There are many things about the issue of bread and health that are absolutely fascinating.
For a start bread is one of the first complex, processed foods human beings made. It doesn’t exist in the wild. Even its standard main ingredient, cereal (in the forms of wheat, rye, barley etc) aren’t readily digestible without being ground, rendered as a paste with water and baked.
Of course there will be examples of cooking with soaked grains, however despite the relative labour intensiveness of bread it has trumped most of these alternatives, probably because it’s far more digestible not to mention pleasing.
What this allows us to do is to look back through human history and take a very long view of one particular type of food and its relationship with human health.
First up is Professor Rosalie David. Prof. David is an expert on mummies. Sppecifically she works in bio-medical Egyptology which means that she uses archaological remains to investigate the health issues that plagued ancient Egyptians.
High on the list were dental problems. Egyptians suffered very badly from wear on their teeth – ‘attrition’ is the term Rosalie used.
Essentially the amount of grit in the bread ancient Egyptians made ground down the teeth and lead to dental abcesses and eventually to death.
Ancient Egypt being Ancient Egypt there were plenty of other ways to die. Doubtless death in infancy and from childbirth were significant factors, disease, starvation and so forth, and the people standing underneath when the Sphynx’s nose dropped off presumably didn’t fare too well either.
However for Egyptians that lived past a certain age dental health was a major problem, not least because the effects were cumulative. The Egyptians were known for their love of bread and they ate a lot of it.
It’s also interesting to note what they didn’t suffer from. In modern societies cancer is a major killer for people over a certaiin again. However there is almost no evidence of it in mummified remains. Even childhood cancer, which might be less attributable to environmental factors than cancer in old age, is at a rate far below that we see now.
However I digress. What the skulls establish is that the link between diet and health is not a simple issue. The impacts extend beyond the health of the gut, obesity and so forth. Bread, being a near constant throughout recorded history in the West, provides a very interesting case study.
Next John Letts. I went to see John early on while researching the series and discovered that he’d been researching ergotism. Ergot is a fungus that grows primarily on rye and when ingested causes hallucinations, vascular constriction (i.e. your blood vessels shrink) which leads to parts of your body losing their blood supply for some hours which causes intense pain, affected extremities to necrotise (i.e. die) and presumably thereafter things like gangrene set in. Not good.
John explained that he’s discovered, and had confirmed through spectral analysis, that the sourdough baking method ‘de-natures’, ie neutralises, ergot. My ears immediately pricked up because I associate ergotism very much with the mediaeval period. That’s partly because we have records of outbreaks of St Anthony’s fire, as it was kknown, from that era but also because various things, from the Children’s Crusade (which may be apocryphal or constructed from a variety of separate incidents), to the particularly horrific mediaeval imagery of hell.
So John and I chewed the fat and worked through some of the necessary conditions for ergot to get into the food chain in a form that would lead to people suffering St Anthony’s fire. (If you want a little extended fat chewing I recorded an extra interview with John – below – a few days ago when I dropped in to see him, surrounded by sacks of heritage wheat, in Buckinghamshire).
Firstly it requires rye. It’s not an absolute precondition, but ergot’s prevalence in rye is about 100 times greater than in wheat. It’s to do with how far the plant opens up in order that ergot spores can insert themselves and grow. Rye’s ‘flowers’ open, wheat’s don’t.
Then there’s climate. Ergot requires damp conditions in the spring. It’s hardly surprising that ergot would be more prevalent on the North Western seaboard of Europe than in the continental interior.
Now John, being an archaeo-botanist and an expert on thatching, has done a lot of work on patterns of cereal growing through history and points out that rye moved westwards with the collapse of the Roman Empire as the germanic peoples moved across Europe and settled areas like the low countries, northern France and Britain. So during the 5th and 6th centuries we see rye move into areas where the climate lends itself to a greater likelihood of ergot infection.
At that point we might expect our Saxon forebears to succumb to some pretty horrible trips without the benefit of Grateful Dead LPs to help them though the whole bad vibe.
However here John’s key discovery about the impact of the high lactic acid levels on ergot is critical. The rye growing Germanic peoples made their bread almost exclusively from rye flour. It’s not possible to get rye to rise using the sort of yeasts produced as a by product of brewing. It requires a sourdough method, ergo (as opposed to ergot) pure rye loaves will not tend to result in ergotism – I won’t say cannot, but that is the inference.
So to produce ergotised bread one needs a mix of rye and other flours that are sufficiently ‘light’ that they can be raised with yeast and not a sourdough leaven. In the very early mediaeval period the Normans introduced rivet wheat and rivet produced a very white flour.
There’s a lot of debate about whether Anglo Saxon society was more egalitarian than Norman society but we do know that feudal Norman society was highly stratified and that status was reflected in the bread people ate with the whitest wheat breads being the province of the rulers and the rich and black rye breads being that of the poor (the politics of which you’ll hear discussed if you listen in on Thursday).
So the collision of Norman French and Anglo Saxon Germanic cultures gave us a mediaeval society that grew both rye and wheat. Indeed while the ethnic boundaries between French and German populations have remained remarkably static since the late dark ages we might guess that food, including new grain varieties, would have been keenly traded between the two. Even in the 21st century billions of people experience other cultures through their food before knowing almost anything else about them.
Moreover mediaeval farmers typically grew crops of mixed grains, a maslin, for the simple reason that if disease or weather affected one species or strain there was a chance that the others would survive. It was a hedge against famine. It meant that wheat and rye were grown and milled together and where the flour was suitable to make a yeasted loaf there was the possibility that ergot would both be present and that there would be no lactic acid to neutralise it.
How far ergotism influenced mediaeval culture is again debatable but one could point to the 1960s and argue that a relatively small number of people dropping acid and making records had a disproportionate influence on wider culture (and ergot contains a natural form of LSD, so the analogy has some relevance).
A further example of bread and health I could have included is the research of the Victorian physician and the pioneer of epidemiology John Snow. Snow is best known for his detective work that resulted in the tracing of a London cholera epidemic to a contaminated water pump in Soho (he’s commemorated with a monument and a pub named after him on Broadwick Street). However he also published a study that suggested a link between bread adulterated with alum (a serious problem in C19th Britain) and rickets, a hypothesis that met with some scepticism at the time but that modern medicine has shown to have been impressively deduced.
All of which tells us we should treat the relationship between food and health in general, and between bread and health in particular, seriously.
My trip to Chorley Wood to record the last segment of the programme left me with some qualms. The debate over health and bread is becoming heated. On the one hand the food industry tells us that there’s nothing wrong with bread produced by modern industrial methods, on the other it’s happy to fill our supermarket shelves with products for people who believe they are gluten intolerant.
Listening back to Gordon Polson he sounded to me rather too prepped. Indeed he had a team of PR people with him. Rather than engage he verged on the stonewalling – putting out a simple message that there’s nothing wrong with modern industrial bread and that you can trust it and its labelling more than you can trust unwrapped, unlabelled bread. When I asked for details of research saying that bread isn’t bad for one his PR people sent sent me material from the British Nutrition Foundation, a body funded by big food and accsed of being little more than a lobbying operation by its critics. Whether that’s unfair or not the BNF most certainly cannot claim to be independently authoratative in the way that a research department at a teaching hospital or university could.
Then again I got two rather more generous assessments of industrial bread from Dan Schickentanz – who doesn’t share some artisan bakers’ distain for Greggs, rather he has considerable respect for the company – and Prof. Steven Kaplan who argues that “Enzymes are ultimately less toxic, organoleptically and biochemically, than the panoply of improvers, additives, correctors, exhausters, and regulators. I don’t see the sense of a special stigmatization for enzymes, as yucky as they are.” So yucky perhaps, worth of demonisation, maybe not.
However the anecdotal evidence, and such research as has been done into sourdough long ferment bread, ought to prompt greater interest and proper, large-scale research. Andrew Whitley certainly believes such evidence as there is points to sourdough having considerable health benefits and Chorley Wood Process bread being problematic.
Certainly society should no more subsidise the food industry through paying for the health service to fix problems arising from its products than it should subsidise the alcohol or tobacco industries. If there are probelms they should be identified, if there aren’t then we should lay to rest some of the concerns that lead people to buy expensive alternatives because they believe modern food is making them ill. However the stance taken by the present government suggests that we’re unlikely to see either research or action any time soon.