The stuff in stuffing: A health conundrum

👤Charlynn Toews 🕔Nov 24, 2015

Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book (1950) offers this recipe: 12 cups bread, cubed; 1 cup butter; 3/4 cup minced onion; 1 1/2 cups chopped celery; 2 tsp salt; 1 tsp pepper; 1 tbsp sage, with mushrooms and chicken broth optional.

In the 1950s, America was in the throes of a heart disease epidemic, arising out of nowhere to become the number one killer. President Eisenhower had a heart attack in 1955. Is this kind of recipe the culprit?

On June 24, 1956, the American Heart Association broadcast a show on the three major television networks. It presented a new theory on heart disease: that is was caused by cholesterol.

The major proponent of this theory was an economist named Ancel Keys, who called it the lipid hypothesis. The idea was that meat, eggs and butter were bad for you and should be replaced by corn oil, margarine and lots of carbohydrates: cold cereal, bread, pasta.

Two weeks after the TV broadcast, the American Heart Association adopted the cholesterol theory of heart disease and later that year Keys was featured on the cover of Time magazine as a health pioneer and hero.

Manufactured vegetable oil consumption more than tripled. The next year, 1957, sales for margarine, the “cholesterol-free” substitute for butter, exceeded butter sales for the first time in history. So nix the full cup of butter in the recipe, right?

Hmm, maybe not.

In the 1940s, Norman Borlaug, an American scientist interested in agriculture, began conducting research in Mexico and developed new disease-resistant, high-yield wheat varieties. By combining Borlaug’s wheat varieties with new mechanized agricultural technologies, Mexico was able to produce more wheat than was needed by its own citizens, leading to it becoming an exporter of wheat by the 1960s.

In 1970 Borlaug was named a Nobel Laureate, honoured for his work in the “Green Revolution,” which increased agricultural production worldwide and saved millions of lives from famine in India, Mexico and the Middle East.

However, the new semi-dwarf wheat developed during this time (and now planted almost exclusively in North America) cannot grow without the help of fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation. Uh-oh.

Then, thanks to modern processing and the desire for a light, fluffy loaf, manufacturers added protein (gluten) and removed whole grain, bran, “middlings” (course ground), wheat germ and wheat germ oil. The oil is super nutritious but goes rancid quickly—thus “give us this day our daily bread” means grind your own grain then bake with it immediately.

Go gluten-free? Unfortunately, gluten-free versions of traditional wheat products can contain rice starch, cornstarch, tapioca starch and potato starch. These are the same kind of highly refined industrial starches that spike blood sugar just like modern flour does. That spike leads to visceral fat (“wheat belly”), type 2 diabetes and—uh-oh!—heart disease.

Finally, modern bread is baked with yeast rather than using the long, slow sourdough process. Traditional sourdough kills toxic fungi, especially on extra-nutritious rye, pre-digests a lot of the starch and reduces gluten. John Letts, a Canadian farm-boy-turned-archeologist with degrees in environmental science, biological archaeology and agricultural botany, grows ancient grains like those found in 600-year-old thatched roofs in the UK.

Okay, keep the 12 cups of bread—that you have baked yourself after rising for two days with sourdough using fresh ancient rye berries you have ground yourself with a stone mill. And reinstate the butter—grass-fed, of course.