Bakers Journal

Wheat sense and sensibility

November 21, 2013
By Helen Siemens

These days, it’s not uncommon to hear such claims as “wheat is bad for
you” and “gluten makes you sick,” which are made in the popular book
Wheat Belly.

These days, it’s not uncommon to hear such claims as “wheat is bad for you” and “gluten makes you sick,” which are made in the popular book Wheat Belly.

Why is it that suddenly so many people are frightened to eat wheat? Let’s take a look at the history of wheat, the gluten-free trend, and where bread stands today.  Here is an overview of information that you could use to educate your customers about your wheat based products. 

Until 1870 wheat was milled between two stones. This type of milling made it virtually impossible to separate the bran and germ from the endosperm. Then French engineer Joseph Perrigault invented the first milling purifier that was able to separate the bran and germ. His mill system was made up of several sets of steel rollers. Wheat was sent through the rollers, and as the rollers got closer together, the wheat would break apart. Through several sets of sieves and fans Perrigault was able mill pure white flour. But without the germ and bran, the nutritional value of bread went down.


Through continuing modernization, bread could be made faster, more easily and more cheaply. In 1927, Wonder Bread came to Canada. People didn’t want the hearty, thick, brown bread anymore. This new white bread was 250 per cent sweeter than traditional bread. It could be sliced thinner than normal bread and didn’t stale as quickly. Wonder Bread was light and soft. People liked it, and it was affordable.

Beginning in the early 1900s, bakers began adding various vitamins to make up for nutrition lost in the milling. During the Great Depression, the government made it mandatory to add thiamine, riboflavin and niacin. These vitamins helped by providing some essentials that people weren’t getting. In 1998, Health Canada required that folate, an essential B vitamin, also be added. Since folate was added to flour, there has been a reduction in neural tube brain defects of about 50 per cent across Canada.

Today’s bread labels carry many different claims, such as “new and improved,” “whole wheat,” “whole grain,” “bran added,” “germ added” and “enriched.” But nowadays it seems many people think any product containing wheat is harmful to your health. The wheat-free/gluten-free movement is very popular. There is a constant stream of new gluten-free/wheat-free product released. What exactly is gluten? Gluten comprises two proteins: glutenin and gliadin. Gluten is found in wheat, spelt, einkorn and kamut as well as many other cereal grains. Gluten gives dough its stretchy and elastic quality. It allows bread to rise by holding in all the gases created by fermentation. Some of the challenges with gluten-free formulation are products becoming frail and crumbly.

People who have celiac disease are highly sensitive to gluten and even the smallest amount can make them deathly ill. The condition was once considered extremely rare in the U.S., but about 20 years ago scientists began exploring why celiac disease was less common in North America than in Europe. They concluded that it wasn’t less common; it was under-diagnosed. Recently, a research team led by the Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Joseph Murray looked at blood samples taken from Americans in the 1950s and compared them with samples taken today. They determined it wasn’t just better diagnosis driving up the numbers. Celiac disease is actually increasing. Indeed, the research confirms that about one per cent of American adults have it today, making it four times more common now than it was 50 years ago.

However, the gluten-free movement is not just about celiac disease. It has gained popular attention with celebrities like Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus and Kim Kardashian claiming that gluten-free diets will make you thin and beautiful. Many people attribute weight loss to the gluten-free diet. But consider this: when you take gluten out of your diet, you might also take most of the processed, on-the-go, high-fructose foods out of your diet. Instead of eating pizza pockets or mac and cheese, a person on a gluten-free diet is forced to make food choices that could often include lower-calorie foods. However, in response to greater demand for gluten-free products, many companies have come out with gluten-free cookies, pies and cakes. What used to be completely off limits for a gluten-free diet is now available ready-made and full of sugar. Too much wheat may not be good for a person, but the same is true of many foods. When going on a gluten-free diet, a person must be careful to get enough fibre in their diet. Generally speaking, it is a less convenient and more expensive diet.

Its richness and flavour soar and so do its health benefits. During the long proofing of sourdough, the cellulose is broken down and nutrients are released into the dough, a process that makes it easier for the body to absorb them. Professer Terry Graham and his team from the University of Guelph studied how subjects reacted to different breads they ate. They studied whole wheat, white, rye and sourdough bread. Graham writes: “With the sourdough, the subjects’ blood sugar levels were lower for a similar rise in blood insulin . . . . What was even more interesting was that this positive effect remained during their second meal and lasted even hours after.”

From ancient flatbreads to industrialized white bread, there is no denying that bread has been, and will continue to be, an important part of our lives. Although the way we mill our wheat today is different from processes used in ancient times, bread is still a healthy food staple. Wheat germ is full of vitamins and minerals, which are essential to a healthy life. The bran in wheat is full of fibre. Even the white, fluffy bread we buy in stores is nutritional and vitamin enriched.

Helen Siemens is a bakery and pastry arts student at Vancouver Island University, Nanaimo, B.C.

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