Journalist Maggie Beidelman enjoyed her favorite bread, pasta and pastries during a year in France, but when she returned to the United States, she found she could not eat the same foods without developing a stomachache, nausea and exhaustion. She knew it was “something,” but didn’t know what.
The Trouble with Bread, her documentary film project as a student at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, became a personal and professional quest for answers about gluten intolerance (trailer). Surrounded by mentors like Professor Michael Pollan, scientists, farmers and bakers in the gourmet- and heritage-wheat-loving Bay Area, she journeyed “from farm to mill to table” and found some surprising answers.
Ms. Beidelman sought advice from Professor Pollan, as he is the de facto food expert at the journalism school. In addition, he was working on a related topic for his book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, which includes an in-depth exploration of the fermentation of bread. She appreciated both his interest in the topic of wheat and his skepticism that a food humans have been consuming for 10,000 years, and that provides a fifth of the world’s calories, is suddenly making so many people sick.
One of her first stops in her quest was a gluten-free product expo, where she was dismayed by the high sugar content, texture and taste of many products and by the hype surrounding the gluten-free diet trend. However, she learned there about the importance of getting tested for celiac disease before going gluten-free. Back at Cal, Ms. Beidelman’s celiac test result was negative. As she put it, if it had been positive, the film would have taken a different course.
Gluten has valuable properties for the bread making process, including the ability to hold air and stretch. What Ms. Beidelman found in her research is that the bread found in today’s supermarkets is more difficult to digest than it used to be due to the way it is processed and fermented.
For thousands of years, wheat had been ground whole, by hand. During the Industrial Revolution, the roller mill was developed to make milling more efficient. It strips out the bran and the oily germ from wheat so the carbohydrate part of the seed, the endosperm, can be made into pure white flour, and the flour can be stored and shipped around the world without spoiling. When malnutrition rose as a result of removing the most nutritious parts of wheat, the government mandated that flour be enriched with vitamins that had been removed.
According to Ms. Beidelman’s sources, whole milling is still practiced in Europe, where even a traditionally made white baguette in Paris, if made with whole-milled flour, will have specks of bran and germ. That may help explain why she was able to eat European wheat breads without a reaction.
In her quest, Ms. Beidelman also encountered owner and baker Chad Robertson at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. Mr. Robertson explained that good bread is all about the fermentation, and longer fermentation helps break down the gluten, making it easier to digest. When he makes bread for his wife and others with gluten intolerance, he ferments it for at least 24 hours. Ms. Beidelman is able to eat Tartine’s bread without a reaction, but its higher price prevents her from being able to eat it on an everyday basis.
Neither traditional milling nor long fermentation changes the gluten equation enough for a person with celiac disease to be able to eat wheat without dangerous adverse health consequences. However, for Ms. Beidelman, her research did provide some insight into her reaction to American wheat products sold in supermarkets.
Ms. Beidelman detailed her journey in an article published on AlterNet, titled “The Trouble With Bread: What I Discovered When I Tried to Get to the Bottom of My Gluten Intolerance.”
Ms. Beidelman is a first time filmmaker so there was a steep learning curve at every stage of the project. While she was researching the film, fact-checking and conducting interviews, she was also learning about how to operate the cameras and pull together all the other elements of a film.
Ms. Beidelman said that she could have worked on The Trouble with Bread much longer, but was required to finish it by graduation. She is now working as a journalist at Al Jazeera English in San Francisco. A trailer and upcoming screenings are on www.thetroublewithbread.com, and more information about Ms. Beidelman and her work can be found at www.maggiebeidelman.com.
Featured appearances in The Trouble with Bread:
Michael Pollan – Author of Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation and Professor of Journalism at the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism
Ken Albala – Author and Professor of History at University of the Pacific
David Killilea, PhD – Associate Staff Scientist at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute
Todd Oppenheimer – author of The Flickering Mind and journalist at The Writers’ Grotto in San Francisco
Chad Robertson – Baker and co-owner of Tartine Bakery
Rick Rominger – Farmer at Rominger Brothers Farms in Winters, CA
Mark Shigenaga, PhD – Assistant Scientist at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute