, is a live culture. It’s actually similar to one’s baby. I feed it twice a day and I can tell when it’s hungry and when it’s happily full (usually when yeast activity is high). After the Industrial Era, most bakers switched to using commercial yeast because it does the job much faster, whereas active yeast takes 12-24 hours to ferment bread effectively, sometimes more. Now, why is this change to commercial yeast in bread production important?
When yeast acts on flour, it converts natural grain sugars and starches into carbon dioxide, which creates air pockets that make the dough rise. Wild yeast cultures go even further, using healthy lactobacilli bacteria to convert proteins (like gluten) into lactic acid that gives sourdough its flavor. In short, waiting for the yeast to do its work leads to the breakdown of sugars, starches, and gluten. So while hybridization of wheat could play a role in increasing the frequency of Celiac disease and gluten-intolerance, our foregoing of this olden method of making bread using a live starter could also be much to blame.
Is a New Diet Really the Solution?
As I mentioned previously, our bodies are giving us warning signs that what we are doing to our food is not compatible with our body’s historical mechanisms of digestion. As a species, we are unable to adapt to the changes as quickly as we are making them. Evolutionarily speaking, it will take many generations for us to physically change. Yet, instead of recognizing the need to slow down, the food industry is claiming solutions in the form of new diets. And not just one single diet. We have people trying all sorts of diet that claim to supposedly cure our intolerance. People are trying paleo one week, vegan the next, keto a few months later, on top of trying to be gluten-free. Unfortunately, by trying these new diets, we are making it worse. We are putting our bodies under a lot of strain, and not giving it the time to even adapt. No wonder our bodies are starting to rebel.
In general, I write about giving up those modern conveniences … about slowing things down. I find the beauty in inconsistency, the living proof that something was made with human hands. It gives items character, making them more human themselves. I’ll give you a solution to this problem not by creating something new, but by giving you something of old. I’ll give you something you no longer have, but something you might find that you desperately need, which is time. I will work with local farmers who are trying to preserve ancient grains … grains that existed two hundred years ago, before any of this ever happened. I will mill grain into flour right before mixing, to retain as many of the nutrients as I possibly can. I will allow my yeast to do its magic, giving it the space it needs to break down sugar, starch, and gluten … to make this staple food more digestible. I hope you see the beauty in this work, and feel the importance of what we do.