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Breaking Bread: How bread has fallen out of favour

Traditionally, life without bread has been no life at all. It has fuelled the diet of billions of people around the world for 10,000 years. But we're starting to reject it.

During the Roman Empire Juvenal used the phrase "bread and circuses" to describe the main method by which emperors controlled the masses.

A lack of bread is popularly said to have helped spark the French Revolution by hungry French peasants in 1789.

Vladimir Lenin inspired the Russian mobs to overthrow the government with the phrase "Peace, Land, Bread" during the communist Russian Revolution in 1917.

It is a vital symbol in Christianity, in the form of the Eucharist where Jesus Christ offered his body in the form of bread. In the Lord's Prayer, Christians ask God to "give us this day our daily bread".

In Judaism, the eating of bread during Passover symbolises the Jewish escape from slavery in Egypt.

But now bread, which has meant life itself to thousands of generations, is, at least to some, something to be scorned.

The claims are well known. Bread makes you sick. It makes you fat. Our bodies aren't designed to eat it.

While there might have always been those on the fringes who have preached against carbohydrate rich foods like breads, the mainstream backlash against bread is relatively recent, starting with the emergence of low-carb and no-carb diets like the Atkins, Zone and South Beach around the turn of the century (replaced more recently by the Paleo diet which also avoids bread).

Diet fads come and go, but a more lasting "problem" with bread has proved to be one of its fundamental components, the gluten in wheat flour. Gluten is a protein compound made up of glutenin and gliadin; on contact with water, these proteins change shape, bond together and create the elastic "bubble" we know as gluten. It traps air, allowing the starch in the bread to rise.

Unfortunately, gluten is a major problem for people with hereditary coeliac disease. Their intestinal walls are damaged and cannot process it. When coeliacs eat gluten, the body's immune system attacks the gut lining.

Coeliacs suffer from various symptoms including fatigue, irritable bowels, other bowel problems and nausea or vomiting.

But beyond that relatively small number who suffer serious, diagnosed medical problems from eating gluten, it is the vaguer "gluten intolerance" that is a more recent development.

The science around gluten intolerance ranges from uncertain to sceptical, but that hasn't stopped a healthy industry specialising in gluten-free baking cropping up over the past 10 or so years.

That includes the Totally Gluten Free Bakery which opened in Christchurch in 2006. Owner Wendy Smith recalls that she was a traditional baker at the time and that the few gluten-free loaves around were crumbly, inferior versions of what they are today.

"I had a little old lady that used to come in every week and buy her loaf of bread. It was horrible to make and horrible to eat.

"She took it out to her car and she must have dropped it and it was like this mess of crumbs  and she said to me then 'why isn't there a bakery just for us?' I thought 'hmm I wonder why there isn't?'"

Since then it seems a zealous crusade has been waged against the protein compound. Celebrities like Katy Perry, Kourtney Kardashian, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Alba, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga have all sworn themselves off the stuff, helping lead a popular uprising in search of gluten-free alternatives.

People who claim they cannot digest gluten complain of bloating, pain, bowel problems and other symptoms.

The view that gluten-intolerance among non-Coeliac sufferers is more of a fad than a provable medical condition has prompted ongoing debate. For example, a University of Newcastle paper published last year highlighted a study from Spain which found only 16 per cent of people who self-reported gluten sensitivity actually showed the symptoms in a proper trial.

Smith says a small section of the anti-gluten crowd is just trying to follow a trend. "Some people just do it for a diet fad. They think they're gonna lose weight on it."

But she points to the number of elderly people who shop at her bakery, who she suggests are unlikely to be influenced by Hollywood trends but may have worked out over the years what it is in their diet causing their stomach upsets.

And she believes that the reason is that our diets have more gluten than ever, and not just in bread. The substance works as a cheap thickener, stabiliser, emulsifier and free-flow agent, meaning it is widely used in processed meats, sauces (including soy and pasta sauce), dressings, processed food, snack foods, cooking stock, even ice cream and baked beans.

Ironically, not using gluten in baking is expensive. 

Smith's loaves cost about as much as those available in the supermarket, if not a little cheaper. A standard white loaf is $6, two or three times dearer than a normal loaf in the supermarket.

Smith says there are three factors: the price of the speciality flours (mostly imported); the use of expensive xanthan gum, crucial to providing the structure and texture that gluten would otherwise produce; and the finicky, time-consuming process of gluten-free baking.

"If you've got a change in temperature your flour gets damper so you've got to have less water in it. You've got be aware of everything that's going on," Smith says.
Breaking Bread: How bread has fallen out of favour Reviewed by Akande Boluwatife on July 23, 2018 Rating: 5

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