Like fresh air and clean water, nourishing bread is a basic right. Central to this is understanding is the impact that sourdough can have on our planet, health, and communities. This starts with the soil the grain is grown in and extends right through to the baking and sharing of our bread.
Start with the soil
Healthy soil is home to a diverse range of microorganisms, which play a vital role in producing nutritious food. There is a symbiotic relationship between the mycorrhizal fungi and bacteria in the soil and the grain we grow for our bread. The plants provide sugars which ‘leak out’ through their roots and feed the microorganisms. In return, the activities of the soil microbes make micronutrients available to the plants.
This complex relationship can easily be disrupted. Intensive farming practices, for example, such as ploughing and the use of agrochemicals can break up the soil’s ecosystem which, in turn, can negatively affect the nutritional value of the grain. We are learning that industrial agriculture is now affecting the baseline nutritional value of our wheat.
In addition, the way we use pesticides and artificial fertilizers can also harm both the natural environment and our intestinal flora. Many studies have shown how pesticides can impact our gut microbiome and as we learn more about the microbes in our gut it’s becoming clear that they are integral to our physical and mental health. Our gut microbiome is central to a healthy digestive system, but more than this, it regulates our immune system and is the source of metabolites needed by the brain to function optimally. For this reason, we should be especially concerned about anything which has the potential to negatively influence it.
At the mill
Once the grain has been harvested, it will be either roller milled or stoneground to produce flour. There is a big difference between the two. Today roller milling is more commonly used and produces good quality, uniform flour. Stoneground is a slower, more traditional method that has been used for thousands of years.
The method used to mill flour influences its nutritional value and affects the rate at which bread can be assimilated during digestion. Roller milled white flour is almost completely devoid of nutrients because the bran, aleurone layer and wheat germ, along with the minerals and vitamins in them, are removed during milling, leaving only the endosperm starch. And that is the crux of it, refined white flour raises blood sugar levels, and offers very little in the way of nutritional value apart from calories. So much so that white flour is fortified – nutrients are added in after the milling process.
It is therefore far better nutritionally to start with an organic, locally grown, stoneground whole grain flour when you make your sourdough. It’s one of the most powerful choices a baker can make. Taking the best quality, most nutritious ingredients and, in turn, supporting the land, the flora and fauna, the farmer and the miller.
The role of the baker
Beyond how the grain is grown and milled, sourdough bakers can then share nutritious, long, and slow-fermented bread with their community. When you consider the long-term impacts of nutritious bread, you soon realise that bakers should be right at the heart of our communities, providing the most basic and humble food. In fact, they are in a crucial position as we try to increase the baseline nourishment and levels of fibre in our diets.
Supporting your local bakery, or baking your own sourdough bread using whole grain, organic, local flour does not just provide you with delicious, Instagrammable bread. It goes right to the very heart of what it means to think resiliently about the environment, the people in your community, and the health and wellness of the people you care for.
Sourdough and health
Sourdough is not just a slower and longer approach to bread making, it is a more natural process which uses lactic acid bacteria and wild yeast to ferment the flour. This process contributes to the increased nutritional value of the bread through the action of the lactic acid bacteria which facilitates more bioavailability of the minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants in the wholegrain.
Sourdough fermentation also significantly reduces the gluten load which can be inflammatory for people who have digestive issues or compromised gut microbiome. Through nourishing our gut microbiome and providing these microbes with more fibre, we can have a positive long-term impact on our health.
Many studies have shown that increased levels of dietary fibre can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and increase protection against colorectal cancers. We are now also discovering the importance of the relationship between the levels of fibre in our diet and the production of butyric acid – a short-chain fatty acid which can have a huge impact on low-grade inflammation. A silent destroyer of health, low-grade inflammation is associated with all the non-communicable diseases, including neurodegenerative diseases, obesity, and diabetes.
Making and sustaining small changes that have an impact on the agricultural and agrochemical systems must be done in ways that are easy and inexpensive to incorporate into our daily lives. The basic cost of baking your own 800g sourdough loaf is around 85pI – a loaf that will feed a family of four, working out at around 20p per person to enjoy truly nourishing bread.
Most of all, impactful changes must be something joyous to do. And there is nothing quite so joyous as taking a freshly baked, beautiful sourdough loaf out of the oven and sharing your bread and your ideas with the people around you. On that note, my last thought is that change often comes from the company you keep. Through sharing opinions, ideas and solutions, as well as food. Interestingly, the word company originates from the Latin ‘companio’ which means ‘one who eats bread with you’. So, there is nothing quite so appropriate as baking and sharing bread while you take those first steps in changing the world.
Learning to make sourdough is priceless, which is why The Sourdough School offer a wide range of basic recipes and how-to videos for free for anyone to learn the techniques and get started. The first step is to create and maintain a sourdough starter. Once you have a bubbly, active pot of starter, you can move onto baking a basic sourdough tin loaf. Then, as you gain experience, move onto more advanced recipes like a basic boule.
Teaser photo credit: Photo courtesy of the author.