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The health benefits of homemade bread

Reading time: 17 minutes

Is it really a gluten sensitivity? Or is it the way wheat is processed? Celeste McGovern investigates the health benefits of bread baked with fresh-ground whole grain flour

From her earliest childhood memories, Sara Valentine can recall being afflicted by gut pain, headaches and dizziness. When she was 11 years old, her parents took her to the emergency room after she had been constipated for nearly two weeks, and she was referred to a pediatric gastroenterologist, who put her on daily laxatives that he said she would need to take for the rest of her life.

“In high school, I was late to school almost every day, it seemed. I could not get out of bed,” the 27-year-old dental student from Starkville, Mississippi, says. “I was always exhausted. I was bloated, I had these dark circles under my eyes and I dealt with anxiety.”

In college, studying dentistry, playing soccer and holding down three part-time jobs, Sara felt exhausted all the time. At age 19, she felt her health plummeting and found it difficult to get out of bed.

Sara’s mother took her to see an osteopath and a nurse practitioner with holistic health views. Testing revealed she had multiple vitamin deficiencies, was chronically dehydrated from the laxative pills she had been taking for eight years, was borderline hypothyroid and had iron levels that were through the floor.

Both practitioners believed she had celiac disease and was allergic to dairy as well. They told her to axe both from her diet for six weeks to see how she felt. She left with a boatload of supplements they’d given her to shore up her nutrition.

After just two weeks without gluten and dairy, Sara felt huge improvements: she had more energy, the dark circles under her eyes disappeared and her brain fog lifted. “I was a completely different human,” she says. “I told my mom I had no idea that people felt this good all the time. I was ecstatic.”

From then on, she assumed she had celiac disease, and gluten and dairy were off her menu.

One night, a friend at Sara’s church made her favorite dish, poppyseed chicken, and said she had left out the crackers to avoid gluten for Sara.

She also didn’t know that the can of mushroom soup in the recipe contained wheat flour when she gave it to Sara, who was sick for days afterward. “Oh, my goodness. Headaches, stomach cramps, brain fog, naps.” After that, Sara says, she became “very, very strict. I didn’t cheat when it came to gluten.”

Occasionally, such as on holidays, she would indulge in a bit of dairy, but she always found that she had bloating, stomach problems and skin breakouts later, so she settled on dairy-free products for herself and dairy for her husband.

“That’s been the last eight years of my life,” she says.

A fresh perspective

Then last year, one of her nephews, who was five years old, was miserable with severe constipation.

Sara’s brother and his wife were searching for help for their son when they came across The Essential Home-Ground Flour Book by Sue Becker (Robert Rose, 2016). It describes the history of wheat and how modern-day processing has corrupted bread from a universal staple food, the “staff of life,” to a nutritionally empty filler loaded with additives and preservatives that can spike blood sugar and cause a host of health problems.

Becker, who has a food science degree from the University of Georgia, first began researching the history of bread more than two decades ago. She learned that prior to 1900, most bread was homemade from flour ground at home or purchased from a local miller.

In the late 1800s, steel-roller mills were invented—and changed flour milling and the world of bread forever. Industrial milling allowed wheat to be ground and finely sifted. The exterior bran, containing a rich supply of B vitamins, and the interior germ, a powerhouse of vitamin E, fatty acids, and multiple B vitamins and minerals, were scalped off and sold for animal feed.

What was left was the endosperm, the starchy white flour portion containing a big dose of carbohydrate but only miniscule amounts of vitamins and minerals.

Unadulterated, fresh whole grain flour contains nearly all the essential nutrients—40 of the 44 needed to sustain human life—and lacks only the required amounts of vitamins A, C and D and the amino acid lysine. “The white flour produced by steel-roller mills was so nutrient deficient that even insects wouldn’t eat it,” says Becker.

The problem of storing flour, which would previously go rancid and was prone to infestation, was no longer a huge problem. There was nothing left to go bad. The new processing method greatly extended shelf life, and production scaled up rapidly. Spraying wheat seeds with pesticides became standard practice, too.

Along the way, highly processed oils and sugars were added, and presently, more than 20 different chemical additives have been approved by Western governments for use in wheat processing. Flour is often bleached with chlorine gas, for example. This produces byproducts, including a compound called alloxan, a known toxin used by scientists to destroy the beta cells in the pancreases of lab animals to induce diabetes for study1 and known to cause cancer.

A 2017 study found traces of alloxan in 24 percent of commercial flours tested (all of the contaminated flours were white cake flour), but remarkably, there’s been no follow-up since.2 Such trace ingredients are not required to be declared on flour or baked-goods packaging.

Transformation and epidemics

In a short span, bread that had once been dark and dense and coarse was transformed into the pillowy white fluff once reserved for the wealthiest only, although not all consumers were dazzled. While it was clearly more convenient (sliced bread appeared in 1930), homemakers were underwhelmed by the taste. According to bread historian Aaron Bobrow-Strain, they described it in a steady stream of advice columns and letters to newspaper editors as “cotton batting,” “inedible,” “limp” and “fake.”3

The problem was much bigger than taste, however. In the early 20th century, shortly after processed flour began to be mass produced, the first case of pellagra was identified in the US, and epidemics of pellagra and beriberi broke out for the first time.

Pellagra, a disease caused by a lack of vitamin B3 (niacin), leading to its hallmark “four D’s” of diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia and death, was filling American mental hospitals. Beriberi, a vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency that leads to heart and nervous system problems, was suddenly rampant.

It took years for doctors to figure out that the new processing of wheat (and other grains)—stripping it of nearly three-quarters of its vital nutrients—was a public health disaster. The government held “flour hearings,” and doctors agreed that flour millers should either take fewer nutrients out of wheat when milling or return some of them afterward. The UK mandated that flour millers restore some of the removed wheat germ, and the US Armed Forces demanded change on grounds that the health of military personnel was a national defense issue.

In 1941, the US Food and Nutrition Board mandated that three nutrients—thiamin, niacin and iron—be replaced into commercial flour. The big flour corporations, which had long since put local flour millers out of business, decided enriched was a better word than replaced so as not to let consumers onto the game.

The quick disappearance of pellagra and beriberi that followed these changes was then attributed to the benefits of “enriched” white breads—Wonderbreads—rather than a slight reversal of a process that had caused a massive nutritional deficiency crisis and the loss of more than 150,000 lives in America alone.4

Subtler health effects continued, however. For more than a half a century, birth defects due to deficiencies of folate, which was stripped in the processing of modern wheat flour, continued until 1998 when the government mandated that flour be enriched with folic acid, the synthetic and less easily metabolized form of folate. So now four of the 40 essential nutrients in fresh-milled flour are replaced with synthetic vitamins.

Convinced that flour processing was linked to many of the epidemic health problems of the day, from cancer and heart disease to soaring infertility (see sidebar), Becker decided to make her own flour the old-fashioned way. With her background in food science, she already cooked mostly from scratch, but making her own flour was taking things to another level.

It didn’t require large millstones or a machine that had to be hand-cranked for hours. She bought some whole wheat berries in bulk and a countertop mill (Wondermill and Nutrimill are two popular brands) for her kitchen. Today’s home mills will grind a pound of flour in a few minutes. Although the process is noisy, it’s like grinding coffee beans or adding ice to the blender.

Baking is the part that requires a time investment. Back in the early 1900s, 90 percent of flour produced was for home baking, and only 10 percent was for commercial bakeries. By 1945, commercial bakeries were using up 60 percent of the flour supply to make saleable products and just 40 percent was going to homes. By 1990, less than 10 percent of flour was for home bakers.

The decline in home baking paralleled the rise of fast food, and picking up a loaf or a box of muffins is more fitting with fast-paced modern lifestyles. But the increasing popularity of artisan breads suggests a growing yearning for the stuff requiring patience.

“Life-changing”

Within weeks of changing nothing but her flour, Becker noticed dramatic health improvements: her energy increased, her sugar cravings dropped, she was less hungry, her frequent headaches disappeared and, most dramatically for her, the constant sinus congestion for which she had taken antihistamines daily for years vanished. “I’ve never had an antihistamine since,” she says. What’s more, her bowel movements were noticeably more regular and healthier.

She also noticed that her children were healthier—things she had taken as a regular part of childhood seemed to disappear. “No more snotty noses, chronic sniffles, ear infections and catching every bug going around,” she recalls.

Completely unexpected, the warts plaguing one of her sons just went away, a phenomenon she says she has since heard repeated by hundreds of people who start home-milling flour. She now believes it’s because the nutrition in whole grains bolsters the immune system, allowing them to fight off the viruses that linger and cause warts.

“It was a life-changing investment of my time and energy,” says Becker, who was so impressed, she began sharing the message, first with her friends and then with her church community. Eventually she founded her company Bread Beckers in Woodstock, Georgia, and launched baking classes, podcasts and her book, which offers more than 100 recipes for fresh-milled whole grain flour.

Constipation

“When I was growing up, constipation was an old person’s thing,” Becker says. “Now we hear of it in children all the time.”

After Sara Valentine’s brother and his wife, who had been taking their son to doctors to resolve his constipation, heard about Bread Beckers and listened to a few podcasts, they jumped in. “Within days, it just solved all his problems,” says Sara.

Infrequent or painful defecation affects up to 30 percent of children nowadays and accounts for more than a third (35 percent) of visits to pediatric gastroenterologists.5

What affects the gut, of course, affects the immune system, the cardiovascular system and more, though the research into constipation has only recently begun. A 2023 study found that constipation in elderly Australian patients was linked to an increased risk of hypertension, heart attacks and strokes.6

Another study published in 2021 analyzed 20,726 patients from Taiwan’s National Health Insurance Research Database between 1999 and 2013. Half of them were constipated and half were not. It found a significant correlation between constipation and asthma, which involves a dysregulated immune system.

“Pediatricians should be aware of the possibility of asthma in constipated patients,” the researchers concluded, hypothesizing that the two conditions are linked through constipation’s effects on the gut microbiome.7

Sue Becker says one of the first benefits that people who start milling their own flour notice is the end of constipation, or looser stools. When Sara’s nephew stopped suffering from constipation, her brother was so convinced it was the bread, he called his mother and urged her and Sara to give it a try.

Sara’s mother went to visit Sue Becker’s shop for a baking lesson, and she was hooked. She ordered a countertop flour mill and wheat that day. Sara started listening to Becker’s podcasts while out walking, but she wouldn’t get her hopes up, thinking she was a true celiac who couldn’t process gluten.

A couple of weeks later, when Sara visited her parents’ home, she was met by the smell of fresh-baked bread from home-milled flour and a loaf sitting on the kitchen counter.

“I stared at it for about 30 minutes,” she recalls. But while she watched the others eat, something in her said, “Just try it,” and she ate a few bites.

“I felt so great”

“I hadn’t tasted real bread in almost a decade, and I was just so shocked at how good the texture and flavor were,” she recalls. “Gluten-free is definitely different. You’re basically just eating potatoes and rice formed into the shape of bread.”

The next day, Sara awoke “waiting for it to hit,” but she felt good. “My stomach felt so great. I went all day long without having to lie down. I didn’t feel brain fog,” she says. “I was shocked. So, I ate a whole piece of bread that day.”

The next day she woke up feeling “amazing,” so she had a whole slice, and when she felt good after that, she “went all in” with her mother and they made a batch of homemade donuts.

Sara returned to school with two big loaves of bread baked by her mother. She says she’s eaten the bread every day since and has seen only benefits in the months that followed, starting with increased energy.

“I don’t get afternoon slumps anymore that make me feel like I need coffee. My skin looks healthier. I sleep so well. I go to the bathroom. I feel fuller for longer. I actually lost five pounds in the first week of eating this bread because it was so easy to not eat a bunch of junk food. I would eat the bread and feel satisfied and not feel I needed snacks.”

Her dairy sensitivity has gone, too. “I hadn’t been able to eat dairy for years,” Sara says.

Sue Becker says she has met hundreds of people like Sara who believe they can’t eat bread or wheat, who have been told they are gluten sensitive, are gluten intolerant or even have celiac disease.

“They’re not making the connection to the processing, what has been done to the wheat, stripping away the nutritious bran and germ portions,” says Becker.

She stresses that she is not advocating for people with true diagnosed celiac disease to start consuming wheat flour. However, she believes that gluten sensitivity is widely over-diagnosed because of people reacting to harmful processing and that these people can enjoy wheat and benefit from the whole grains.

“They’re not able to simply tolerate bread made from freshly milled flour—they also begin to actually thrive on real bread and see many health issues resolved.” In fact, she says, “They feel the best they have felt in years.”

The real culprits

John Douillard, a chiropractor and specialist in Ayurveda and sports medicine, thinks the pesticides and seed oils added to modern foods, especially grain products, are some of the true culprits that are making us sickly and intolerant of so many foods.

Refined seed oils added to wheat products to preserve them aren’t decomposed by bugs, but the bugs in our guts that normally eat oils won’t touch them, either. Undigested, these oils are then shunted to the garbage can, our liver, where they create liver congestion and bile sludge.

“Then that begins to break down the whole strength of your digestion because there is a real coordination between stomach acid and bile flow,” Douillard explains. Poor bile flow congests the liver and gallbladder (which is extraordinarily common), and it becomes difficult to break down foods.

So now more people than ever rely on antacids, digestive enzymes and other supplements to help their broken digestive system, plus coffee and laxatives to go to the bathroom.

Pesticides, like the glyphosate in Roundup sprayed on foods, are another problem—they kill the microbes in our mouths that make the enzymes that digest the wheat and dairy, says Douillard. They also cause inflammation in the gut that some experts are linking to rising gluten sensitivity.8

Health benefits

Douillard points to dozens of studies on the health benefits of whole grain wheat, including fewer heart attacks,9 a lower risk of diabetes10 and depression11 and, as a staple of the Mediterranean diet, increased longevity.

“Healing, balancing, and rebooting your digestion should allow you to once again easily digest foods like wheat,” Douillard says. His book and website detail Ayurvedic cleansing and detox protocols and recipes to build digestive strength, and he also advises eating clean foods prepared as nature intended, like artisan bread and raw-milk cheese.

For Sara Valentine, life wouldn’t be the same if she hadn’t excluded gluten and dairy when she did. Unless you’re a celiac, she says, “absolutely try this bread and don’t give up hope. I am just so grateful I did.” 

Is whole grain bread better than white?

Do “whole grain” wheat products deserve the health halo they’ve been given, either? The US Food and Drug Administration’s definition of “whole grain” for labeling requires that a product contain just 51 percent whole grain ingredients by weight.

One study of 545 grocery store “whole grain” products found most were loaded with empty calories, sugar, additives and harmful trans-fats linked to inflammation and oxidation.12

On top of all this, they contain less of the beneficial fiber of real whole grains. Assuming that you didn’t eat any other foods with fiber, an adult would have to eat 10 bowls of Multi Grain Cheerios or 16 slices of most commercial whole-wheat breads to get the recommended daily amount of fiber.

Food sensitivities and dietary restrictions

If consuming certain foods leads to health issues or bodily irritation, should we just stop eating them? While foods like gluten and dairy are difficult to digest, our digestive systems are meant to be up to the job.

“Wheat is really a canary in the coal mine,” says Douillard, the creator of LifeSpa.com. “The real problem is that we have a broken-down digestive system and now we’ve started bubble-wrapping our diet.”

By bubble-wrapping, he means avoiding foods, following health advice like “Don’t eat wheat, don’t eat dairy, don’t eat nuts, don’t eat beans, don’t eat lectins, don’t eat nightshades, don’t eat goitrogens, don’t eat oxalates, don’t eat, don’t eat, don’t eat.”

Of course, people with true celiac disease should never eat wheat or gluten, Douillard clarifies. And if eating wheat gives you symptoms, from allergies and autoimmune issues to bloating or rashes, then of course eliminate it for the moment. “But don’t just leave it there,” he adds. “Fix the broken part of your digestion.”

“Your body has to do tough stuff,” Douillard says, referring to hormesis—the idea that our immune system developed over time from eating tough-to-digest foods, so-called antinutrients that may irritate the gut lining, like seeds, nuts, grain, beans or fruit. Just as exercise stresses and builds muscles, stimulating the gut leads to enhanced immunity in the intestines, where most of human immunity resides.

Does wheat processing impact fertility?

“The moment that grains are milled into flour, their flavor components begin to deteriorate,” says food scientist Sue Becker. Not only do flavor components decompose but so do essential nutrients. Freshly ground flour can begin going rancid as soon as two to 14 days after milling.

A study in rats, published by a German scientist, illustrated how important it is to consume the fresh nutrients in whole grains for survival. The animals were fed diets consisting of 50 percent rat food and 50 percent flour or bread. They were divided into five groups as follows based on their flour or bread consumption:

  1. Fresh stoneground flour
  2. Bread made with fresh stoneground flour
  3. Fresh stoneground flour after 15 days of storage
  4. Bread made with 15-day-old flour
  5. White flour

After four generations, only the rats fed fresh stoneground flour and those fed the bread made with it were still able to conceive and bear healthy infant rats. All the rats in groups 3 to 5 had become infertile.13

What could this rat study mean for humans? According to the paper, four generations of rats is believed to be the equivalent of 100 human years.

Michal Grappe’s long road to good health

In 2011, when she was working to complete her second degree, Michal Grappe had just finished running her first half-marathon a few weeks earlier when she noticed her legs were numb and she was having trouble moving them. The paralysis gradually spread to her lungs, heart and arms.

She was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a paralyzing autoimmune condition affecting the peripheral nervous system. GBS can be fatal, but Michal (pronounced Michael) was released from the hospital to spend a year in a wheelchair and another year in physiotherapy.

She asked her doctor what she could take to help her healing, but his answer, “Time and B vitamins,” was just not enough for the young Texan. Searching for nutritional and holistic answers, Michal found Terry Wahls, who had healed her own multiple sclerosis, and began following her grain-free, paleo-style Wahls Protocol. It brought her out of her crisis, so she stuck to the diet for the following seven years.

Two and a half years ago, Michal felt she was “bulletproof,” she told the host of the Grains and Grit YouTube channel, before she got a viral infection and started not feeling so well. Blood tests revealed she was positive for lupus, an autoimmune condition in which the body’s various organs are under attack by its own immune system.

She was already living and eating “clean” and didn’t know what else she could do. Then she learned about fresh-milled grains by chance through a YouTube video by Sue Becker.

“I just had a lot of doubts,” she says. She worried eating grains would make her condition worse. “In the health community, if you have autoimmune anything, you have to be gluten free. You cannot eat wheat. It’s dogma.”

Rather than invest in a flour mill, she decided to use her Vitamix and give it a try—and she was surprised by the results. “My energy levels responded quickly. My hair started getting thicker. I was having more good days than bad days,” she recalls.

Nine months after starting to eat bread from home-ground flour, Michal says she still wasn’t taking any medication for lupus, and she went for retesting of her blood. To her surprise, the results showed she no longer had antinuclear antibodies or any other markers of lupus. People do have remissions from the disease, but their markers remain. Without the markers, she was considered healed.

Michal is grateful that she followed the grain-free protocol, which helped her escape her GBS, but in hindsight, she says, “maybe having that much restriction contributed to some deficiencies that kind of set me up for another autoimmune situation.”

Michal was happy to see changes in her young family, too. Her little boy had stubborn warts that just wouldn’t budge despite treatment with homeopathy and essential oils. They disappeared within the first few weeks after she introduced fresh-milled whole grain breads.

Similarly, her five-year-old daughter’s scaly scalp that had resisted treatments suddenly resolved. And her husband, who had been medically treated for psoriasis, found that persistent patches of the condition vanished.

Michal’s Instagram account (@michalgrappe) and web page (michalgrappe.com) feature her fresh-milled baking tips and recipes for others who want to try home-milling.

RESOURCES

Here are some useful resources if you want to try home-milling for yourself.

Websites

breadbeckers.com: details on how to get started milling your own flour and baking your own bread, plus recipes, instructional videos and an online shop (US shipping only) to purchase wheat in bulk, home grain mills, bakeware and more.

michalgrappe.com: recipes, baking tips and a free fresh-milled bread troubleshooting list.

theperfectloaf.com: everything you need to know about baking your own sourdough bread at home. There’s a section dedicated to freshly-milled flour, including recipes, how-to guides and FAQs.

aberlehome.com: lots of tips and tricks on home-milling, plus recipes and product recommendations.

What and where to buy

Aside from bakeware and baking supplies, these are the essentials you’ll need to get started with home-milling.

Wheat berries. You’ll need whole wheat grain kernels, also known as wheat berries, to mill your own flour. Various types are available. Hard red or hard white wheat is ideal to make a yeast bread, while soft white wheat is great for pastries, pancakes, biscuits, or any baking powder / baking soda recipe. There are also heirloom varieties (sometimes called “ancient grains”) of wheat, such as Khorasan, einkorn and emmer. Look for organic, non-genetically modified varieties if possible.

You may be able to buy wheat berries from your local health food store, artisan bakery or mill. If not, you can purchase them online.

Where to buy in the US: breadbeckers.com, bobsredmill.com, grainplacefoods.com, smallvalleymilling.com

Where to buy in the UK: bakerybits.co.uk, hodmedods.co.uk, forestwholefoods.co.uk, buywholefoodsonline.co.uk

A countertop grain mill. Manual and electric home grain mills are available. Electric mills require less effort and allow you to mill your flour faster. But if you want a simple design that works without electricity and don’t mind coarser flour, a manual mill may be for you.

Some top brands for electric mills are WonderMill, NutriMill and MockMill. For a manual mill, try Country Living or KoMo.

Where to buy in the US: thewondermill.com, nutrimill.com, breadbeckers.com, countrylivinggrainmills.com

Where to buy in the UK: wondermill.co.uk, bakerybits.co.uk, hodmedods.co.uk, flourpantry.com

References
  1. J Pharmacol Toxicol Methods, 2016; 78: 13–31
  2. J Cereal Sci, 2017; 77: 120–5
  3. Aaron Bobrow-Strain, White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf (Beacon Press, 2013)
  4. South Med J, 2000; 93(3): 272–77
  5. Stephen M. Borowitz, “Pediatric Constipation,” June 14, 2023, emedicine.medscape.com
  6. Sci Rep, 2023; 13: 10943
  7. Front Pediatr, 2021; 9: 714406
  8. Interdiscip Toxicol, 2013; 6(4): 159–84
  9. Am J Clin Nutr, 2004; 80(6): 1492–99
  10. Diabetes Care, 2004; 27(2): 538–46
  11. Nutr Neurosci, 2017; 20(3): 161–71
  12. Public Health Nutr, 2013; 16(12): 2255–64
  13. Bernasek, 5th World Congress on Breads and Cereals, Dresden, 1970
JAN24, Grind us our daily bread
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