Producing food on an industrial scale presupposes a trade-off or two. Unfortunately, nutritional value is one of the first things to be sacrificed when food companies seek to make their products easier to produce and last longer. When bread experienced its industrialized transformation, food scientists worked with plant breeders to create an affordable (high-yielding) wheat hybrid, farmed with high doses of nitrogen, potash, and phosphorous fertilizers. Next, they sought to refine the resulting whole grain down to a snowy-white, oxidization-resistant flour that could last for several months — all at significant vitamin and mineral loss.
In the processing of whole wheat to 70 percent extraction white flour, 77 percent of thiamine is lost, as is 80 percent of riboflavin, 86 percent of vitamin E, 84 percent of magnesium, 77 percent of potassium, and 60 percent of calcium, to name just a few. Last, they developed a bread-making method that uses an assortment of enzymes and additives, along with ultra–high-speed mixing. This produces a squishy, cotton-like loaf with scarcely any nutritional value, or flavor.
Perhaps more important, the high-tech changes in bread over the past 50 or so years has coincided with a dramatic spike in wheat allergies. Andrew Whitley, author of Bread Matters (Andrews McMeel), believes it’s because the bread is made too quickly. He cites new research showing that when bread dough is not given enough time to ferment, there isn’t time for important changes to happen. Fermentation allows naturally occurring enzymes to break down carbohydrates into sugars on which yeast feeds. And while that yeast is given ample time to feed, lactic acid bacteria are also at work, enabling the yeast to produce more carbon dioxide in addition to helping the wheat gluten become more elastic. According to Whitley, such changes serve to 1) enhance the nutritional properties of bread, 2) make nutrients more bio-available, 3) counteract anti-nutrients in flour, 4) lower the glycemic index, 5) control potential spoilage organisms, and 6) neutralize the parts of gluten that are harmful to people with celiac disease and other wheat allergies.
An organic baker with 25 years of experience, Whitley also points to research showing that a combination of organically grown wheat and stone-milling — where the wheat bran, germ, and starchy endosperm are crushed and allowed to remain in the flour — vastly increases the minerals available in bread flour. Chances are, your local artisan baker uses the exact bread-making practices and organic flours advocated by Whitley. Choose your bread wisely.