Bread has symbolised good nourishment and well-being for centuries. Christians pray “Give us today our daily bread,” in the Lord’s prayer ( Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4. Bread was the staple food in Palestine at the time of Jesus, and still is in all Mediterranean countries and most of Europe.
Bread, especially German-style rye bread, is one of my favourite foods. In my native Hungary, restaurants have a bread basket on every table filled to the brim with crusty, freshly baked bread. In France too, delicious baguette slices are served in baskets, wrapped in cloth to keep them fresh. The smell of freshly baked bread in Austrian and German bakeries always made me hungry enough to rush home as soon as I could to cut a slice of the crispy rye bread. Spread with a thick layer of butter, this tasted like heaven. Sadly, this has now become only a distant dream for me. My favourite food now makes me feel sick as I have become gluten intolerant.
Gluten sensitivity is on the increase
Over the years, the variety of breads available in shops in the UK has grown, but gluten-free was not a choice offered. This has changed recently as there are special shelves dedicated to gluten free products. Obviously, the demand for gluten free seems to have increased.
Nutritionist Julie Olson looks at why gluten wasn’t an issue 50 years ago and tries to explain why gluten intolerance is on the increase. Gluten in itself, especially gluten found in whole grains, is healthy for people whose bodies can tolerate it. It provides protein, soluble fibre and other vital nutrients.
But whereas in the old-fashioned process of making bread they used yeast to break down gluten during the rising phase, in our modern factory-made bread they only add yeast towards the end of the process. This prevents the yeast from breaking down the gluten sufficiently.
Our modern wheat is also grown to yield more gluten than the traditional wheat as “Gluten increases appetite and it’s cheap. So, it’s added to food products so you’ll eat and buy more!”
If you check labels of products you find that gluten is also used as a binder, filler, and a starch. It’s literally everywhere including body care lotions, cosmetics, and shampoos.
Gluten can make you ill
Humans have digestive enzymes that help us break down food. Protease is the enzyme that helps our body process proteins, but it can’t completely break down gluten. Undigested gluten makes its way to the small intestine. Most people can handle the undigested gluten with no problems.
But some people have an extreme and highly dangerous response to gluten.The NHS describes this response which is called celiac disease: “the immune system mistakes substances found inside gluten as a threat to the body and attacks them. This damages the surface of the small bowel (intestines), disrupting the body’s ability to take in nutrients from food… It’s not entirely clear what causes the immune system to act this way, but a combination of genetics and the environment appear to play a part.”
Some people who don’t have celiac disease also seem to feel sick after eating foods that contain gluten. The symptoms are similar to celiac disease, ie bloating, diarrhoea, headaches or skin rashes. They could have small intestines that don’t work properly. The lining might be too permeable, leading to an inflammation causing the unpleasant symptoms. They are diagnosed as being gluten sensitive or intolerant.
My symptoms appeared suddenly. For several days, my stomach was uncomfortably bloated and I felt slight nausea. Until one evening I felt a sharp pain on the left side of my stomach which then kept me awake all night. It got so bad that I toyed with the idea of calling an ambulance.
To complicate things, I was in Spain where I had no health insurance apart from the still valid European Health Insurance Card, only covering emergency treatment. The local pharmacist luckily speaks German (my Spanish was still quite weak after attending just two classes) and she recommended that I see a doctor immediately.
Diagnosing gluten intolerance
To cut a long story short, after several tests and costly doctor’s visits, it turned out that my digestive system was inflamed. This was not treatable with usual antibiotics and there was no test to find out what caused the inflammation. The suggestion was to experiment by cutting out certain foods from my diet to identify what caused the pain and other unpleasant symptoms.
I am vegetarian and had already cut out most dairy products as lactose also gives me bad indigestion. I feel I eat a very healthy diet, avoiding processed foods if possible. I now decided to see if cutting out gluten from my diet made a difference to my health. Within two days of a gluten free diet, I found that I felt better. I decided to stick to the diet, despite my love of sourdough rye bread.
Gluten free bread
Sadly, gluten free bread does not manage to taste like the ‘normal’ bread. To me it tastes a bit like cardboard. I have tried all varieties available in shops and have not found one that would taste like I wanted to spread butter on it for a yummy breakfast. Not only do they not taste nice but they are very expensive in comparison to ordinary bread. The average price of a 400 g loaf is £3 to £5, with the expensive variety not tasting any better.
Baking my own gluten-free bread
I now bake my own bread. I found hundreds of recipes for gluten-free bread online. There are special videos on YouTube with step-by-step instructions on baking with various wheat or rye alternatives. Lentils, beans, and quinoa can also be used. I found buckwheat recipes and cornflour recipes. Chia and flax seeds can be added for nutritional purposes and to hold the other ingredients together. I now make gluten free sourdough bread in my attempt to create a bread similar to my favourite German rye bread.
I started experimenting with all available gluten free flours. Some are only to be found in larger grocery stores or health shops but others one can only buy online. Unfortunately, the flours are not cheap, but my ambition to create a bread I could enjoy eating and the lack of enthusiasm for gluten free sold in the shops spurred me on. I have not succeeded in baking something quite as delicious as Austrian and German rye breads, but I am slowly getting there. My latest recipe is here.
Recipe for gluten-free home-baked bread
- Use equal amounts of 200 g of (a) buckwheat, (b) gluten free self raising or bread flour, and (c) brown rice flour. Add 50 g baking powder and a teaspoon of salt.
- Soak 50 g chia seeds and 50 g yeast in a glass of warm water with a spoonful of honey or other sweet syrup until the liquid becomes jellied.
- Add this to the flour mixture of (1)
- Mix in either 100 g gluten-free sourdough (which takes around four days to a week to prepare; recipe here). or two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar and the same amount of yoghurt (I use soya or coconut yoghurt), a tablespoon of oil and some warm water.
- Stir until it forms a soft dough which comes off the side of the plastic or glass bowl.
- Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and leave in a warm place for at least 12 hours or overnight. The dough will not quite double in size but should show some increase.
- Preheat the oven to 180 degrees and oil a bread tin lined with baking paper.
- Put the dough in the tin and bake for 50–60 minutes
- Please, leave the bread to totally cool before cutting it. It might collapse if you cut it while it’s hot.