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Bread has been the “staff of life” for millennia, sustaining entire civilizations and billions of people without the ugly spectre of Celiac disease or gluten sensitivities. But that bread was very different from the typical wheat products we see lining supermarket shelves today. Boxes of cookies, crackers, wheaty snacks, cakes, quick breads, mass-produced yeast breads and rolls leap off those shelves and into shopping carts, while fast-food pizza, hamburgers and hot dogs are the meal of choice for so many families (all wheat-based and made with speed, economy and efficiency—using the cheapest ingredients. Bakeries using natural ingredients and healthful methods out of concern for their customers are hard to find.)

And how did the day start for most people? Perhaps some of that mass-produced yeast bread in the form of toast or muffins—maybe even a doughnut or two. And while one or two of these as a treat would not usually be a problem, a constant barrage of mass-produced wheat products on our systems has definitely taken a dear toll.

The health topic du jour seems to be “gluten” and related issues. And many people are crying—perhaps with good reason—that today’s wheat has been hybridized to the point where we can’t digest it properly so we should avoid it altogether.

Truth is, we do have an alarming rise in gluten sensitivities, and the number of people with Celiac disease in the United States (according to the Celiac Sprue Association) is estimated to be one in 141 and climbing—a 400 percent increase in the last 50 years.

But is it just the hybridization of wheat that is the cause of this misery? What else has changed in the last century?

As someone with an interest in food history (who has enjoyed making sourdough bread for decades), I can’t help but compare the methods used in the past with the speeded-up, cost-effective methods of today. While the Staff of Life used to grow slowly from living starters—fermenting, breaking down gluten and creating beneficial microorganisms—today we use quick-rise methods that include baking powder or soda and commercial dried yeast. This works quite well for gargantuan commercial bakeries, but does not do as well for us as individuals.

Living foods like sourdough add much to our health. The fermentation process actually increases the nutritive value of foods. The resulting probiotic microorganisms (including several strains of Lactobacillus and wild yeast among possible billions of others) feed on sugars, help us maintain a healthy digestive tract, produce various acids that help break down starches, gluten and gluten-forming proteins while creating an unfriendly environment for harmful bacteria, and supply us with a surprising array of nutrients including fatty acids, B vitamins (including the elusive B6 and B12), C and E. The microbes supply us with an array of minerals (calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc and others), counteract the phytates (anti-nutrients) found in the hulls of seeds and grains, and supply a complete set of the amino acids necessary for our bodies to build protein.

Today’s mass-produced bread products are a poor substitute for something with so many health benefits—and if you’ve ever tasted a a true sourdough bread or even a really good pain au levain, you know it’s worth seeking out. I sincerely appreciate the small artisan bakers who are trying to make a difference one loaf at a time.

A few years ago, I met Jack Bezian’s sourdough bread at the Real Food Symposium in Pasadena, California. These wonderful breads are made in the traditional way, with no added yeast and plenty of time to ferment, rise and develop to perfection. Jack, who has been baking bread since 1966, creates wonderful flavor combinations and textures that meld with the intensely sour, addictive tang of the dough. Moroccan Olive, Sun-Dried Tomato, Fig, Green Olive and untold others—fruits and vegetables and cheeses mixed with herbs and ethereal hints of spice that hold you hostage until the entire loaf disappears. Oh, and they’re really good for you, too.

Jack has a bakery in Los Angeles, but he doesn’t sell from there. He can be found at farmers’ markets throughout Southern California. Just follow the crowd.  When he’s not slinging loaves to the hungry masses, he is more than willing to speak about his favorite subject. Jack is a wellspring of information about the history and the benefits of true, slowly-raised, fermented, wild yeast sourdough.

I enjoyed interviewing Jack Bezian recently, and hope you enjoy the video. Some of his ideas may seem radical and may run counter to modern conventional wisdom—whole grain breads are not better for you than white? people who are gluten-intolerant can often eat his bread?—but it seems he may be on to something.

Until next time~