The best thing that could happen to the baking industry would be for people to recognize the value of baked foods in their diets and lives. The anti-gluten, anti-wheat, anti-bread and anti-carb pendulum is moving again. There is still some friction between bakers and consumers. But there are steps the industry can take to help.
Baked foods in general, and bread specifically, are good sources of dietary fiber. In fact, bread and baked foods are the largest source of fiber in most people’s diet, so when they go gluten-free or keto, they are eliminating a significant amount of fiber from it. Even “evil” white bread contains 2 grams of fiber per 100 grams, which is about the same as kale, broccoli and asparagus. Whole wheat bread contains 6.5 grams per 100 grams, more than triple those vegetables. The U.S.D.A. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends 33 and 38 grams of fiber, respectively, for women and men. Vegetables are great, but getting more than 30 grams of fiber will take more than broccoli. We need baked foods in our diet.
Fiber is necessary for the health and balance of our intestinal bacteria. Collectively these bacteria are called our intestinal microbiome, and fiber is their food. When we fail to eat foods with enough fiber, these bacteria digest the mucosal layer that protects the intestinal wall. The mucous layer has a lot of benefits. It is a physical barrier that protects the intestinal wall from damage that can cause irritable bowel syndrome or colitis. The mucous is a home for the bacteria where they consume fiber and excrete short-chain fatty acids like butyric and propionic acids. The acids reduce the pH of the mucosal layer, making it inhospitable to pathogenic bacteria so we don’t get sick as often. The mucous binds to proteins called lectins that are found in most plants. Gluten is a lectin. When unbound, the lectins can irritate the intestinal wall. When bound to the mucous, the lectins are immobilized and quickly digested by the resident bacteria into harmless amino acids.
This is just a fraction of fiber’s benefits. The bacteria in our intestines control literally every function in the body from our brains (mood), immune system (up and down modulating as needed) and, of course, digestion.
There is a clear difference between gluten intolerance and celiac disease. Evidence from Corrie Whisner, Ph.D., a professor and researcher at Arizona State University, shows that gluten insensitivity is due to a depleted intestinal microbiome that is incapable of digesting gluten, with the resulting negative effects. Avoidance could actually create and reinforce the insensitivity. Increasing fiber in the diet will allow the bacteria to recover in diversity and quantity, permitting digestion of almost anything without discomfort. Celiac, by contrast, is an autoimmune disease that can only be managed by strict, lifelong avoidance.
Bread is an inexpensive source of calories, nutrients and fiber. The addition of vitamins and minerals to flour in the 1940s and folic acid in the 1990s, has been one of the most successful examples of nutritional enrichment. Bread is portable, convenient and available everywhere.
Baked foods allow us to enjoy a healthy and balanced diet that can sustain us for the rest of our lives. Fad dieting is often temporary and unsustainable, largely due to the avoidance of foods that we love and enjoy. As an industry, let’s contribute a diet that provides the calories, nutrients, fiber and enjoyment needed for a healthy life. Bakers can do this by highlighting the fiber content of their products and developing great-tasting ones. Everyone needs to help make this ideal a reality.
Len Heflich is a contributing editor for Baking & Snack and the president of Innovation for Success. Connect with Mr. Heflich at firstname.lastname@example.org.