The staff of life

March 26, 2018 § 17 Comments

I was in a deposition a couple of weeks ago, and before opposing counsel came in I was chatting with my client, a guy from Eastern Europe. We were talking about bread and he lamented the absence of heavy, dark sourdoughs here in the U.S.A.

I mentioned that we bake sourdough at home and that I eat it for breakfast with lots of butter and jam, and for lunch with peanut butter.

The court reporter blurted out, “How can you be that skinny and eat that much bread?”

I didn’t break the bad news to her. At 5’11” and 155 lbs., I’m not skinny for a historically healthy person. If anything, I’m a bit on the large side. But for a modern American, where the standards for normal body size begin with “immense” and go rapidly upwards, I suppose the word “skinny” fits.

But I did break the good news. You can eat dense, high-calorie bread, and eat a bunch of it, and not gain weight.

Bread’s bad rap

I thought I would try to prove this by reading some dreck on the Internet, but there is an extraordinary amount of digital nonsense that says bread is really bad for you. The reasons are mostly the same, no matter what article you read: Bread is bad for you because refined bread causes sugar spikes, bread turns to sugar (and we all know that sugar is bad), wheat is grown with deadly pesticides, commercial bread additives are potentially carcinogenic, and bread contains gluten, a substance that makes you sick and wrecks your health.

A quick search for “Roman Meal bread ingredients” confirmed some of this when you click on the ingredients button down the page. This go-to supermarket loaf contains “Coarse Whole Wheat Flour, Water, Brown Sugar, Whole Grain Wheat Flakes, Yeast, Vital Wheat Gluten, Whole Grain Rye Flakes, Soybean Oil, Honey, Molasses, Salt, Cultured Wheat Flour, Dough Conditioners (Calcium Sulfate, Enzymes), Yeast Nutrients (Ammonium Sulfate, Monocalcium Phosphate), Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid, Soy Lecithin.”

Roman Meal has huge amounts of sugar added in the form of sucrose and molasses. The malted barley flour is fermented barley, which results in more sugars and more sweetness. A breakdown of the ingredients in Wonder Bread is equally depressing; the main ingredient after flour and water is sugar. But the biggest knock on these two supermarket staples is that they are uncooked to a degree that they taste like soggy, barely dry dough. Forget a crackly crust, or chewy bread that makes your jaw sore. Modern store bread can easily be eaten without teeth.

And compared to those two supermarket staples, the McBun is a veritable nutritional sewer. Unless, of course, you’re big on high fructose corn syrup, sugar, calcium sulfate, calcium carbonate, ammonium sulfate, ammonium chloride, sodium stearoyl lactylate, datem, azodicarbonamide, mono- and diglycerides, ethoxylated monoglycerides, monocalcium phosphate, enzymes, guar gum, calcium peroxide, calcium propionate and sodium propionate. Aren’t those all flavors of ice cream?

Scientists have taken a serious look at wheat and its component part gluten, and have tried to address how it affects humans. A great overview of the main types of problems people have eating wheat is laid out in this this scientific review, which breaks down the various difficulties that some people run into eating the most staple of all staples.

But one question in these investigations don’t answer is, “What are you calling bread?” People who exhibit gluten intolerance may be ingesting nothing but commercial, sugary, chemical-laden, starchy foods that use bleached white flour as the main ingredient, but does that make it bread?

Not in my house, it doesn’t.

Bread’s good rap

Of course if you don’t like one set of facts, keep googling and you will eventually hit upon a set that more closely conforms to your personal prejudices. For example, these folks insist that whole wheat bread is quite good for you.

“Scores of studies,” they say, without citing any of them, “have found that whole-grain carbs can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, colon cancer, strokes, and obesity.” And they recommend a whopping three servings a day. Yum! Sounds good to me.

The payback to all this gluten gluttony? You’ll be more energetic, you’ll be healthier overall, you’ll live longer, you’ll feel happier, you’ll be skinnier, you’ll shit like a bike racer, and you’ll be blessed with healthier hair and skin. I don’t know about you, but #5 pretty much closes the deal.

The taxonomy of bread

Getting back to the deliberate confusion of calling a variety of things bread, regardless of what they contain or how they’re made, it occurred to me after wading through much sound and fury, signifying clickbait, that one problem people have with bread is defining it. Is Roman Meal bread? Is Wonder Bread bread? Is the McBun bread? If so, saying “bread is bad” is probably pretty safe, at least relative to other food options out there, such as sand or plutonium.

But how then do we explain the fact that bread, the “staff of life,” has marched in lockstep with the exploding human population for the last 10,000 years? If bread is so toxic and so inextricably linked to illness and bowel disease in the 21st Century, why didn’t it kill us off in the first twenty? And if you are a Christian sort of person, you’d have to agree that for such a terrible, toxic substance, bread sure gets it share of airtime in the bible.

The article on gluten-related disorders by Sapone et al. suggests that “One possible explanation is that the selection of wheat varieties with higher gluten content has been a continuous process during the last 10,000 years, with changes dictated more by technological rather than nutritional reasons. Wheat varieties grown for thousands of years and mostly used for human nutrition up to the Middle Ages, such as Triticum monococcum and T. dicoccum, contain less quantities of the highly toxic 33-mer gluten peptide [65].”

In other words, the wheat we eat now differs from the wheat we ate in the Middle Ages. Wheat varieties have suffered from a dramatic decrease in genetic diversity since 1960. One study suggests that relatively recent nutritional changes show up in the content of the wheat itself: A comparison of modern wheat with wheat from 100 years ago shows a steady reduction in micronutrient values.

Modern wheat yields more calories than historic varieties. The variety that accounts for 99% of all wheat production, semi-dwarf wheat, yields more grains per acre, is resistant to the devastating disease of wheat rust, is hardier due to its shorter stalk, and is easily harvested by heavy equipment. There’s more of it and it’s cheaper to eat, so we do what everyone does when you shove something in front of our face, we eat more of it, and as with anything else that is over-consumed, it causes problems.

But modern wheat is much more caloric than historic varieties were due to changes in processing as well. Until the early 20th Century, almost all wheat was milled so that the entire wheat grain got crushed up and used as flour. Roller milling allowed the healthy parts of the wheat to be efficiently stripped away, leaving nothing but the starchy kernel. The result was bread that had more calories, but became a barren nutritional landscape.

Sound familiar? Cue Wonder Bread …

My point, then, is that when we talk about bread, we’re probably talking about completely different things. Bread bashers are talking about what they buy in the store or pick up at Fasty McFastfood. But I’m not talking about the garbage that supermarkets pass off for bread; that kind of white sugar-squish never makes it onto my plate. I’m talking about something else.

Cooking made easy and other redundancies

A lady in our complex recently signed up for one of those Blue Apron-type services, where they bring you the ingredients, the recipe, and make home cooking “easy and simple.” Of course the problem isn’t that cooking is complicated or difficult. If it were, people would have died out long ago, and baking bread is Exhibit #1.

So when I say “bread,” I’m really talking about a well-defined thing whose ingredients couldn’t be simpler: Flour, water, yeast, salt, and maybe some uncrushed seeds for variety and flavor. Baking bread is simple, too. All it takes is the one luxury that rich people can never seem to buy: Time.

That’s not to say that all baking is simple, but making a delicious and wholesome loaf of whole wheat bread is flat-out easy, especially after you’ve done it a few times. All of which brings us back to that deposition and the astounded court reporter.

My go-to loaf these days is a whole wheat sourdough with six grains. It takes about 24 hours to make; this includes getting the starter going, making the dough, letting it rise overnight, setting it out to rise again for two hours during the day, about 45 minutes in the oven, and another hour to cool. All of this can be done in between other things; the total amount of time actually making and baking is about 90 minutes. And of course my wife’s legendary white-whole wheat loaves can be knocked out in a couple of hours, also while doing other things, taking up less than thirty minutes of actual “doing.”

Sourdough bread leverages the live yeast and bacteria in starter to ferment the dough, which results in a “mini-ecosystem packed with flavor-making potential. Both yeast and bacteria increase the acidity of the dough, which fends off harmful bacteria and gives sourdough its characteristic tangy taste.” Sourdough is healthier and easier to digest, and “the long fermentation time required and acidity of the dough are what really contribute to its health benefits.”

Cycling and bread

Along with water in my water bottle, I’ve found no other food will sustain you on a ride  as long as a granite-heavy slab of multi-grain sourdough slathered with butter and homemade jam, percolating away in your guts. It powers your legs long after the quick shot of “Barbie food,” as my friend Dan Sievert calls gels and similar snacks, has been vaporized.

Another huge benefit is that thick, dense, grainy breads crowd out other snack foods once you’re off the bike. After a slab of bread you just don’t want to eat anything else, especially if you’ve washed it down with a tumbler of cold milk.

Bread is also social. We talk about it in the kitchen, we compare it to previous loaves, and we excitedly peek into the oven to see what the newest offering looks like. Every loaf is a creation, albeit a temporary one, and hardly immortal.

When baked the old way, it sustained mankind for millenia, so I think it will get me through the Donut Ride. And if this weekend is any indication, it may even do so with flying colors. Wonder “Bread” need not apply.



Eating home-baked bread is one of the finest things in life. The smell, the taste, and the enjoyment of something so simple yet infinitely complex. It’s good for your riding, too. If this has been a good read, please consider subscribing … Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Thank you!




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