The genetic modification of our seed stock and food supply concerns consumers across the globe. Indeed, just the term “genetically modified” conjures up Franken-images powerful enough to give all consumers pause. A political battle that has been on-going for some years over the use of GM seeds in the marketplace reaches a climax this week in California as voters decide on an historic GM food labeling law (Prop 37).
For your election night parties and as part of your general stockpile of weapons to fight the giant biotech firms, we offer you a weapon that is both simple and tasty: sourdough bread.
If that sounds like a tasty weapon, do read on.
GM Takes Over Markets And Fights Global Ills At The Same Time
Genetically modified (GM) crops have captured the market share of several food crops, on the claim that they improve crop yield, reduce water usage, and reduce the use of herbicide across the globe. GM crops are grown from seeds genetically altered in a laboratory – the DNA of a virus, bacteria, fish, or even a daffodil are stuffed into the DNA of a regular seed and the resulting plant takes on new genetic traits.
The GM seed may appear innocuous and it may even do its job for a while, but it is the marriage of that seed with the bacterium, virus, or daffodil that concerns many consumers. They have never before been married in human history and we simply do not know if that supposedly sterile couple will surprise us and create offspring. The seeds have so far been promiscuous, contaminating fields of non-GM crops (Belcher et al.).
Genetically modified seed has captured much of the U.S. market for corn, cotton, and soybeans. If you buy conventionally-produced corn, cotton, and soybeans, the smart money is that you are eating genetically modified food. GM seeds make up over 90% of the market share for those crops. At the Ethicurean, we have pointed out that the crop yield of genetically modified seed is lackluster at best and that the jury is out on drought-resistant seed.
What about malnutrition? Ten percent of women and children worldwide are deficient in iron, a deficiency that can lead to birth defects, depression, and heart failure if the deficiency goes unchecked.
Must we turn to a laboratory to fight iron deficiency?
Is a Biotech solution worth the risk of promiscuous seeds and hobgoblin babies? Biotech companies believe we need to do just that, but you already know that we offer you a far tastier alternative.
GMOs Fight Iron Deficiency
Grains like wheat and corn are high in iron content but these same grains can be like a stingy school kid, clinging to iron and not allowing you to absorb their iron. Biotech firms target that stingy school kid and help you yank the iron right out of his arms. The stingy part of the food is a substance called “phytic acid.” Phytic acid is high in grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds and keeps you from absorbing the mineral content in those foods that you could if you could just reduce the phytic acid.
A 2003 study found that if you could reduce phytic acid in food, you can make a powerful impact in your iron absorption. Note in the figure at right that iron absorption increased nearly twelve times (1160%) when phytic acid was removed from the whole wheat (Hurrell et al. 2003).
A key way to decrease phytic acid in food is by either increasing the levels of an enzyme called phytase or by activating the phytase that is already in the food. Phytase, phytic acid, and how they interact play an important role in your iron metabolism. This fact has led biotech Ph.D.s to the lab with an important question: How can I use my laboratory to increase the phytase enzyme in this food (such as this wheat) so that the phytase can break down the phytic acid? (Brinch-Pederson et al., 2006) (Granted, this wheat is not commercially available but it has been studied showing the mindset of biotech scientists.)
At times Ph.D. scientists can be too smart for their own good, finding a complicated solution in their own laboratory and providing their own job security at the same time when a simple solution exists. The far better solution is actually dead-simple and it even tastes good: sourdough bread.
Sourdough Can Fight Iron Deficiency
It turns out that there is more than one way to skin the proverbial phytic acid cat. Through cooking techniques in your own kitchen, you can encourage the phytase enzyme to work and to reduce the phytic acid in your food. Phytic acid basically disappears from your food and allows you to absorb more iron if you can encourage the phytase enzyme to do its job. There is an entire field of food science and 90 years of research devoted to this very topic.
Wheat that gets ground into flour, put in a paper sack, transported around the country, and left in your pantry for ten months is low in the phytase enzyme. Use wheat that is as fresh as possible.
With your fresh wheat, bake sourdough bread.
Researchers have compared different types of baking techniques and found that sourdough baking is the key to phytic acid reduction (Lopez et al., 2001). It turns out that the pH of the bread dough while rising is a key factor in reducing phytic acid. Sourdough hits just the right pH to be optimal in breaking down phytic acid. The sourdough researchers who have discovered this key quality in sourdough bread are not famous and probably not even all that well paid, but they sure seem to have a lot of common sense using kitchen techniques to reduce phytic acid in food. None of their techniques even involve stuffing the gene of a daffodil, fish, or fuzz bunny into a wheat kernel.
If you have baked sourdough foods before, you know how simple it is. At its most basic level, you capture wild yeasts from the air to make the starter that reduces phytic acid and makes incredible baked goods at the same time. Easier still, you can buy a starter or use a “cheater’s method” (as we describe in our toolkit on this site). I use sourdough techniques for everything from pancakes to pizza crust to “slowing down” recipes such as quick breads. Those recipes may be the best place to start but a sourdough bread made from a good starter should be the end-goal. My mouth waters as I write.
As added encouragement to get your sourdough starter active today, consider your opportunity: You are at your next party, maybe even an election night party, with fresh hot sourdough dripping with butter, as a symbol of your slow food lifestyle. Your friends say: “Wow! Is that sourdough bread?” You say: “This is how I fight the onslaught of genetically modified foods.”
- California Right to Know (Yes on Proposition 37)
- Iron Deficiency and the Modern Food Supply
Cheater’s Sourdough Starter in Our Traditional Foods Kitchen Tool Kit
- Phytic Acid
Hurrell, R.F., M. B. Reddy, M.-A Juillerat and J. D. Cook, 2003. Degradation of phytic acid in cereal porridges improves iron absorption by human subjects.
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 77( 5): 1213-1219.
Ken Belcher, James Nolan, Peter W.B. Phillips, 2005. Genetically modified crops and agricultural landscapes: spatial patterns of contamination. Ecological Economics, 53 (3): 387-401.
Lopez, H. W.; Krespine, V.; Guy, C.; Messager, A.; Demigne, and C.; Remesy. 2001. Prolonged fermentation of whole wheat sourdough reduces phytate level and increases soluble magnesium. Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry 49: 2657-2662.
Brinch-Pedersen H, Hatzack F, Stöger E, Arcalis E, Pontopidan K, Holm PB, 2006. Heat-Stable Phytases in Transgenic Wheat (Triticum aestivum L.): Deposition Pattern, Thermostability, and Phytate Hydrolysis. Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry 54(13):4624-32.
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