Mankind has been consuming bread since the start of agriculture. It has become such a staple in so many cultures that it has earned the soubriquet ‘The Staff of Life’. To this day, it makes up a staple part of diets across the globe. Almost every reference to it in our languages tends to be positive, from the religious to the practical. It is associated with the healthy, the honest, and the wholesome. Is this reputation justified though? Could it be that a food source that we thought so beneficial could, on a day-to-day basis, actually be poisoning us? Let’s look at the evidence.
Bread and History
Evidence of early attempts at bread making go back around 13,000 years. A few remains of a form of bread made by Natufian hunter-gatherers have been found at Shubayqa in Jordan. Bread created from cultivated wheat only came about a few thousand years later.
The transition to agriculture
ohydrateMankind transitioned from being mainly hunter-gatherers to a more agrarian society about 10,000 years ago. The production and consumption of bread on an ever-increasing scale was one of the consequences of this change. The transition was gradual, with different societies and cultures making the shift at different times. Indeed, although few and far between, there are still hunter-gatherers in existence today. The Piraha of the Amazon, the Batak of the Western Philippines, and the Bushmen of the Kalahari would be notable examples (1). Around 8,000 years BCE people first discovered how to domestic animals and cultivate crops. In some ways, this could be thought of as one of the most significant developments in human history. On the other hand, as we shall see, it was by no means an entirely positive change.
There is much speculation as to why this change took place. Perhaps the most likely explanation is the increasing scarcity of prey to hunt. Mammoths were dying out, bison moving North into colder regions (2). In some ways, the transition appears to make little sense unless it was forced upon mankind by changing circumstances. Elic Weitzel, a Ph.D. student in UConn’s department of anthropology states: “A lot of evidence suggests domestication and agriculture doesn’t make much sense, hunter-gatherers are sometimes working fewer hours a day, their health is better, and their diets are more varied, so why would anyone switch over and start farming?” (3).
In some ways, an argument could be made that the move away from hunting and gathering and towards agriculture has not been a wise one either for mankind or for the planet. Jared Diamond, the historian, states it clearly: “The adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered.”
Human height since the agriculture revolution
Despite the common observation that the start of civilisation as we know it began with agriculture, it is clear that the change came with a range of problems too. Breeding livestock meant living in close proximity to animals. New diseases emerged amidst the poor sanitation caused by so many people living together. Hunter-gatherers had simply moved on to fresh sites in the past. With the emergence of agriculture, this was no longer a possibility. In simple terms, the lifestyle of the early agrarians was not as healthy as it had been for the preceding hunger-gatherers.
One of the most obvious markers of health in this domain is height. After the transition away from hunting and gathering, average human height lowered by around 6 inches. This effect was long-lasting too; it’s only in recent years that we have recovered somewhat.
The average height for human males at the end of the ice age was in the region of 5’9″. Within a relatively short period of time, and with the adoption of agriculture, it had dropped to a mere 5’3″. The same effect was seen in females, the average height dropping to barely 5′. Other health markers, such as bone health and tooth decay, show a similar pattern (4). The archaeological evidence lends support to the notion that hunter-gatherers were largely healthy, certainly healthier than the agrarians who followed.
Brain size in human development
People often mistakenly believe that humanity has continued to positively evolve throughout history. Given the above evidence in regard to the loss of height, and other negative health indicators due to the change to agriculture, this is not always the case. A particularly interesting aspect of this is brain size. During most of the 300,000 years or so of mankind’s existence, brain size gradually grew from around 1000 cc to 1600 cc prior to the start of the transition to farming. After that, though, average brain size fell significantly. Currently, it stands at around 1400 cc. There would seem to be much supportive evidence for the assertion in the modern world, with notable exceptions, it would be difficult to defend the notion that we are becoming more intelligent …
Toxins in Bread
Contrary to its healthy and wholesome image, bread contains a range of dubious substances, even toxins, that can do a tremendous amount of damage to our physical and mental, health.
Gluten is a protein that is chiefly found in wheat, barley, and rye. Proteins chiefly found in these three form gluten when mixed with water. They do this by forming longer chains; kneading, and other mixing techniques, allow the gluten to form larger networks within the dough. In simple terms, it becomes glutinous, or sticky.
This sticky substance can cause mayhem in our gut, sticking to the thin epithelial lining and breaking it down over time. All sorts of mayhem can then ensue from ‘leaky gut’ to Celiac disease (5) (6). There is even evidence that it may lead to more serious neurological problems such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease (7).
There are relatively simple tests available to discover whether you may be vulnerable to Celiac disease. Beyond this, though, even if you do not register positive for this level of health challenge, there may still be problems. Even if below the level that would show Celiac disease, gluten, and bread in general, may still be having a very negative effect on your health.
WGA stands for Wheat Germ Agglutinin. It is a lectin that is found in wheat. This particular lectin can lead to a number of health issues such as excessive weight gain and inflammation. Interestingly, for all the claims about the health-giving qualities of ‘whole wheat’, this is exactly where WGA is found in the greatest concentrations. Many believe that gluten itself is not the most dangerous lectin found in wheat. That particular dishonour belongs to WGA. Wheat Germ Agglutinin is smaller than most lectins, thereby enabling it to pass through the intestinal wall more easily. WGA causes problems by binding to joint cartilage, thereby causing the immune system to respond. The result is inflammation and joint pain.
Dr Stephen Gundy gives a long list of other problems associated with WGA. This dangerous lectin blocks sugars from nourishing muscles. Instead, it turns that sugar into fat. It acts in a similar way to insulin, thereby causing weight gain. WGA markedly contributes to inflammation in general, not just in the joints. It can help viruses enter the body. Crucially, it can cross the blood-brain barrier. When it does so, it brings whatever cells it is bonded to with it. This can cause a range of neurological issues. The list goes on and on. For a more comprehensive guide, I would urge the reader to pick up a copy of Dr Gundry’s excellent book: ‘The Plant Paradox’.
Lectins are found in many plants where they often play a role in defending the plant from being eaten or help in the repair of wounds to the plant. They are actually anti-nutrients, which means that once consumed, they can block the absorption of nutrients within our bodies. Much of the standard diet we eat in the West comes with a wide range of lectin-containing foods. The more common examples would be seeds, legumes, and members of the nightshade family such as tomatoes, potatoes, bell peppers, and even goji berries. They are also to be found in abundance in all grains, including wheat (8).
As mentioned above, WGA is a particularly egregious form of lectin, but they come in many forms in wheat. All are a potential danger to our gut health. If they do manage to breach the epithelial sells in the stomach, they can and do go on to create much damage throughout our bodies and nervous system, including our brains.
Beyond the health effects in regards to the consumption of bread, there are also the environmental consequences. Monocrop agriculture, on a massive scale, is depleting the health of the planet’s soil at an incredible rate. Some people believe that at the current rate of destruction, we only have around 60 years of usable soil left (9). Conventional agriculture gets around this problem, at least temporarily, by adding ever more chemicals to the already badly depleted soil. Industrialised agriculture is essentially a vicious circle.
It is a strange phenomenon indeed, how a plant-based movement who are apparently so concerned about environmental matters, often fail to realise the very negative effect that providing for such diets is having on the planet. In this sense, bread, the very staff of life apparently, is not only very bad for us but bad for the planet too. There is a need for a complete reappraisal of the way we consume food and a need to move over to far more regenerative practices.
Glyphosate in Bread Production
Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup, a weed-killer made by Monsanto. Although the manufacturers insist that it is safe, many scientists would disagree. Recent research seems to indicate that glyphosate is a carcinogen that clearly does make its way into the human body (10). A report by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer conservatively surmised that this herbicide is ‘a probable carcinogen’. It concluded that there is no safe level of glyphosate in food (11).
Personally, knowing what we know about glyphosate, I would feel very uncomfortable knowing that any level of the herbicide was in the food I was consuming. For those eating bread though, it is almost unavoidable, such is the ubiquity of its use in wheat production.
As can be readily surmised from much of the above, bread should not form part of a truly healthy diet. Small amounts on rare occasions may be tolerated by the body but long-term consumption often comes at a cost. There are far, far too many dangers from gluten, WGA, and other lectins to be worth the risk. The process may be slow, but the results can be very harmful, even deadly. Even if they don’t result in our demise, such illnesses as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Celiac disease lessen our quality of life terribly. Other consequences such as leaky gut and malabsorption of nutrients are also highly unpleasant and best avoided. Next time you raise that slice of ‘Wholesome, Fresh, Wholemeal Goodness’ to your lips, ask yourself … is it really worth the risk?