Stevie WilliamsComment

Separating the wheat from the chaff

Stevie WilliamsComment
Separating the wheat from the chaff

Monday 13th November


Let Them Eat Cake: food and class






Such a common foodstuff that you probably take it for granted. Like cheese, which we looked at last week, bread is made from very few ingredients, which can be used to create such variety.




Wheat has been cultivated since 8500BC. Bread has become part of our history and identity, with cultures of eating bread varying all over the world. It has been an important symbol in religion, from the unleavened bread served at Passover to “our daily bread”, and Christ as “the bread of life”. At the ruins of the bakery in Pompeii, traces of fourteen different types of bread were found. During the Middle Ages, the poor ate nearly 2kg of bread per day, having access only to the coarsest, roughest loaves. In 1266, the Assize of Bread was introduced, which was the first law in British history to regulate the size and price of bread. Bread has also been a symbol during revolution, with Marie Antoinette supposedly saying “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” (“Let them eat brioche”, otherwise known as ‘Let them eat cake”) when peasants were starving during the French Revolution, and Lenin offering “Peace, bread, land” in the lead-up to the October Revolution.




Already a staple in life, bread was to change completely in 1834, with the development of steel roller mills. With this came the introduction of fine, white flour with a longer shelf-life. This eventually led to the adulteration of flour by adding substances such as alum and chalk, in order to bulk the product out with cheap substances. By the 1950s, bread was being fortified with the nutrients that were now missing after the wheat had gone through industrial processing, and in the early 1960s, the now-controversial Chorleywood process was introduced. This hyper-accelerated method of making bread uses additives to try to recreate a process usually achieved simply with flour, water and salt, and a long fermentation. Of course, the same outcome is in no way achieved, and the resulting product is less tasty and very hard to digest.


Now, industrial methods are still used, with ingredients lists growing longer; a far cry from the three ingredients required to make bread. Despite coeliac disease affecting a very small proportion of the population, many people are unnecessarily choosing gluten-free diets, thinking that this will be healthier and make them feel less bloated. Gluten-free products, however, include a huge amount of ingredients, including sugar for flavour. In general, a switch to slow-fermented artisan bread, in particular sourdough made with wild yeast, can mitigate an uncomfortable, bloated feeling after eating bread.




Andrew Whitley, of Bread Matters and the Real Bread Campaign, gave a compelling lecture in the afternoon, taking us through his history of bread. Andrew began as a Russian linguist, first discovering the importance of bread “in keeping body and soul together” when living in Russia in the late-1960s, when bread prices were controlled by the state. Here, he first ate rye bread, which he said he found almost inedible at first. After working for the BBC Russian service, Andrew opened a bakery in Cumbria, which ran for 25 years, before setting up Bread Matters in 2002, the name based on the title of E. F. Schumacher’s collection of essays, ‘Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered’. While writing the ‘Bread Matters’ book a few years later, he studied for a Master’s in Food Policy, and set up the Real Bread Campaign with Sustain in 2008 as a movement striving for better bread in Britain. Such a rich knowledge of bread making, policy and the wider social benefits of ‘better’ bread, led to a fascinating discussion on ‘the staff of life’.



Andrew spoke about the understanding that the Romans had about different types of bread, and Lucius Annaeus Seneca writing all that time ago about the realisation that white bread wasn’t good for him. He said that in fact the introduction of roller milling wasn’t the first time that producing white bread was the cheaper option, beginning first around 1758. White bread was seen as refined, soft and clean, whereas the grain was perceived to be the “dirty stuff”. In reality, there were dangers of illness from farming cereals, with ergot spores from the outer layers of grain containing lysergic acid, which is in LSD. It is likely that women farming in Salem began to exhibit strange behaviour after being regularly exposed to these spores, resulting in the witch trials.


During the Second World War, the National Loaf was introduced, after white bread was banned in order to make wheat go further during rationing, causing the nation’s health to improve. However, this health improvement was reversed with the arrival of the Chorleywood process, using additives and a cocktail of enzymes, exactly the opposite of fresh bread.


Andrew went through several of the issues within the bread industry now. He explained that the germ is often taken out of wholegrain flour to sell to pharmaceutical companies, so that we can buy products containing vitamin E at a huge cost. He also told us that in recent years, Warburton’s have lost money, causing them to begin production of gluten-free breads, which as Andrew said, means they are making money out of a product to solve a problem that they created in the first place. Another huge worry is that one in three slices of bread now has traces of glyphosate, a component of weedkiller, which the World Health Organisation believe to be a carcinogen.


Buying ‘real’ bread or making your own is better for your health and supports small, local businesses. Through the Real Bread Campaign, Bread Matters and Scotland the Bread (aiming to encourage the farming of heritage wheats in Scotland, to be used by local bakers), Andrew is striving for a better future of bread. A future filled with bread that actually gets mouldy if you don’t eat it quickly enough, but is so good that it never need reach that stage.





Tuesday 14th November




‘The human microbiome’ is a rather hot topic at the moment, and if you don’t know about it already, you soon will…especially if you get to the end of this post.


Dr James Coey, Assistant Dean of Basic Sciences at St George’s University, spent the morning taking us on a whistle-stop tour of the digestive system, before moving on to the human microbiome in the afternoon, which he called “the forgotten organ”. Astonishingly, 70-90% of the human body is made up of microbes; that’s 100 trillion microbial cells. We usually associate microbes with illness from bacteria and viruses, however these ‘bad’ microbes make up only a tiny proportion of the millions of living species.


A growing area of research, roughly 10,000 species have so far been identified, and although microbes were first seen by Anton Leeuwenhoek in the seventeenth century, many are yet to be analysed. We were told that humans are 99.9% the same, however the human microbiome can vary by around 80-90%. Considering how noticeable a 0.1% difference is, it’s baffling to try to process the variation between everyone’s microbiome.


We have microbes all over us: in the mouth, pharynx, respiratory system, skin, stomach, intestines and urogenital tract. We are first exposed to them when we are born, picking up a whole host of our mother’s microbes as we enter into the world. For those born by Caesarean section, who miss out on those vital microbes and can therefore be more prone to allergies later in life, it is now recognised that they should be smothered with a swab taken from the mother to expose them to her microbes.


Your microbiome can be affected by factors such as your age, ethnicity, diet and whether you are taking medication. Even whether you are left- or right-handed can have an effect, meaning you are likely to be exposing one hand more to microbes than the other through touch, and then making contact with your skin. The microbiome is involved in mineral absorption, vitamin production and works closely with the immune system, 70% of which is localised to the digestive tract.


Dr James Coey stressed that where the microbiome is concerned, it is hard to know what is cause and what is effect, however there are studies looking into links between the microbiome and risk of disease. Obesity has already been linked to the microbiome. Studies on germ-free rats show that the gut flora from an overweight human inserted into the animal will cause them to become obese, and likewise the gut flora from an underweight human inserted into the animal will cause them to become thinner. Your microbiome is passed down from you mother, so it is likely that you will end up being of a similar shape and size to her. There is also potentially an association between antibiotic use and obesity, as antibiotics kill both ‘bad’ and ‘good’ microbes. It is important after taking antibiotics to eat probiotics, to reintroduce bacteria into your gut.


We discussed ways in which people are trying to ‘reset’ their microbiome in order to improve their health, including through faecal transplantation. In BBC Radio Four’s Hunting with the Hadza, Jeff Leach, founder of the Human Food Project, talks through a slightly unsettling experiment using a turkey baster to try to transplant one of the most diverse microbiomes in the world into his gut. For a less risky and a more realistic longer-term option, you can improve your microbiome through a varied diet. Tim Spector talks through this in detail in The Diet Myth, which is a fascinating read if you are interested in finding out more about “the forgotten organ”.