Religious and social significance of wheat and bread

For time and memorial bread and wheat have been important across the globe, and I bet if we wandered into any village, camp, or settlement in any far off land you would be able to recognise the substance they ate as bread. Bread is significant all over the world, in the Judaeo-Christian tradition with the making of matzo (hard flat bread) at the Jewish Passover and of bread to represent the ‘host’ at the Christian Eucharist (Holy Communion). It is treated as sacred across the Muslim world where nans and flat bread are stamped and treated with reverence Shewry, P, (2014). In Egypt wheat was considered the very embodiment of resurrection, cycling from seed to ear.  Stone age people revered wheat for the same reproduction process and imbued it with mystical qualities Wheeler, J (2014).


Nutritional value of wheat and bread


Wheat (Triticum aestivum L.), rice (Oryza sativa L.), and maize (Zea mays L.) provide about two-thirds of all energy in human diets, and four major cropping systems in which these cereals are grown represent the foundation of human food supply. (National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America)


Despite its relatively low protein content (usually 8–15%) wheat still provides as much protein for human and livestock nutrition as the total soybean crop, estimated at about 60m tonnes per annum (calculated by Shewry, 2000).


The most widely studied source of ‘high protein’ is wild emmer (tetraploidTrturgidum var. dicoccoides) wheats from Israel.


Iron deficiency is the most widespread nutrient deficiency in the world, estimated to affect over 2 billion people (Stoltzfus and Dreyfuss, 1998 quoted in Shewry, 2000). Although many of these people live in less developed countries, it is also a significant problem in the developed world. Zinc deficiency is also widespread, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, and has been estimated to account for 800 000 child deaths a year (MicronutrientInitiative, 2006 referenced in Shewry, P 2014), in addition to non-lethal effects on children and adults. Wheat and other cereals are significant sources of both of these minerals, contributing 44% of the daily intake of iron (15% in bread) and 25% of the daily intake of zinc (11% in bread) in the UK (Henderson et al., 2007 quoted in Shewry 2000). There has therefore been considerable concern over the suggestion that the mineral content of modern wheat varieties is lower than that of older varieties.


Andrew Whitley recently outlined why sourdough bread may have answers to peoples intolerance of bread. In the article he outlined a few points, the first two I think are important for me when looking at the sustainability of bread making:


“So, just to be clear, this is my position on sourdough bread and gluten intolerance:


  1. Extended fermentation with sourdough lactic acid bacteria can break down some or all of the proteins in bread dough that are toxic to people with coeliac disease and related gluten intolerance. 


  1. Many consumers have sought and found relief from symptoms such as ‘bloating’ and other gastro-intestinal complaints by switching from industrial loaves to properly fermented sourdough bread. While part of the benefit delivered by such a change may be due to the avoidance of the synthetic additives and industrial enzymes used in almost all commercial bread, research suggests an important role for sourdough bacteria and extended fermentation time in making bread more digestible.”



Through cooking we may make food taste differently, but if all major ingredients are genetically identical, there will be no diversity in the nutritional value. Since cereals are the major ingredients in most modern foodstuff, genetic diversity in cereal production may have crucial impact on human health as well Wolfe et al. (2013).


Variety is good for the human gut, but I doubt weather any of us have any other grain other than Rice, Wheat, Corn in our diet ever, this is the grain triad that directly contributes more than half of all calories consumed by humans worldwide. There are grains like teff and millet and quinoa to name just three that are nutritious, easy to grow, tolerant of drought. If we ate more varied staples we would probably be healthier (everything else being equal)