Why are so many of us allergic to bread?

Sourdough sliced

Image by treehouse1977 via Flickr

Chorleywood: The bread that changed Britain

Recently there has been a lot written about hospital sandwiches.
In they come on the trolley, and patients in Day Units are told to help themselves.  They poke around, reading labels, then reluctantly walk away from the shrink wrapped, white cotton-wool plastic bread, that makes today’s ‘nutritious’ sandwich.
Nutritious for a company’s bank balance, but not for the poor hungry patient.
These sandwiches are made of bread produced from the specially-developed Chorleywood  recipe.  White or brown, it is probably just a stomach filler, rather than a tasty snack.   Recent comment and research probably shows that so-called wheat intolerance could have been induced by the way this bread is made;  after all,  our grand-parents didn’t seem to suffer from the bread allergies the way we do.
Like so many foods in Britain today, many people are told to avoid them.  First milk, with scientists such as  Michel Montignac recommending we drink organic milk to avoid the hormones found in mass-produced products;  now I wonder if ‘bread intollerance’ could be down to the way bread is produced using ‘new’ ingredients.

Healthy eating

There is also the matter of health. The Chorleywood loaf has twice the amount of yeast of a traditional loaf, it has enzymes and oxidants added and while certain chemical additives such as potassium bromate have been banned,  bread campaigners believe it is behind the growth in the number of people who struggle to digest bread.

Paul Barker of the  British Federation of Bakers says “every day I have people who say they have given up eating bread and then find they don’t have a problem with bread that’s been allowed to develop slowly. My sourdough takes more than 70 hours to make.”

Proving this, however, is another matter. Prof John Warner at Imperial College in London says there has been a marked increase in allergies and intolerance of wheat and bread over the last 50 years, just as there has been an increase in allergies to dust, nuts and dozens of other items.

However, three-quarters of people who believe they have an allergy or medical intolerance to bread show no signs of any symptoms in blind testing.

He himself though is wary of what sort of bread he eats. “We have several pounds of bacteria in our guts and there have been marked changes in this gut flora in affluent societies over the last 50 years.”

And while producers are not obliged to say what enzymes are added to the bread, Polson says there is no evidence that it is any harder to digest.

“There are some additional additives to give it a bit more shelf life, a bit of extra softness – but all it’s doing is augmenting what is happening in the natural process.”

How we changed from crusty loaf to ‘cotton wool’
For the last 50 years, bread first produced in Britain has spread across the world, and can even be found on supermarket shelves in France.  France is home to some of tastiest bread, but even the gourmet French market has succumbed to the convenience of the sliced,  plastic wrapped, sandwich loaf.
This, I am sad to say, was first createby British bakers  at the Chorleywood Flour Milling and Bakery Research Association laboratories in 1961.  Today, more than 80% of all loaves in Britain are made the Chorleywood way. Even the fresh crusty bread baked at your local supermarket is probably made this way.

The scientists at Chorleywood managed to produce a loaf 40% softer, reducing its cost and more than doubled its life. What is more, each slice was uniform, making it easier to prepare sandwiches to take to work or school.

Its detractors may say it tastes like cotton wool”, but  “it is a process we invented and we should be very proud of it,” says Gordon Polson, of the British Federation of Bakers. “UK bread is around the cheapest in the world.”  But to someone having to buy alternatives because their child can’t tolerate bread – these are not cheap.

This started in the late 1950s and the need to try to find a way for small bakers to compete with new industrial bakeries. The light brown “national loaf” during the long years of rationing had, for many consumers, outstayed its welcome. Soft, springy, white bread – that did not go stale quickly – was what the public wanted.The research bakers at Chorleywood discovered that by adding hard fats, extra yeast and a number of chemicals and then mixing at high speed you got a dough that was ready to bake in a fraction of the time it normally took.  Bread could be made easily and economically with low protein British wheat, rather than the wheat traditionally imported from Canada, etc.

The move was good for British farmers growing low-protein wheat, but with industrial bakers quickly adopting the process, rather than helping small bakeries, the research at Chorleywood helped put thousands of them out of business.

But for some bread lovers, particularly the “artisan bread movement” anything ‘Chorleywood’ is simply not real bread.

The process is now used in more than 30 countries with Colombia and Ecuador taking it on in the last few years. Britain’s white bread market is around £1bn a year and most of that is Chorleywood bread.  It’s cheap, filling, soft, long-lasting and, because it can turn low-protein British wheat in to palatable bread, a boon to British farmers.

Waste

But while it’s considered by researchers at the food technology research institute in Chipping Campden to be a marvel of food engineering – the public does not seem to value it too highly.

Almost a third of the bread bought in Britain – 680,000 tonnes a year – is thrown away.

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One thought on “Why are so many of us allergic to bread?

  1. Irene June 12, 2011 at 5:54 pm Reply

    Nice one Verite!
    Long live ‘real’ delicious fresh baked bread!!

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