Wheat Intolerance and Digestion Problems
Growing numbers of people are finding that they suffer discomfort when they eat wheat and wheat products. The growth in sufferers broadly coincides with the industrialisation of baking, leaving many to draw the conclusion that the problem is not necessarily in the wheat itself, but in how it is processed.
Baker and author, Andrew Whitley, is a leading advocate of this connection between industrialisation and intolerance. There is a growing body of evidence to support the idea. This page, which draws heavily from his excellent book Bread Matters, sets out the basic points and makes some suggestions on how intolerance sufferers can continue to enjoy bread.
(You can buy Bread Matters from our online shop – it’s a fascinating read and is packed with great baking advice and recipes.)
As with most conditions, people are affected to differing degrees.
The most extreme form of wheat intolerance is known as coeliac disease, which is a serious reaction to gliadin, one of the gluten-forming proteins present mostly in wheat but also in smaller amounts in rye, barley and oats. Coeliac disease has a genetic component and, according to the Coeliac Society, may affect as many as one in 100 people in the UK.
Below the surface is a much larger group of people who have a sensitivity to wheat with varying degrees of severity, from mild discomfort when consuming bread to a condition known as ‘wheat-dependent exercise-induced anaphylaxis’.
The modern supermarket loaf has a soft, squishy texture and an enzyme-extended shelf life. It seems that the quality of a loaf is judged by its external appearance, rather than by its dietary value. These loaves have a reduced dietary fibre and micronutrients (compared to whole wheat) and a bland flavour.
The processes used to create these loaves, driven by a relentless drive to reduce costs, rely on the excessive use of baker’s yeast, much reduced fermentation time and a significant dose of artificial additives and enzymes all of which leads to suspect digestibility.
The processes produce a loaf with different chemical substances from those produced by a more traditional approach and it is these substances that cause the digestion problems.
The timing of the emergence of coeliac disease, which was first diagnosed in the 1950s, coincides with the post-war drive to industrialise food production including baking.
Widespread wheat intolerance, however, emerged less than 20 years ago. At almost the same time, people started talking about an invasive strain of yeast called Candida albicans, which caused joint pain and digestive discomfort.
Andrew Whitley recalls in his book that at this time people started ringing up asking for breads made without wheat or baker’s yeast. As luck would have it, he had developed a sourdough rye bread that contained no wheat and was raised using a spontaneous fermentation (lasting about 24 hours) of ‘wild’ yeasts present in the flour. Customers tried it and found that their digestive problems were eased.
This experience was echoed elsewhere, as more people sought bread that didn’t contain wheat, or industrial yeast, or both. The bread on offer in the shops seemed to be making them ill.
The most interesting recent research, with considerable implications for making our daily bread wholesome again, has shown that lactic acid bacteria are capable of de-activating the very substances that cause wheat allergy and coeliac disease.
In 2002 Italian scientists demonstrated, for the first time that, with selected sourdough, lactic acid bacteria could neutralise some of the wheat gliadin that attacks the intestinal mucosa of coeliacs.
In 2004 a Japanese study showed how the lactic fermentation of soy sauce completely removes any allergens from wheat, which is one of its two main ingredients. This is no mean feat, since other studies have proved that the particular parts of the wheat gliadin that harm humans are hardly affected at all by stomach enzymes, and very acidic gastric and duodenal fluids.
It seems to be the unique property of certain lactic acid bacteria that, given time, they can knock out some otherwise impervious elements that make wheat unpalatable for so many people. Modern processes do not allow this to happen, leaving the allergens in place.
A ray of hope
But what do these are test-tube studies mean for the bread we eat – or can’t eat?
Most remarkably, the Italians made a bread with 30 per cent wheat flour (plus oats, millet and buckwheat) and fermented the dough with selected sourdough lactobacilli. It took 24 hours to hydrolyse almost completely the wheat gliadins and the ‘33-mer peptide, the most potent inducer of gut-derived human T-cell lines’ (the things that do the damage) in coeliac patients. They made a similar bread raised with baker’s yeast and fed samples of both to coeliacs in a double-blind acute challenge.
The results were emphatic, 13 out of 17 patients showed a marked alteration of intestinal permeability (popularly known as ‘leaky gut’) after eating the yeast-raised bread. But the same 13 patients, when fed the sourdough bread, showed no significant reaction: remarkably, coeliacs had eaten bread with wheat in it with no ill effects.
Currently, the only treatment for coeliac disease is a lifetime abstention from gluten. This experiment is a ray of hope for coeliacs and the wheat intolerant.
A traditional way to lessen suffering
There was a time when almost all breadmaking involved lactic acid bacteria and a long fermentation time. Before modern yeasts were isolated, most bread was fermented with what we would now call a sourdough and it would have taken many hours to rise. It is an intriguing possibility that, even if the wheats our forefathers cultivated contained the same potentially harmful gliadins as modern varieties, they were largely neutralised by the lactic acid bacteria that bakers couldn’t help developing in their doughs.
This suggests that a return to traditional breadmaking methods offers a significant reduction in the wheat intolerance people experience.
Some alternatives to wheat
As well as experimenting with process, it may be a good idea to look at some alternatives to wheat flours.
One of the ‘covered’ wheats – i.e. those whose husk does not fall off during threshing – spelt is the best-known ‘alternative’ source of flour, particularly for people who feel they cannot tolerate standard wheat. Science does not support the theory that spelt is ‘better’ because it is an ancient precursor of wheat, untainted by intensive plant breeding. However, there is no doubt that many people find spelt easier to digest and this is surely reason enough to give it a try.
It is generally higher in protein than common wheat, with the proviso that protein levels for all types of wheat are dependent on cropping conditions. Spelt flour is available usually as wholemeal, though a white version is now beginning to appear. It looks and performs much like ordinary wheat flour, though it tends to have a slightly weaker gluten than the strongest breadmaking wheats. It can have a bitter aftertaste, which may be simply a consequence of oxidation in flour that has been stored for too long. Wholemeal spelt has lively populations of natural yeasts and bacteria and produces a vigorous sourdough culture in a shorter time than ordinary wheat flour.
Considered to be an ancient relative of durum wheat, Kamut is the registered tradename for a cereal derived from 36 grains, mailed by an American airman in Egypt to his father in Montana in the 1950s. Its production is always organic and is controlled by the Quinn family. Kamut is generally higher in protein than wheat but with poorer-quality gluten. Like spelt, it can often be tolerated by people with sensitivities to modern wheats, lending support to the proposition that plant breeders, in their striving to improve yield and gluten quality, have overlooked nutritional quality and palatability.
Einkorn and emmer
These two ancient precursors of wheat seem to be enjoying something of a revival, particularly in Germany. If you get the chance, you may be interested to try making bread with grains that are not very different from those eaten by our Palaeolithic ancestors as long as 18,000 years ago. Einkorn is the older one, and there is some evidence that it is not toxic to people with celiac disease. Emmer became the dominant wheat throughout the Near and Far East, Europe and North Africa from 10,000 to 4,000 BC, when the ‘naked’ wheats (i.e. those in which the husk separates from the kernel during threshing) began to take over. Emmer remains an important crop in Ethiopia and some is grown in India and Italy. Both einkorn and emmer are significantly higher in overall protein than modern wheat and have a good flavour. They have a slightly sticky gluten and produce loaves of smaller volume than modern flours.
The gluten status of oats is still a matter of some controversy. Although the quantity of gluten in oats was always known to be small, they were traditionally off-limits to coeliacs (people with a serious gluten intolerance). Then several studies, particularly in Finland, showed that oats could be tolerated without harm by most coeliac adults and children.
However, there is not complete unanimity in the scientific community and the current position of the UK Coeliac Society is that ‘moderate amounts of oats may be consumed by most coeliacs without risk’, but that severe coeliacs should avoid them.
One further reason for coeliacs being suspicious of oats is that they are often processed in factories that also handle wheat and may be inadvertently cross-contaminated.
Nutritionally, oats are unquestionably a valuable cereal and therefore a good addition to mixed grain breads. Lacking any effective gluten, they will contribute to flavour and texture but not to volume or aeration. However, the high natural oil content of oats can contribute to a softening of the crumb. An addition of less than 10 per cent oat flour or meal can give an impression of extra lightness even if, objectively, the loaf volume remains pretty much the same. Oat fibre, or oat bran, is available in some wholefood shops and can be used in the dough or for dipping or dusting the whole loaf. Similarly, oat flakes make a striking addition to the dough; if used to decorate the crust, they benefit from being exposed to a toasting effect, which really brings out their flavour.
We are very grateful to Andrew Whitley for giving us permission to borrow heavily from his book, Bread Matters.