The Healing Power of Sprouted Wheat
Nov 17, 2017 12:51PM ● Published by Melanie Heisinger
The gluten-free debate fired up the bread world, then it died down to smoldering ashes, only to be reignited by every declaration in favor of or against gluten. As a bread baker, I hoped the fad would be just that—a passing trend. Gluten-sensitivity is very real, and for Doug Michaels, giving up gluten-based bread was a necessary step in healing—and also the start of a new business.
By Emily Dittmar
Prior to his foray into the world of bread-baking, Doug Michaels lived in Los Angeles and read manuscripts for the literary agency, William Morris. The riots surrounding actions on the part of the LAPD led Michaels to relocate to Bedford, NY, where he continued to read manuscripts and pen cartoons for D.C. comics, Fantagraphics and The Village Voice.
While walking a horse trail with his German Shorthair Pincher Scout, Michaels was bitten by a tick and contracted Lyme Disease. A friend recommended alleviating the symptoms using natural healing methods, one of which was following an anti-inflammatory diet. One trigger of inflammation is gluten. The process of sprouting wheat breaks down the enzyme that makes it difficult for the body to digest.
“When I got started making the bread, it was really just a response to the Lyme disease,” said Michaels. “But I didn’t have any success until I moved to Pennsylvania. That’s when I got a convection oven. It allowed me to bake bread in about twenty minutes as opposed to two hours.” And the Columbia Bread Co. was born.
Michaels doesn’t have a science background or a baking pedigree, and came to the art of bread-baking by picking up recipes online or in books.
“Most of those recipes treat sprouted bread as an ingredient to be combined with flour,” he said. “I was really trying to make bread that was 100 percent sprouted wheat.”
Michaels would venture to Forks Farm, an onsite farmers' market, buyer's club, and farm education and community outreach business based in Orangeville, to drum up interest in his bread products. Ironically, a lot of his customers didn’t care that the product is made from sprouted wheat; they just wanted freshly baked bread.
“I would go to the market to meet with the ‘foodies’ active in sustainable agriculture,” he said. “[Forks Farm] was one of the first markets I tested and it worked out really well.”
When Michaels moved to Bloomsburg in 2007 he was still doing [manuscript] work and baking bread only one day a week. He would prepare Friday night and bake early Saturday morning for the market. A chance encounter with Lyn Genet, author of the book, The Plan, changed everything.
“I had [the bread recipe] down to about four cups of sprouts to one cup of flour. I was trying to figure out how to get rid of flour entirely. I started including flax. It didn’t work out but I found it to be a natural fit for granola. One of my customers told me his girlfriend [Genet] was a ‘health-nut.’ I gave him a bag of the flax granola and asked for her feedback; it turns out it was exactly what she was looking for. We tweaked the recipe for her book and when Genet went on the Dr. Oz show to publicize the book, it radically transformed what I was doing.”
The focus of the Columbia Bread Co. business became the more shelf-stable granola and flatbread products, which are sold nationally and make up the lion’s share of the business, which added & Granola to its title. Michaels views his business as a manufacturing company that happens to make bread one or two days a week and granola and flatbread the rest of the time. Ideally, Michaels would open a bakery, and relegate baking bread to the separate enterprise.
Sprouted grain bread offers a number of benefits over traditional wheat bread. First, it’s not sprayed with glyphosate, one of the world’s most popular weed-killers — and the most widely kind used in industrial farming in the U.S. — which was labeled a probable carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2015. [The EPA’s 2012 assessment of glyphosate concluded that it met the statutory safety standards and that the chemical could “continue to be used without unreasonable risks to people or the environment.”]
And sprouted wheat is a living thing. Sprouting converts the starch into simple sugar and the bioavailability of the germ becomes activated through enzyme activity.
“The way we work with it, as a wet mash, means we never dry it out and rehydrate,” explains Michaels. “Because of that you’re getting the entire grain. When you bite into our bread our crumb bites back. It’s got a fully vigorous texture—that texture is the bran, and bran is fiber. So you are getting a mix of soluble fiber and insoluble fiber.
“We know our gluten profile is ridiculously low,” Michaels adds. “People write me all the time to say, ‘Wow, I can eat your bread, and I can’t usually eat bread because I have a reaction.’ It’s primarily because it’s sprouted and we also leaven the bread naturally, with a sour dough.”
Sprouting the wheat makes it digest as a vegetable, not a starch, in our bodies. “Have you ever had a wheat grass shot,? asks Michaels. “Essentially we are taking the grain and turning it into wheatgrass. We grind it long before it turns to cellulose so there’s no grass structure."
A native of West Milton, and a graduate of Culinary School in Hyde Park, NY, Emily Dittmar currently resides in Raleigh, NC, where she has Columbia Bread shipped to her front door.