The why of sourdough
It's a process, so why do it?
By Lisa Brunette
Ed. note: This is the second in a series on sourdough.
Let’s be honest: Baking your own sourdough bread takes time, effort, and patience. This is no convenience food, nor should it be. So why bother to go to the trouble? For me, the reason is simple: Homemade sourdough is the only bread I can eat without triggering mast-cell reactions. That’s a powerful motivator. But I’m certainly not the only one who’s ever struggled with bread—we seem to be in the throes of a cultural backlash against it, judging by the enduring popularity of “gluten-free” alternatives. After a lifetime of trial and error on this issue, I’ll put forth the argument that it’s not actually the wheat that’s the problem; it’s all the bad things we add to the wheat.
Think about this: Gluten allergies are a peculiarly contemporary phenomenon. For ten thousand years, and maybe longer, human beings have eaten wheat gluten, largely without incident, until now. Yes, there have likely always been people with legitimate celiac disease, like my uncle, who can’t even eat store-bought, already-shredded cheese because a common ingredient used to keep the shreds from clumping together is some kind of flour or other wheaty product. But this pervasive conviction that so many of us are “gluten intolerant”? It’s pretty new and seems to have coincided with the rise of genetically modified foods, mechanized farming dependent on chemical fertilizer, pesticide use for insect and weed control, and the increased introduction of stabilizers, fillers, additives, and preservatives into our food, or even, increasingly, taking the place of our food.
One of the best articles written on this subject is Michael Specter’s The New Yorker piece from 2014, “Against the Grain.” I’m always a sucker for a pun headline, but seriously—well-researched, long-form journalism can change your thinking, if not your life, and this one had that effect on me. A few stats from the piece:
Only 1 percent of the population suffers from bonafide celiac disease (an extreme intolerance to wheat that can be reliably diagnosed by testing for a marker), and the other 99 percent “rarely gave gluten much thought” until the 2010s, when gluten intolerance really became a thing.
No other food source provides as much nourishment as wheat, and it also provides a full 20 percent of global calories.
Gluten-free is a big business. The gluten-free market was estimated at $22 billion in 2019 and is expected to reach $36 billion by 2026, according to Global Newswire.
Specter argues there are two things going on with wheat that warrant investigation: 1) the incidence of diagnosed, verified celiac disease has quadrupled in the past sixty years and 2) about 20 million people (and probably more now) do not have celiac disease but associate gluten with their health issues. Scientists do not know why celiac has increased. Nor can they explain the gluten-intolerance phenomenon.
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