Every spring, Jackson Hole Community School sends its seniors off into the world to pursue a personal project in-depth, independently. Lara Hershberger staged at Persephone to tackle the timely issue of gluten sensitivity by spending time with us, learning by baking.
In her 11-page paper, Lara begins by acknowledging wheat as a modern pariah due to the preponderance of health concerns related to gluten sensitivity and celiac disease, and then contextualizes the dietary debate in historical research. She traces wheat back to its ancient roots as einkorn, cultivated 8,000 years ago in the Middle East, evolving into emmer and finally wheat as it cross-pollinated with plants across Europe and Asia. She concisely describes wheat’s botanical durability and genetic bounty (did you know wheat contains five times as much genetic material as humans?!).
After setting the ancient stage, Lara deftly describes the Industrial Revolution’s profound effects on grain production, changes which led to the lesser product predominantly used today and the cause of most gluten sensitivities. To start, selective breeding, or hybridization, led to plants with higher yields but reduced rates of nutrient absorption. Also, the Industrial Revolution brought about the advent of steel roller mills which produced the fine white flour favored by the upper classes (white breads were deemed more refined than dark loaves), but again, a lesser product stripped of nutrients. Finally, the introduction of commercial yeasts used in the leavening process boxed out the homegrown varieties invented in Egypt, which act as a pre-digestive, breaking down the gluten structure as the dough ferments.
All of these factors play into modern gluten sensitivities, a topic Lara weighs in on with in-depth analysis. She debunks the research underpinning bestselling books advocating for gluten-free and -reduced diets as sensationalist and highly selective in their case studies, and highlights ways to circumvent commercial ingredients and methods.
In the conclusion of her paper, she posits: “Going back to homegrown sourdough starters and yeasts is the best way to combat the changes to yeast in the Industrial Revolution. Our ancestors took a variety of steps in the preparation of grains so there is no reason that we can’t as well. There are two ways to do this: grow or buy a starter to make your own bread or go to a local baker who uses wild starters in their bread.” As we do at Persephone Bakery.
“While there do seem to be an increasing number of diseases attributed to wheat, there are still many who insist that wheat is a healthy food source,” she writes. “There is, however, a very real problem of the bread we’re eating not being as good for us as it was in the past. Paying attention to how the wheat was grown, milled and what yeast was used to make it can help to bring back the nutrition of this staple.”
We are honored that Lara chose to spend her Senior Project peering through the wheat-window of the artisanal baking process.