Did Harold MacMillan cause Gluten intolerance?

As a follow up to last weeks adventures with Hugh Dalton and the onesie this week we have another look at the era of the big state.

After World War 2 Clement Attlee shrunk the state prodigiously as Prime Minister, reducing the share of GDP taken up by Government spending by more than any PM in history.

We often think of Attlee as someone who nationalised loads of stuff, but he inherited a war economy where the state controlled the majority of the economic activity. He handed lots back to the private sector, more than 15% of total GDP, but he is remembered for the things he kept in state control; railways, coal mines, healthcare. Despite that he was highly interventionist and set a style of Government that the Conservative PMs who followed him accepted.

Post war the UK had a balance of payments problem; we exported more than we imported and struggled to maintain the value of our currency.

One of the main items we imported was wheat for bread making. Wheat originated in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia and grows well on the broad prairies of the USA and Canada. It grows less well in the damp misty North of England. British wheat was poor quality, low in protein and gluten, and bread manufacturers imported huge amounts of wheat from North America.

In order to address the problem the MacMillan Government commissioned scientists at the British Baking Industries Research Association to come up with a way of improving the quality of British wheat, in order to reduce the reliance on imports.

What they came up with was the Chorleywood bread process, a new way of making bread dough which used large amounts of yeasts and enzymes, and high speed processing. This meant that light fluffy bread could be made using British wheat. It also meant that British bread contained more yeasts and enzymes and a different gluten matrix.

The plan worked, and wheat imports fell sharply:

Traditional bread making left the dough to ferment for several hours which allowed beneficial bacteria work to make the bread more digestible, nutritious and tasty. Chorleywood British bread is made too quickly for these bacteria to have a chance, and artificial enzymes do the job instead. Bread made by the Chorleywood process isn’t just lighter and fluffier but it contains more gluten and more enzymes.  

This new bread process was rolled out nationally, and revolutionised British bread. Today 80% of the bread we eat is made in this way. From the 90s onwards a new generation of of enzyme “improvers” were added to the bread mix to make the process even faster, along with calcium propionate, amylase, chlorine dioxide and L-cysteine hydrochloride 

I will declare an interest at this point.

A few years ago I noticed that eating processed white bread sandwiches for lunch left me tired and bloated. I spent a long time baking my own bread using different variations of yeast and flours, including several sour dough starters. Eventually I did the 23 and Me, genetic test and discovered that I have a genetic predisposition to Coeliacs disease and gluten intolerance.

I went totally gluten free a few months ago. 1% of the UK population have Coeliacs, but 8% have a gluten sensitivity or intolerance.

I am not alone, and large proportion of the UK report sensitivity or intolerance to gluten. Frankly non-celiac gluten sensitivity is exactly the kind of medical condition that I would mock as imaginary if I didn’t suffer from it myself.

The rise of gluten sensitivity in the UK population and the roll out of the Chorleywood bread process match exactly. This isn’t the same as identifying why the Chorleywood bread processes causes increased sensitivity other than the obvious one that it increases the gluten content of bread and adds shed loads of enzymes and chemicals.

How many people are actually sensitive, and how much is perception is hard to tell, but I am convinced that eating loads of highly processed white bread from the supermarket is a very bad thing, and that most people are unaware of the extent to which British bread has been artificially messed around with.

So there is logic to spending all of that time on lockdown making a sourdough starter after all.











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