I took part in a fascinating discussion at a conference a few weeks ago. The conference theme was ‘What shall we eat?’ with the parallel theme ‘how shall we grow our food?’ The speakers were excellent. One of the workshops I attended was exploring attitudes towards food, in relation to production methods.
During the workshop, the facilitators handed around two bread samples from a white sliced loaf and an artisan loaf. The overwhelming consensus was that the artisan bread was healthier – a ‘no brainer’ as far as healthy food choices are concerned. Who with any sense would choose a white ‘factory’ bread over the artisan option? It got me thinking about people’s values regarding food. What drives our choices?
These are some of the attitudes shared in the workshop:
Artisan bread is more filling and satisfying/ more nutritious / better for the environment/ supporting small producers/ contains natural chemical-free ingredients
I felt increasingly uncomfortable. How much choice do most people really have? For me, these attitudes smacked of food snobbery. (TV presenter Greg Wallace gives his own take on food snobbery.) Do ‘natural’ food campaigners sometimes lose sight of the overwhelming social and financial issues that restrict food and lifestyle choices? But more importantly, is artisan bread really that much better for us?
Is artisan bread more nutritious?
As a result of this discomfort, I feel compelled to check out the bread facts. To what extent is artisan bread healthier than mass-produced sliced white bread? Let’s start with the nutritional content for protein, carbohydrate fat, energy and dietary fibre. In the cold light of day, there is actually very little difference in the macronutrient content of white bread and artisan bread.
So, what about the micronutrients? A scan of a range of sources reveals that the differences in the levels of thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, iron and calcium are negligible, although they might be slightly lower in white bread.
Is artisan bread easier to digest?
In my investigation of bread and health, I found an article by Jamie Oliver. In it, he states that ‘Artisan bread is actually easier to digest, because the enzymes have had time to begin breaking down the gluten in the flour while fermenting’. This is news to me, and I want to find out more about the breakdown of gluten in the bread-making process. And what about the claim about this making the bread more easily digestible? I need to find out!
It’s quite hard to get beyond the rhetoric about gluten. If you believe the vast majority of web chatter, gluten is a very bad thing indeed. I accept that evidence is building of adverse human responses to gluten. There are plenty of science-based articles pointing to the dangers of gluten. Despite referencing their sources, even here there seems to be some misinterpretation of the science, and I’m looking for the bare facts.
I feel a bit more comfortable with the standard of this article written by Jake New, as it draws directly from original science and doesn’t make over-inflated health claims. Jake explains how the gluten proteins can be incompletely broken down. Some people develop an inflammatory response to the resulting polypeptides (partially digested proteins). I’m still no further in discovering whether the preparation method really does makes the gluten in one bread easier to digest than another. What a pity Jamie Oliver did not give a reference for this claim! The only way I know to resolve this is to read the scientific papers, and particularly any systematic reviews of the research on gluten and health.
According to a systematic review by Smith et al (2015), about half the protein in wheat comprises gluten. Importantly, the authors stated that research into gluten digestion is conducted using test tubes. It is not particularly straightforward to extrapolate these findings into what actually happens inside your stomach and intestines. This aside, in their experiments, they found that baking markedly reduced the digestibility of the gluten proteins, compared with flour. They also found that the gluten proteins in bread are hardly broken down at all by the stomach enzyme pepsin, but that the enzymes normally present in the small intestine were effective in digesting gluten.
I cannot find anything discussing the baking method with respect to gluten digestibility, although I do feel more knowledgeable about gluten composition and digestion.
This New Zealand site created by the Baking Industry Research Trust explains a number of useful facts about bread and gluten. It confirms what I thought – that fermentation involves the breakdown of starches to produce the gas carbon dioxide and alcohol. I have found no sources explaining how fermentation might break down gluten. It explains that the proteins gliadin and glutenin combine during the bread-making process to form gluten, which does not otherwise exist in this form. According to another source, the fermentation process also produces lactic and acetic acids, which add to the flavour.
To summarise, this is what I have discovered so far:
Wheat does not contain gluten – it contains two proteins, gliadin and glutenin, that combine during the bread-making process to form gluten.
The part of gluten that causes allergic responses and intolerance is gliadin, after the gluten has been partially digested into glutenin and gliadin.
The gluten in bread is much more difficult for human digestive enzymes to break down than the separate proteins found in flour. This seems to happen in the duodenum rather than in the stomach.
In artisan baking, the gluten undergoes repeated, slow cycles of stretching and relaxing, during which time the starches and sugars in the flour ferment into carbon dioxide, alcohol, and lactic and acetic acids. The liquid by-products contribute to the tastiness of artisan breads. It isn’t clear where the claims about the gluten becoming more digestible originate from.
Does artisan bread contain fewer harmful chemicals?
The UK Flour Advisory Bureau provides a helpful guide to the additives commonly made to flour. For bread, they might augment the enzymes that are already naturally present. To improve the texture and structure, they add Vitamin C and sometimes the amino acid cysteine (which is a necessary component of our body proteins and can be made by our livers). All flours except wholegrain are also fortified with B vitamins and calcium. And so far, I’m not worried about the chemicals in mass produced bread.
But what about pesticides? This is a complex topic and one to put aside for a follow-up blog article!
What kind of bread will I eat?
I have reassured myself that as far as nutrition is concerned, the type of bread I choose makes little difference. It’s far more important to consider diet as a whole. There will be times when I want to splash out on an artisan bread as a treat, and also when I want to support my local breadmakers. What bread choices do you make and why?