Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The six qualities that transform bread from junk food to superfood

Good bread is one of the healthiest foods you can eat. Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to find. Your town's fanciest bakery doesn't have it. Even your local hippy coop or yuppie grocery store probably doesn't offer truly good bread.

(Don't worry: We're going to tell you were to get great bread at the end of this post.)

The only kind of bread generally available is industrial-revolution sci-fi bread made with mutant grains and leavened without fermentation.

By historical standards, it's not really bread. It's something strange and alien to the human diet.

Because most bread is so unhealthy, many have concluded that grains in general, and bread in particular, are bad for you. People are giving up bread before they've ever even tried the real thing.

Our abandonment of good bread in favor of bad bread is a very recent phenomenon. If you were to compress the whole history of bread into one hour, we humans have been eating quality bread for 59 minutes and 59 seconds, but stopped eating it in favor of junk bread in the last second.

Bad bread is new to the human diet, so we shouldn't be surprised that it's making people fat, sick and weak.

Good bread is the universal human staple, our most important food, historically. Bread is so central to our culture that the word bread can be used as a synonym for food.

Good bread, the kind people have been eating for thousands of years and right up until about 200 years ago, has the following qualities:

1. Natural leavening and fermentation
2. Ancient grains
3. Organic grains
4. Whole grains
5. Freshly milled flours
6. Zero non-food ingredients

Bad bread is the opposite of all this. Conventional, industrial-age bread is leavened without fermentation. It uses a mutant strain of wheat that's very unhealthy. The wheat is grown with pesticides, herbicides and other toxins. The most nutritious part of the grain is removed. It's milled in a way that destroys even more nutrients, then bagged up and stored for long periods of time before use. And like so many other processed industrial foods, bread is then loaded with preservatives, additives and other chemicals that help the product survive the industrial process.

Let's have a look at each of the qualities that make good bread good:

1. Natural leavening and fermentation

Conventional industrial bread available in stores and made at home is leavened (filled with pockets of gas) by a single-cell fungus called baker's yeast. Although there are thousands of species of yeast in nature, baker's yeast is almost always a single uniform species called saccharomyces cerevisiae. The same species is called "brewer's yeast" when used to make beer.

The control and isolation of this industrial baker's yeast is an achievement of 19th- and 20th-century science. From the middle ages to the early 19th century, bakers got their yeast from beer brewers. Before that, stretching back at least 5,000 years before the present time, nearly all leavened bread was raised with a process we Americans call "sourdough," but which is also called natural leavening. 

Like most transitions from traditional to industrial food processing, the decline of natural leavening and rise of baker's yeast involved faster and more reliable mass production at the expense of health and taste, and uniformity at the expense of variety.

Sourdough is a gold-rush era American word for a broad category of bread leavening that is international and ancient. Sourdough is also the word used to describe the American process for making this kind of bread, and also for the bread itself.

Be warned, however, that there are several types of breads called "sourdough" that use baker's yeast as the main leavening agent. These aren't true sourdough breads, and they don't improve the dough the way a real sourdough process does. Many online recipes, and most sourdough breads for sale in the supermarket, are not real sourdough breads and do not provide the health benefits described in this post. If yeast is listed as an ingredient, it's not sourdough.

Naturally leavened traditional breads are still widely available in some European countries, including Italy, France, Germany, Russia, Poland and all the Scandinavian countries. The words used to describe this kind of bread are language- and even country-specific. Pumpernickel, pain au levain, and just about every kind of rye bread are traditionally made with a "sourdough" or natural leavening, for example.

Naturally leavened bread is a fermented food like olives, pickles, cheese, tofu, miso, sauerkraut, traditional soy sauce and yoghurt. Like all these foods, the fermentation of bread is something developed over the millennia that improves flavor, texture, shelf-life and above all nutritional quality.

There have been more than 20 species of yeast identified in sourdoughs and more than 40 species of lactic acid bacteria. However, the overwhelming probability is that you'll find in true sourdough starters a species of bacteria called lactobacillus sanfranciscensis (of which there are dozens or hundreds of strains) and possibly a second complimentary bacterium species that is region-specific.

Natural leavening improves the quality of bread in many ways that industrial baker's yeast does not.

The stable co-metabolism between yeasts and lactic acid bacteria creates an environment where other microorganisms cannot survive. This anti-microbial activity is stronger even than refrigeration, improving the safety of bread and making it stay fresher longer and preventing the formation of mold.

Grains are packed with nutrients. But they also contain anti-nutrients, including phytic acid. While phytic acid in small amounts offers health benefits, including anti-cancer action, it also chelates or binds to dietary minerals in the gut in a way that reduces the amount of minerals absorbed into the body.

If you eat a healthy diet with lots of grains and other seeds, it's a good idea to reduce the overall intake of phytic acid. And sourdough-leavened bread is a great (and traditional) place to make that reduction in a major way.

There are several ways to reduce the phytic acid content of grains. Soaking grains can reduce anti-nutrients by about 15%, and sprouting by another 10% or so. But sourdough leavening is by far the most powerful method, reducing phytic acid by up to 75%.

It also increases the solubility of both magnesium and phosphorus, making those minerals much easier to metabolize.

Natural leavening bacteria acts as a "prebiotic" that encourages the growth of bifidobacteria, which is a class of gut bacteria known to reduce allergies and fight cancer.

It also transforms the gluten in bread, potentially enabling even gluten-intolerant people to eat it without any problems.

Natural leavening performs another awesome trick: It takes the phytochemical antioxidants locked inside grains and makes them easily digestible, elevating grains into the same antioxidant-rich class as berries!

While baker's yeast-leavened dough raises in an hour or two, naturally leavened loaves require between 12 and 24 hours or more to fully develop naturally leavened dough, and requires more skill, which is why most commercial bakeries don't use it.

2. Ancient grains

There are some 30,000 varieties of wheat, broadly classified by the seasons they can be planted in and also in the ratio of protein to starch in the endosperm. So called "hard" wheats are prized by bakeries because they have more protein and less starch. That protein is called gluten, and the more of it you have, the stretchier and lighter the bread.

All grains can be divided into "modern" and "ancient" varieties. Modern grains have by definition been modified extensively in order to make them more compatible with industrial processing. Ancient grains have not.

Most bread is now made from a species of wheat called triticum aestivum, which is also called bread wheat, common wheat or modern wheat. There are many types of wheat within this species.

Over the last 200 years, modern wheat has been favored and developed because it's the cheapest to grow, mill and use. Selective breeding has radically increased the yield -- the amount of food in weight that can be grown on an acre of land -- and also the gluten content. It also has a genetic mutation that enables the grains to come off easily.

Modern wheat has been so heavily domesticated that it can't survive in nature. It's a freak plant with mutations and selective breeding traits that have rendered it human-incompatible. Modern wheat makes an impressive contribution to the global health crisis, creating allergic reactions, gluten intolerance and other issues.

When you hear about the cultivation of wheat in ancient times, you're hearing about a completely different food source. The ancient Egyptians built an empire on wheat bread and beer, but they used emmer wheat (also called farro, which is based on the Ancient Greek word for emmer wheat, which was, "far").

Europeans grew spelt and emmer starting in the Bronze Age, and continued to do so right through the middle ages.

There are many other varieties of ancient wheat, but these are some of the best and easiest-to-find alternatives to modern wheat.

One easy way to tell the difference, by the way, is that modern wheat tends to be sold with the word "wheat" -- hard winter wheat, soft winter wheat, whole wheat and so on -- while ancient varieties of wheat usually don't use the word "wheat" on the packaging. Spelt wheat for example, is just called "spelt" or "spelt flour." Emmer wheat is usually called just "emmer," etc.

Emmer and spelt are widely available, and they make superior tasting breads and other foods, as do non-wheat grains like barley, quinoa, oats, millet, rye and others. They've been tampered with much less than modern wheat, so they're much more compatible with human health.

Modern wheat has by definition been optimized for mass industrial production, and is therefore super cheap. And it makes bread that's super soft. These are the two qualities most consumers favor in bread, and so this kind of wheat has come to predominate. But if you want to be really healthy, you should never eat it.

3. Organic grains

Organic grains are grown without chemical fertilizers, insecticides or herbicides, and are not genetically modified.

To the best of our knowledge, no study has been conducted on the impact of chemical insecticides or herbicides on the microbial quality of sourdough microbiota. But common sense suggests that chemicals designed to kill bugs and plants may affect the balance of yeasts, fungi and bacteria in sourdough.

It's also possible that organic grains may contain slightly more nutrients, on average, than conventionally grown. 

There's no question that so-called conventional growing methods improve yields and lower the cost of grain. But it's very likely that cost savings comes at the expense of bread quality and long-term health.

4. Whole grains

The idea that white bread is modern is a myth. White bread made from white flour was prized by the Greek and Roman aristocracies. But even the Romans knew it was muscle-weakening junk food, which is why gladiators were fed only whole grain barley or whole grain wheat. The Spartans ate whole-grain barley, even as other Greeks gradually replaced barley with wheat.

Grains contain three main parts: endosperm, bran and germ. Refined white wheat flour is simply the endosperm without the nutritionally dense bran and germ. Whole grain wheat bread has about the same calories as white bread, but nearly double the protein and more than twice the fiber.

Whole grain bread is also a rich source of minerals, but only if naturally leavened.

White flour is compatible with industrial processing because it lasts for months without going rancid. True whole grain flour lasts only a month or two. Unfortunately, industrial processors often process the wheat to remove either most of the bran or extract the oil from the bran. Even though they've removed some of the nutrition, they're still legally allowed to call it "whole wheat."

The best way to tell if "whole wheat," flour well, isn't: Check the shelf life. If it's three months or more, that means the manufacturer has either removed something (probably the oil) or added something (preservatives).

Refined grains and true whole grains are nutritional opposites. Refined grains create inflammation; whole grains are anti-inflammatory. Refined grains generally raise the risk of type II diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, cancer and obesity, while whole grains lower the risk of all these conditions. One contributes to disease, the other protects against it.

And we're not just talking about wheat. The modern industrial diet has gotten just about everyone eating the same three monocultures in many of the foods we eat: soy, corn and wheat. If you eat a standard junk food diet, you could have (without knowing it) the exact same genetically modified strain of soy in your breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The concept of dietary non-diversity is alien to the human species. Dietary variety is healthiest, and so the Spartan Diet calls for maximum variety in all foods, including grains. You can make or buy bread containing all kinds of grains, from barley and rye to millet and quinoa (according to our six criteria, of course), and we recommend that you experiment, mix it up and try as many different types of grain as you can. And always eat 100% organic whole grains.

5. Freshly milled flours

The Spartan Diet is obsessed with food quality, which usually requires food freshness. Many foods considered "fresh," are in fact made fresh with stale ingredients. Bread is one of them.

If you go to a local bakery -- even one that advertises the freshness of their bread -- it's likely that they're using flour that has been sitting around for weeks or even months.

Grains are grass seeds. They're alive. Grains can remain dormant for a year. But if you soak them in water, they'll sprout. The moment grains are milled, however, they begin to deteriorate like any other dead organic matter. Oxidation sets in. The nutritional quality degrades, and the flavor goes with it.

One way to improve both the nutritional profile and flavor of bread is to bake with freshly milled grains. (And stone grinding is best, in part because friction doesn't heat the flour and thereby destroy nutrients.)

6. Zero non-food ingredients

A basic bread contains grain, water and salt. The addition of olive oil improves the taste and texture, and the addition of nuts, seeds or any number of foods and additional grains combine to produce wonderful varieties. You can add anything you like to bread, as long as what you add is real food.

Processed industrial bread, however, tends to contain lots of non-food ingredients, including emulsifiers, dough conditioners, preservatives and more. Generally speaking, these additives exist to create the illusion of freshness for bread that isn't fresh.

Non-food ingredients help make the sale, but they wreck the bread. Good bread is made out of 100% food.

So where do you get good bread?

The Spartan Diet takes all these qualities very seriously in the selection of bread. The best bread, and the only kind on the Spartan Diet, is sourdough leavened, made from freshly milled ancient, organic, true whole grains and contains zero non-food ingredients.

Unfortunately, these criteria disqualify nearly every bakery in existence.

One way to get bread with all six of the criteria we listed is to buy a grain mill, grind your own flour, cultivate your own sourdough starter and bake your own bread.

If that sounds like something you don't want to do, we have good news: We've finally discovered a bakery that makes bread according to all these criteria -- and you can order online; they'll ship by mail!

It's called Grindstone Bakery, located in Rohnert Park -- a small town in California's Foodie Belt. The owner and chief baker is a bread visionary named Mario Repetto. With a background in both flour milling and science, plus a passion for the health potential of naturally leavened ancient grains, Mario is working miracles in his small bakery.

Grindstone slow-grinds organic whole grains into flour on the same day that flour is made into dough.

Grindstone never uses baker's yeast. The sourdough cultures used by Grindstone have all been captured in the Sonoma area (in California's wine country), and cultivated carefully to produce a wide variety of starters for each of the different grains used in Grindstone breads. 

The bakery is incredibly innovative with grains and bread. While you'll find traditional bread concepts like rye bread and multi-grain breads, Grindstone offers bread concepts you've probably never heard before. For example, they sell an oats-and-barley bread, quinoa ciabatta, and even a rye bread made with espresso coffee and chocolate! Most Grindstone breads are made with spelt, and some include welcome additions like sprouted seeds, flaxseeds and in one loaf, quinoa, flax, rye and buckwheat combined. They also make cookies using the healthiest ingredients like extra virgin olive oil instead of butter, cold-pressed extra-virgin coconut oil and raw chocolate.

We recommend that you spend some quality time on the Grindstone web site. Mario has written extensively on the health properties of his bread with much more detail than we've gone into in this post.

Grindstone bread, like all truly good bread, is the opposite of processed industrial white-flour bread in every way. Conventional bread is cheap, light, soft, flavorless and mostly air, and can leave you feeling bloated, foggy and edgy. Grindstone bread is relatively expensive, dense, textural, rich in flavor and 100% nutritious food. It's delicious, filling and leaves you feeling physical energy and mental clarity.

The mild tangy sourness of many Grindstone breads, and the way the "bubbles" appear in the crust, are indications that the leavening in these breads is fully developed. That means that the health potential of the natural leavening process is fully realized.

Did I mention that it's dense? A loaf of Grindstone bread takes up about half the space as a conventional loaf of bread, but may weight twice as much. You eat a lot less of it, but get a lot more healthy nutrition and a lot more taste.

We highly recommend Grindstone bread. If you try it, we'd love to hear your feedback.

(Photograph courtesy of Grindstone Bakery.)