It’s in the grain: the ancient alternative to gluten-free

Gluten is blamed for all manner of digestive issues. But modern bread manufacturing processes might be the real villain, finds Liz Boden

If cafe menus and supermarket shelves are anything to go by, gluten-free diets are on the increase. As many as a third of Americans are reported to have cut out gluten from their diets in a bid to improve everything from digestive issues to skin health. But unless they have been diagnosed with coeliac disease – an autoimmune condition in which the body attacks its own tissues after gluten is consumed – their self-imposed gluten denial could be futile.

It is worth pointing out that gluten and wheat are not one and the same thing, though they can occur together. Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, and people can be intolerant of wheat, but tolerent of gluten. However, for those with coeliac disease, (around one per cent of the UK population), the only successful treatment is a gluten-free diet.

But many artisan bakers believe industrialised bread-making processes, not gluten, could be the cause of many other digestive complaints. And, that removing gluten may prevent people from determining the underlying cause.

“People are blaming gluten like it’s the devil,” Vanessa Kimbell of The Sourdough School says, “when it’s not specifically gluten causing the problem. The longer the fermentation process, the more digestible bread seems to be.”

The longer the fermentation process, the more digestible bread seems to be

Dr Phil Howell of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany in Cambridge agrees slower fermentation can prevent digestive difficulties: “Numerous factors could cause perceived gluten intolerance. Coeliac is different – [it is] an immune response – but this general perception that bread is evil is a lazy reaction.”

As well as rethinking their daily bread, people should consider the source of the bread’s grain, suggests Billie Wilkinson of Gilchesters Organics. Wilkinson sells organic grain for sourdough and other slow-manufacture breads, and says today’s excessive reliance on fertilisers depletes soil nutrients and grain nutrients in turn. In contrast, heritage wheat growers claim their crops have higher nutritional value, and Wilkinson notes that such varieties “are more resilient”.

Yet the very traits of ancient grains that have led to their survial can make them unattractive to farmers. “Some of the seed germinates straight away, some will stay dormant for several years,” Howell says. “And on maturity, plants disperse their seeds as widely as possible, while the farmer wants a crop that retains its seeds for an easier harvest.”

Also, seeds in the wild often have a tough, protective, inedible husk. So selective breeding has literally made it easier for us to separate the wheat from the chaff. Ultimately, Howell says, the hope is to keep the features of older wheat without sacrificing yield.

But that doesn’t mean ancient grains can’t be modified or improved. Howell, who breeds new parent plants from genetically diverse heritage wheats, is interested in increasing the grains’ density of iron and zinc, for example.

It is early days in these processes, but for experts such as Howell, we should get to the guts of our digestive issues before blaming gluten and removing it wholesale from our diets. Quality over industrialised quantity might just be a better (and more satisfying) alternative to going gluten free.

Fundamental sourdough recipe
— Makes one large (1.85kg) loaf

Recommended equipment:
– 1.5kg round banneton (also known as a brotform or proofing basket)
– A baking dome

– 650g water at 28°C/82.5F
– 200g levain, refreshed using equal parts flour to water. Levain is made with 20g starter (pre-fermented dough culture), 90ml cold water and 90g strong white organic flour. Leave covered with a damp cloth for 6 to 8 hours. It will appear bubbly when it is ready to use
– 1kg stoneground organic white flour, extra for dusting
– 20g fine sea salt – Organic polenta flour for dusting

– Mix (15 min): In a large bowl, whisk the water and levain together. Add the combined flour and salt and mix until there is no more dry flour. Do not knead
– Ferment (30 min): Cover the bowl with a clean damp cloth and leave to rest in a cool environment
– Fold (1 hr): Lift and fold the dough over on itself. Do a quarter turn of the bowl and repeat three more times.
Over the next hour lift and fold the dough again twice
– Shape (8 – 10 hr): Shape your dough lightly and place it in a flour-dusted banneton. Dust with flour and cover with a damp tea towel and leave to prove in the fridge overnight
– Preheat (30 min): Preheat the oven to 220°C/200°C fan/gas 7 with your baking dome inside
– Bake (1 hr 30 min): Take the dome out of the oven and sprinkle a little polenta flour into it. Put your dough into the dome and slash the top with a knife, put the lid on and return to oven. Bake for 45 minutes, then reduce the heat to 190°C/170°C fan/ gas 5 and bake for a further 30 minutes. Finally, remove the lid and bake for another 10 minutes

Sourdough is best left to cool completely before slicing, and even better if left for a day. Store it in a linen or cotton bread bag or in a tea towel.


Recipe adapted from Food For Thought: Changing the World One Bite at a Time by Vanessa Kimbell.

Photography: Kyle Books