I wade into the great gluten debate to uncover the pros and cons of this much talked about protein. Is there a grain of truth in the theory that gluten is bad for us, or is our fervour for free-from misplaced?
For Stockport baker Rick Cowburn, gluten-rich grains are his bread and butter. In fact, he treats them like family.
For the last 16 years, he’s not only lavished love on his two sons, but has been a doting father to a sourdough starter, a natural ferment of wheat flour and water – an ‘offspring’ of baking guru Paul Hollywood.
“Paul let me have a section of his sourdough starter when I worked with him at Cliveden House – and it was he who gave me my enthusiasm for baking. Over the years, I’ve taken a little out each day to make my new loaves and then fed it and changed its nappies to ensure it’s happy,” he says. “It’s like looking after children: love them and they’ll thrive, rush them and they’ll wreak the house!”
For artisan bakers like Rick, a former patisserie chef, who opened Cowburn’s Family Bakery in High Lane eight years ago, respect and time are the key ingredients in good bread. And, while one in five of us are now shunning gluten-rich breads and pasta to follow a free-from lifestyle – considering gluten a foe rather than a friend – Rick says the grains aren’t to blame, it’s the process.
Foe or friend?
“A lot of people say they can’t tolerate gluten, but I say they’ve just eaten rubbish bread for 30 years and their bodies can’t take it anymore,” says Rick, whose bakery was a finalist in ITV’s Britain’s Best Bakery. “Bread is like a good casserole – it should be three days before your dough even looks at the oven, and it needs mixing and resting so the enzymes can do their work, producing beneficial bacteria that breaks down the gluten.”
As an obvious ingredient in bread, cakes and cereals, gluten – found in wheat, rye and barley – also lurks in everything from sausages and sweets to stock cubes and soy sauce, and like the tendons in muscles it helps doughs rise, making our breads bouncy and cakes springy and providing that sought after chewy texture.
But there’s a downside. At the extreme end of the scale, gluten can trigger coeliac disease, a serious and life-long autoimmune disease, effecting 1 in 100 people in the UK, which causes inflammation, diarrhoea, nausea, anemia and sometimes even internal bleeding. At the other, it’s thought to aggravate conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome and endometriosis, and has been linked (although there’s no scientific data) to chronic spikes in blood sugar, frail bones, mood swings and poor concentration.
Always keen to exploit a gap in the market, every supermarket now has a free-from aisle, while celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Victoria Beckham can’t get enough ‘ancient grains’ – think spelt, teff and quinoa – which are thought to be ‘kinder’ to the digestive system thanks to lower levels of gluten.
This heightened demand has had a positive knock-on effect for those with coeliac disease, of course, not least because free-from foods are now more easily available, but there’s also increased awareness of the disease and recent legislation means restaurants and takeaways are required by law to tell customers if any of the top 14 allergens are present; making it easier to eat out.
But is cutting out gluten healthy, or even necessary, for those who haven’t been diagnosed with a medical condition? “Over the past 20 years rates of coeliac disease diagnosis in the UK have increased four-fold but this is most likely due to improvements in the way it is identified and diagnosed and a greater awareness among patients and doctors, as opposed to a true increase in incidence,” says Kathryn Miller, food policy lead at Coeliac UK.
Skip wheat, rye and barley and you also miss out on its significant health benefits, says Emma Carder, registered dietician at Emma Carder Nutrition, based in Liverpool. “They’re packed with nutrients and are a great fuel supply, with wholegrain varieties helping to control blood sugar and cholesterol levels. But gluten free does not automatically equal healthier. Shop bought gluten-free foods are just as likely to have added fats and sugars as their gluten equivalents.”
And while gluten is commonly portrayed as the evil stepmother of cereal, could other ingredients actually be to blame for our more monstrous symptoms? “Gluten may not be the cause of the problem at all,” says Emma. “Research has shown that a group of sugars and fibres, collectively known as FODMAPS – also found in wheat, rye and barley – can also cause significant gut symptoms. These sugars aren’t broken down easily and end up being fermented, leading to digestive discomfort.”
Perhaps we’ve all had too much of a good thing. Since the Second World War, an unprecedented rise in processed foods has seen gluten used as a binding agent in a mind boggling array of foods, and with the price and yield of wheat, in particular, being prioritized over quality, many believe mass-produced wheat flour has also lost its flavour and goodness.
“While we make 300 kilos of flour a day, industrial mills might be producing that amount every hour,” says Caroline Doherty, from her stoneground flour mill at Walk Mill, Cheshire. “Stone grinding is a slower, cooler process compared with the hot, high-speed process of the modern metal roller mills – and it makes sense that more of the natural goodness is retained.
“Anecdotally customers who have had stomach problems eating other breads report that they do not have them with ours. For me, that’s down to the purer process: nothing else is added to the bag.”
Indeed, many believe the death knell for a decent loaf (and artisan bakers) came with the advent of industrial-scale gas ovens, automated baking units and the high-speed Chorleywood Bread Process of the 1960s (which enabled a sliced loaf to be made in less than three hours), and while 90 per cent of Italian bread is made in small bakeries, in Britain, only five per cent is made this way.
“We’ve lost touch with what real bread is all about,” says Rick. “We’ve skipped the slow, natural process and the result is more like cement – it’s a dough ball sitting in our stomach.”
And it’s not just an old wives (or baker’s) tale either. In 2010, a team of Italian scientists showed the gluten content in bread made the traditional way was much lower. Long fermentation allows natural enzymes to unpick the complex molecules of gluten in the dough and turn them into digestible amino acids.
“We all think gluten is to blame for our digestion problems but the irony is highly-processed breads, for example, have very little flour in them – around 30 per cent. The rest is water and up to 40 different chemicals to stabilize and preserve the honeycomb structure,” says Rick.
“There’s only four ingredients in my bread: water, flour, salt and lots of love and craftsmanship – and not a conveyor belt in sight.”
Originally published in Bitten magazine