The Wheat Problem

Actually, it’s not just one problem, it’s quite a few. Worldwide, more wheat is consumed than any other grain, and that’s mostly in the form of bread. We grow vast prairies of the stuff, and that means selecting for varieties that are disease-resistant, will mature quickly and yield heavily, and keep for a long time. None of which has anything to do with nutritional value or digestibility.
But it doesn’t stop there. Industrial bread production demands a flour that’s high in gluten and contains little or no bran, which ‘cuts’ the gluten strands and prevents a good rise. It prefers a fine white flour, which is mainly starch, so some nutrients have to be added back in. It also demands a quick rise for maximum productivity, which means adding lots of one particular kind of yeast that’s fast-acting and reliable. So we end up with a loaf which is light and white, but not easy to digest or very nutritious.
It isn’t just that it’s high in gluten. Traditionally, bread was made with a home-grown sourdough starter, which would contain a mixture of yeasts and bacteria. These find their way in from the environment, and the starter has to be fed and kept warm so that there is always some for the next batch of bread. When you actually make the bread, it needs to ‘prove’ several times, for much longer than a commercially made loaf. But it’s during the proving that the alchemy happens, breaking down the wheat structure – including the phytates that inhibit iron absorption -making nutrients available, and effectively pre-digesting it for you.
So the old-fashioned way may give you a coarser-looking loaf, but it is both more digestible and richer in nutrients. We are only just coming to understand the full complexity of the process, and it’s opened the way for some exciting new research. We’ve used our ingenuity to produce wheat that suits modern industrial farming and bread production, so there is no reason why we can’t now come up with strains that people can digest better, and that will yield their nutrients more readily. Alongside the revival of older wheat cultivars, the way is open for some wonderful new ones.