Friday 24 March 2017

Rise up for bread

In recent years, bread has fallen out of favour with those trying to lose weight or avoiding gluten, but the demonisation of what used to be one of the nation's staple foods is largely unfounded

Kneading bread dough. Photo posed by model
Kneading bread dough. Photo posed by model

Alex Meehan

Fresh baked bread, warm from the oven and slathered in melting butter - is there anything more mouth-watering? Human beings have been baking bread for thousands of years, and it's hard to think of a more essential basic food. Yet a growing number of people seem to have a problem digesting bread, or more accurately, the substance found in bread called gluten, which is also found in other foods like pasta, beer and chocolate.

Gluten sensitivity can be a serious issue, and sufferers of coeliac disease must avoid the ingredient for life. However, only a tiny minority of the population - estimated at 1pc - actually suffers from coeliac disease.

Yet ask any chef how many people claim to be gluten intolerant when they're eating in their restaurants, and you'll find the number is much higher than 1pc.

Growing numbers of people are adopting low-carb diets in an effort to lose weight, ditching bread in the process. But is bread really unhealthy? And what is causing so many of us to become convinced that we can't eat it?

The answers to both of these questions could hinge on what you mean by bread. The kind of sliced white pan sold in shops and supermarkets since the 1960s is quite different to a slowly fermented loaf of sourdough.

Known as plant bread, mass-produced sliced white accounts for around 70pc of all bread sold in Ireland, but the method used to make it only dates from 1961. It's fast to make - three-and-half hours from the ingredients being mixed, to the bread being sliced and packaged - cheap to buy, and for many people, perfectly adequate. But not everyone is a fan.

"The companies that make plant bread always argue that there is no nutritional difference between their product and traditionally made bread, and they're technically correct," says Patrick Ryan, master baker and owner of the Firehouse bakery and baking school in Delgany, Co Wicklow.

"But the reason we think real bread is a healthier alternative is because it's fermented for longer. That makes it tastier and easier to digest, and for a lot of people that's a big deal.

"It also tends to fill you more - it's denser and requires a bit more chewing, which triggers more saliva production and makes it more satisfying."

Even mass-produced brown bread comes in for criticism from Ryan.

"Brown soda bread is full of nutrients and roughage, but realistically, our bodies can't tap into the majority of those nutrients in those grains. But if you ferment them slowly, they become much more bioavailable, and we can get an awful lot more from them. That's why bakers like me promote slower and longer fermented doughs," he says.

That kind of bread isn't commercially viable to produce on a large scale because it takes time. But according to Ryan, when it comes to bread, the longer it takes to make, the better.

"At a basic level, plant bread manufacturers are trying to speed everything up while we're trying to slow everything down to maximise flavour as much as possible. That's probably the biggest reaction we get to the breads we make - that they actually taste of something," he says.

Ryan says he has come across many people who say that while sliced pan gives them digestion problems, old-fashioned bread - the type our grandparents would have bought fresh every day from a local baker - doesn't.

"Intolerances are a frustration for us, because there are a lot of misconceptions - so many people claim to be wheat and gluten intolerant, but only a tiny number of people truly are," he says.

So, if coeliac disease is extremely rare, is gluten intolerance on the up? Not according to Aveen Bannon of the Dublin Nutrition Centre. A member of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute, Bannon sees people all the time who have misdiagnosed themselves with food intolerances.

"There are a lot of people out there self-diagnosing themselves and unnecessarily avoiding foods as a result. A very small number of people may have issues with certain types of bread, but there are different solutions. One person might have a problem with a sliced pan but find they can eat sourdough no problem, for example," she says.

"In general though, there is absolutely no problem with eating bread as part of a healthy diet. I eat it myself and consider myself to be pretty healthy."

Bannon says that coeliac disease is a permanent intolerance to gluten - you either have it or you don't - and it's not something that comes and goes. There are, however, milder and less serious forms of dietary intolerances.

"If someone comes in to see me with tummy issues and they think gluten might be the problem, we have to rule out coeliac disease first, and the next step is to see if they have a gluten or wheat intolerance, because they're slightly different," she says.

"There is a milder form of intolerance which is called non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, but we have to be very careful to rule out full coeliac disease before we decide that's what's happening."

Gluten is present in wheat, barley and rye, whereas if someone has a wheat intolerance, then they will be fine eating these other grains.

People who have stomach sensitivities around these kinds of foods are often advised to stick to what's known as the FODMAPS diet.

FODMAPS is short for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols.

"There's a compound called fructans that is present in wheat, as well as onions and garlic, that can cause bloating. People who think they may have an intolerance need to make sure that they're getting the right advice so that we can rule out more serious conditions," says Bannon.

"If someone seems to have a wheat intolerance, we can put them on a low FODMAPs diet, where we take out foods and then find out how they react. We often find that in such cases people actually can eat wheat, and that it was something else entirely that was annoying them."

Bannon cautions against self-diagnosing food intolerances. Along with dietary fads, this can lead to people cutting out entire food groups, something she says is a bad idea.

"I get concerned when people demonise food for dieting reasons, and when they take out an entire food group, because it can be bad for your overall health," she says.

"I'm a fan of a balanced diet, and if someone needs to lose weight, then they may need to reduce their carbohydrate, and hence bread, intake. But I would never advocate eliminating a food group altogether."

According to the Coeliac Society of Ireland, coeliac disease is a lifelong condition causing people to react badly to gluten, the protein found in wheat, barley, rye and oats. For people with coeliac disease, eating gluten damages the lining of the small intestine, reducing their ability to absorb nutrients.

The incidence of coeliac disease in Ireland is estimated at approximately 1pc of the population, with many coeliacs as yet undiagnosed. The most common symptoms are diarrhoea and weight loss, but there are a wide range of other symptoms including bloating, anaemia and chronic fatigue.

Many coeliacs go undiagnosed because many GPs are unaware of the range of symptoms. Diagnosis requires a blood test followed by a biopsy of the small intestine while on a gluten-containing diet. Undiagnosed and untreated coeliacs face increased risk of cancer and osteoporosis. Children face growth retardation. The only treatment is a strict gluten-free diet for life.

Home baking for health

Despite being a busy working mum, Claire Gubbins finds the time two to three times a week to bake her own bread. The reason? To keep a better eye on exactly what her son John (7) is eating.

“I wouldn’t call myself an enthusiastic baker, but I am a mum that likes to bake because I don’t know what the kids are eating otherwise,” she says.

Like many kids, John picked a particular kind of bread — in his case a brown soda — and refused to eat other kinds. Despite thinking it was healthy, Tipperary-based Claire decided to look up the ingredients, and discovered it contained unnecessary salt and sugar.

“He wouldn’t eat other breads and it wasn’t always convenient to make it to the supermarket in town. So I went online to find out what was in it to see if I could make it myself,” she says. “When I first went about trying to make the bread for him he wasn’t crazy about it. But last year, we took him off sugar during Lent and his taste buds seemed to reawaken. Now he eats home-made bread and really enjoys it.”

Claire tracked down a recipe for spelt yeast bread online and now bakes it regularly.

“People think baking is hard, but if you have the right recipe it’s not a big deal. It takes two minutes while I'm cleaning up the kitchen to get it started, and I do that a couple of times a week. It’s extremely convenient,” she says. “I’m not into baking for its own sake and I’m not into fad diets — I just wanted a nice healthy bread that would suit my family.”

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