by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain
Going along well with our new call for submissions on the theme of Breaking Bread, The Trouble with Bread is a short documentary created by Maggie Beidelman, recent graduate of the University of California – Berkeley’s masters program in journalism (see trailer below). When Beidelman noticed her body showing signs of gluten intolerance a few years ago after growing up with no previous gluten allergies, she began to wonder what was going on. Was she imagining it? Had she suddenly acquired celiac disease? Was there something wrong with the wheat? She decided to document what she learned on film, and The Trouble with Bread is the result. In the film we learn a brief history of wheat, especially the hard red winter wheat that makes the bulk of our wheat products in the United States. Beidelman takes us along as she explores heritage wheats, artisanal breads, sourdough starts, and dough fermentation. She consults experts such as Michael Pollan and artisanal bread makers, wheat growers and gluten-free proponents.
Importantly, we learn the process behind “processed” wheat. As manufacturers learned to make bread that would rise into puffy, soft bread, they took out the most nutritious parts of the wheat. Some began adding these back in, forming “enriched” bread products. Beidelman unveils the science of this process, as well as the marketing tactics behind the “whole wheat” bread on most American supermarket shelves, selling products as whole wheat even though modern milling compromises the whole form of the wheat.
Beidelman isn’t afraid to tackle the difficult questions, including: Is gluten intolerance all in her head? Since wheat has been a staple part of the human diet for as long as we have histories, why would so many people suddenly develop an intolerance to it? Is this just a rich, white, Americans’ problem, for people who have nothing to do besides visit gluten-free expos in their spare time?
At just under half an hour, this film is not meant to give all the answers, but to open up a conversation. It is a great length for showing in a 50-minute high school or college course with time for discussion. It could also be shown to community groups, especially those interested in producing locally grown and milled flour, or those thinking about advocacy on public policies such as food labeling.
To learn more about the making of the film and the topic of human interaction with wheat, we reached out to the filmmaker, Maggie Beidelman. You can also learn more about Beidelman’s story in her article, “The Trouble With Bread: What I Discovered When I Tried to Get to the Bottom of My Gluten Intolerance.”
Whole Terrain: Can you tell us a little bit about your story of becoming gluten intolerant? It sounds like you were fine, you went to France and ate superior, stone-ground wheat for a while, and then you came back and couldn’t handle American processed bread. Is that true? Do you think we are more susceptible to gluten intolerance if we start eating the good stuff and then go back to processed?
Maggie Beidelman: No, I don’t think that we’re necessarily more susceptible to gluten intolerance if we’re eating “the good stuff” and then switch to processed food — I think eating processed food in general is detrimental to our health, especially our digestive systems. In my case, I didn’t seem to have an issue with gluten intolerance at all until my return from France. Whether this was due to changes in my gut flora from living in another country or what exactly, I cannot say. There are many reasons why gluten intolerance could appear as an issue for someone, at any stage in their lives — they could be suffering from other autoimmune disorders or food allergies that weaken their guts, for example. And if your gut is already weakened, ultra-processed food could be even harder to digest.
WT: As you researched bread and wheat, what was one of the most surprising things you discovered?
MB: One of the most surprising things to me was in the labeling of bread. “100% whole wheat” doesn’t exactly mean what you might think, as modern flour is typically processed on roller mills, which grind up different parts of the wheat seed separately. And not all those parts always end up back together, in full 100% form. You’ll have to watch my film to get more into the details on that. But it’s quite disappointing. That’s one policy that certainly needs changing — food labels need to be accurate and understandable to the average consumer.
WT: What are you hoping people will do with this film?
MB: I hope that this film piques people’s interest in learning more about how food in America is processed and how the greater food industry affects our health.
WT: What are you working on now?
MB: I’m now a video producer in San Francisco for AJ+, the all-digital channel of Al Jazeera Media Network. So I get to spend my time producing creative videos that tell personal stories and break down the news for a global audience. It’s pretty great.
The Trouble with Bread is available for use by educational institutions and community groups through Bullfrog Films. Here is a trailer to give you a taste of what the film is like: