Tag Archives: bread

Thousands of tons of bread are wasted every year — in Sweden alone

The fact that food waste is a big problem is (or at least, should be) already well known. But hearing just how much food is wasted can be sobering. A new doctoral study from Sweden offers a nationwide view of how much bread is wasted every year — and how this food waste could be prevented.

“We have made calculations of the amount of bread waste, analysed the reasons behind it, and suggested solutions. Then we evaluated this in relation to potential environmental savings,” said Pedro Brancoli the lead study author.

Image credits: Douglas Alves.

The project wasn’t focused on bread initially. It mostly aimed to quantify food waste in general and assess what products were most often discarded and placed the biggest burden on the environment. Surprisingly, researchers found that bread — which has not been considered to be a significant waste source before — accounted for much of the environmental damage. The numbers are striking, Brancoli explains.

“We could establish that large amounts of bread are wasted in Sweden. To be more precise, 80,000 tons per year, or about 8 kg per person and year. The current bread distribution system also proved to be a significant source of bread waste. But we were also able to show that the bread that is wasted actually has a significant value,” he explained.

Globally, around a third of all the food produced is wasted, and food waste accounts for 6% of our total greenhouse gas emissions. There are few reliable statistics on bread waste, though some estimates place bread waste at around 30%.

The fact that there’s so much bread could, however, be a blessing in disguise. Bread waste can be used as a raw material to produce a number of different products, Brancoli explains. From animal feed, ethanol, or beer, to the substrate for fungus growth, bread can be used in a number of different applications.

“These alternatives have great potential to reduce the environmental impact in terms of the bread life cycle,” Brancoli said.

He envisions a more circular lifecycle for bread, with products being used for something else instead of simply being discarded. However, in order for that to happen, we need more cooperation between companies across the entire food chain — from wheat-growing to packaging and distribution. In addition to reducing the negative environmental impact, this can also help companies save money long term, the researcher believes.

Ultimately, Brancoli hopes his PhD thesis can start an important conversation around food waste.

“About a third of all food produced is lost on the way from farm to table. This leads to not only an environmental impact, but also unnecessary economic costs and social consequences through reduced access to food. This has led to an increased political and public debate on the need to address food waste, while at the same time increasing interest in the environmental, economic, and social effects it causes,” the researcher concludes.

The PhD thesis was published here.

These researchers want to innovate dough-making — with physics

Humans have been making bread for thousands of years. The world’s oldest evidence of bread-making has been found in a 14,500-year-old Natufian site in Jordan’s northeastern desert, and by 12,000 years ago, bread-making was virtually ubiquitous. Bread is a staple across all continents and most cultures, and although there may be major variations in the ingredients, the bread-making process has remained surprisingly similar over the millennia.

Across the world, bakers have been using the same 4 basic ingredients: flour, salt, water and yeast. Sure enough, seeds, fruits, or other ingredients can be added to the composition, but these 4 ingredients are the core of all bread. However, as all bakers will tell you, it’s not just the ingredients that make a good product: the kneading process and the amount of time the dough is given to rise are also crucial for baking a tasty bread.

The dough itself is a surprisingly complex material. Its mechanical properties are somewhere between those of a viscous liquid and an elastic solid. It’s also quite a finicky material to work with — any error can be lead to subpar bread.

Terracotta statue woman kneading dough 5th century BC.

The rising of the dough is also a surprisingly complex phenomenon.

The first part is simple in principle: the yeast produces carbon dioxide, causing pockets of gas to expand like tiny balloons. These pockets of air grow more and more until they connect with other pockets, creating a sponge-like structure. But the yeast itself cannot produce the bubbles because of something called Laplace pressure — the inverse of surface tension. Bubble formation therefore relies on a process called nucleation — which takes place when we let the dough rise.

But in order for all this to take place, the dough first needs to undergo kneading. Kneading warms and stretches strands of gluten until the entire structure is springy and elastic. If you don’t knead it enough, the dough will not be able to hold the tiny pockets of air and will collapse, producing a heavy and dense loaf. Kneading is basically putting the dough on a floured surface, pressing and stretching it, rotating it by 90°, and then repeating thisover and over. This is what makes the dough elastic and smooth.

“Because of its elasticity, dough overcomes gravitational forces during kneading and moves toward the rotating rod, then climbs up it. If you’ve ever used a kneader or mixer to make dough in your kitchen, you’ve probably observed this phenomenon,” said co-author Natalie Germann.

Of course, you don’t need to know all the physics behind it to make bread — but it can help if you want to improve bread-making. Germann and colleagues used 3D computer simulations of the dough’s physical properties, as well as the interactions between the air and the dough. They then created a geometric model of industrial kneaders to obtain a model as close to reality as possible.

Comparison of dough surface visualized using isosurfaces of dough matrix fraction (left) with screenshots recorded with a high-speed camera during laboratory kneading experiment. Image credits: Thomas Goudoulas, Technical University of Munich

This is the first known 3D dough knead simulation conducted with an industrial kneader. These simulations provide information about what’s happening inside the dough and on its surface over time — and they’ve already yielded some interesting conclusions: researchers believe they’ve found a good way to improve the performance of industrial kneaders.

“Our computer simulations showed that vertical mixing isn’t as good as the radial mixing in the spiral kneader we considered in our work. In the future, mixing performance may be enhanced by using a more highly curved spiral arm or two spiral arms similar to kneading by hand.”

Researchers emphasize that the intricacies of breadmaking still hold plenty of mystery, but physics can reveal these secrets and lead to innovative changes in bread-making.

Journal Reference: “Numerical and experimental investigation of dough kneading in a three-dimensional spiral kneader,” is authored by Laila Abu-Farah, Thomas B. Goudoulas, Soroush Hooshyar and Natalie Germann. It will appear in Physics of Fluids on Nov. 26, 2019 (DOI: 10.1063/1.5122261).

Pizza Slice.

A look at how the world invented pizza

Thin, inviting, and delicious, pizza has a unique place in many people’s hearts (and bellies). Pizza today is considered the quintessential Italian dish, but many other cultures around the world have also created pizza-like dishes. So grab a slice and let’s take a look at the history of pizza.

Pizza Slice.

Image via Pixabay.

There’s some debate as to where the term “pizza” comes from. One of the prevailing theories, however, is that it comes from the Latin pitta, a type of flatbread. And, to the best of our knowledge, that is exactly how pizza started out: flatbread with extra toppings meant to give it flavor.

Flavor up!

But this idea didn’t originate in Italy. Or, more to the point, it didn’t only originate in Italy.

The fact is that ancient peoples loved bread. For many reasons. Grain kept relatively well in a world bereft of refrigerators, and bread is one of the more enjoyable ways to eat it. It was also among the cheaper foodstuffs, generally, as grain is easy to produce, ship, and process in large quantities. Finally, bread is also quite dense in protein, carbohydrates, fiber, and calories — especially whole-grain bread, which our ancestors ate. Bread doesn’t particularly shine in the taste department, however. Sure, it’s easy to carry and it will get you full, but it’s not very exciting on the palate.

This is perhaps why, as Genevieve Thiers writes in the History of Pizza, soldiers of the Persian King Darius I “baked a kind of bread flat upon their shields and then covered it with cheese and dates” as early as the 6th century B.C. The Greeks (they used to fight the Persians a lot) seem to have later adopted and adapted this dish for their own tables.

Naan bread.

Naan bread, apart from being delicious, can be seen as far-flung relative of pizza.
Image credits Jason Goh.

It was pretty common for ancient Greeks to mix olive oil, cheese, and various herbs into their bread — again, all in the name of flavor. But it seems that contact with Persian soldiers added a twist or two to the tradition, according to Thiers, and Greece started baking “round, flat” bread with a variety of toppings such as meats, fruits, and vegetables.

One interesting bit evidence of this culinary development comes from the Aeneid, an epic poem written around 30 or 20 B.C. In the work, Aeneas and his men (who were running away from Greek-obliterated Troy) receive a prophecy/curse from Celaeno (queen of the harpies). Caleano told him that his group will “have reached [their] promised land” when they “arrive at a place so tired and hungry that [they] eat [their] tables”. When the party came ashore mainland Italy they gathered some “fruits of the field” and placed them on top of the only food they had left — stale round loaves of bread.

The use of hardened bread or crusts of bread in lieu of bowls was quite common in antiquity and the middle ages. So the group’s actions can be seen as them putting the food — the fruits of the field — on a plate, or a table, rather than being used as a topping. Still, famished, the adventurers quickly ate the plants, and then moved on to the ‘plates’ of bread. Aeneas’ son, Ascanius, then remarks that the group has “even eaten the tables” (“etiam mensas consumimus!” Aeniad Book IV), fulfilling the prophecy.

Aeneas fleeing Troy.

Painting by Pompeo Batoni, “Aeneas fleeing from Troy”, 1753. He’s carrying his father, Anchises. Also shown are his first wife, Creusa, and their child, Ascanius.
Image credits Galleria Sabauda.

Italian cuisine

The ‘pizzas’ we’ve talked about up to now are far from unique. Cultures around the world have developed their own brand of goodie-laden bread. Flatbreads, naan, and plakountas are all early preparations that could be considered cousins to the modern pizza, and they sprung up from ancient Greece to India, from Persia to Egypt. However, it would be kind of a stretch to call them pizza; they’re certainly not what you’d expect to see inside a pizza box today.

One Greek settlement would become the forefront of pizza as we know it: Naples. The city was founded by Greek colonists in the shadow of Vesuvius around 600 B.C. Writing in Pizza: A Global History, Carol Helstosky explains that by the 1700s and early 1800s, Naples was a thriving waterfront city — and, technically at least, an independent kingdom.


Painted lithography showing a group of lazzaroni. Author: Silvestro Bossi.
Image in the public domain, via Wikimedia.

The city was famous for its many lazzaroni, or working poor. They needed inexpensive food that could be consumed quickly, for the lazzaroni had neither the time nor the money to invest in their meals. Many street vendors and other informal “restaurants” catered to their need, primarily offering flatbreads with various toppings (as per the area’s Greek heritage). By this time, Naples’ flatbreads featured all the hallmarks of today’s pizzas: tomatoes (which were brought over from the Americas), cheese, oil, anchovies, and garlic.

Still, the dish wasn’t enjoying widespread appeal or recognition at this time. Pizza was considered a poor man’s dish, partially due to the lazzaroni, partly due to the fact that tomatoes were considered poisonous at the time. Wealthy people, you see, used to dine from pewter (a lead alloy) plates at the time. Tomatoes, being somewhat acidic, would leach lead out of the plates into food — which would eventually kill these wealthy people. The tomatoes were blamed, and that made them cheap. The lazzaroni were poor and hungry, so the tomato was right up their alley. Luckily for the lazzaroni, pewter plates were expensive, so they weren’t poisoned.

“Judgmental Italian authors often called [the lazzaroni’s] eating habits ‘disgusting,'” Helstosky notes.

Pizza got its big break around 1889. After the kingdom of Italy unified in 1861, King Umberto I and Queen Margherita visited Naples, Thiers writes. It’s not exactly known how but they ended up being served ‘pies’ made by Raffaele Esposito, often hailed as the father of modern pizza. Legend has it that the royal pair was bored with the French cuisine they were being offered, although Europeans love bad-mouthing their neighbors and especially their neighbors’ foods, so that may not be completely factual.

“He first experimented with adding only cheese to bread, then added sauce underneath it and let the dough take the shape of a large round pie,” Theirs explains.

Esposito is said to have made three of his pies/pizzas. The story goes that the one the Queen favored most showcased the three colors on Italy’s flag — green basil, white mozzarella, and red tomatoes. Whether this was a coincidence or by design, we’ll never know. But you can pick the story you like most. Esposito named his pizza “Margherita” in honor of the Queen, although today it’s more commonly referred to as ‘cheese pizza’.

From there, pizza has only reached greater heights. It established itself as an iconic Italian dish, first in Italy and later within Europe. America’s love of pizza began with Italian immigrants and was later propelled by soldiers who fought — and ate — in Italy during the Second World War.

Today, it’s a staple in both fast-food and fancy restaurants, can be bought frozen, or can be prepared at home (it’s quite good fun with the right mates). I think it’s fair to say that although Persia’s soldiers couldn’t conquer the world, their food certainly did.

Some Roman breadmakers took season-long vacations

Life certainly had its ups and downs in the Roman Empire, but a new study suggests that mill-workers took long vacations during autumns.

A model of the Berbegal watermills. Image credits: Carole Raddato.

When the great watermills at Berbegal were built in the 2nd century, they were the very best of what science had to offer: 16 huge water wheels stretching downhill in pairs, cascading from one pair to the other, attached to massive wheels that milled grain into flour. It must have been a truly amazing complex, and probably a very efficient one.

Not much has remained today of the wooden complex, but the mineral-rich waters which flowed through the mills created the perfect scenario for archaeologists — they precipitated carbonate deposits, forming casts of the woodwork. Although the wood itself has decayed, these casts are still preserved, providing unique insights into the structure.

Even then, the wooden structures would have required constant maintenance and replacement work. A comparison of the microstratigraphy of some of these fragments reveals clear evidence of maintenance of the Barbegal mills and shows that wooden structures were replaced approximately every 5 to 10 years, dictated by the rate of mold and decay, researchers write. Periodic maintenance is known from medieval mills and was typically required at these intervals.

But things go even deeper.

These carbonatic casts also preserved some of the wood’s organic molecules, and thanks to modern analysis techniques, scientists can go even deeper: they can analyze the different isotopes of carbon and oxygen, revealing how and when the watermills would have been used. Researchers know, for instance, that isotopes of oxygen and carbon occur in different ratios in different seasons. Looking at 142 cast fragments from earlier excavations, they found a seasonal pattern associated with the milling process.

[panel style=”panel-default” title=”Heavy cleaning” footer=””]Of course, one might wonder why the Romans didn’t clean up the carbonatic deposits on their wooden mills. Simple math comes in handy: for a 2-m-long wooden flume consisting of 2-cm-thick pine wood boards, a 5 cm carbonate crust would have added about 170 kg to its total mass, making removal pretty difficult. [/panel]

Basically, the mills were only used from winter to the early summer — workers had the late summer and the entire autumn to themselves, or were assigned different tasks.

It’s not clear why this happens, and it’s not clear exactly what the millers were doing with their time off. But the researchers do note, however, that this seasonal pattern matches with the Roman shipping season. Roman shipping activities typically peaked in the spring and halted in late autumn, which is precisely in accordance with the cyclical period of operation of the Barbegal mills. The bread made at Berbegal could have been used produce bread for these ships, as it’s unlikely that the mills would have been used for urban food production, given the significant gap. An alternative explanation, that the mills were used to produce flour for the army, is unlikely because no large military concentration is known from the area for the period of activity of the mills.

[panel style=”panel-default” title=”Military bread” footer=””]Panis nauticus (the nautical bread), equivalent to panis militaris (military bread) or buccelatum (28–30), was a major staple aboard Roman ships. After it was double baked, it was suitable for long-term storage, just like ship’s bread typically used in later periods. A similar situation has been proposed to explain the large number of bakeries in Ostia, the harbor city of ancient Rome.[/panel]

Researchers also found that the initial fabric of the main deposits is identical to calcite formed in closed aqueduct channels with fast flowing water, which suggests that they were somewhere in the shade, or more likely, inside the building. But later on, they found evidence of increased photosynthetic activity, indicating that there was more exposure to sunlight.

“This suggest that the Barbegal mills either were shaded by overhanging roofs or, more likely, were enclosed within buildings” during the initial phase, researchers write, “and that these structures were partly removed or collapsed during the final phase of porous carbonate deposition. As a result, the water mills were exposed to sunlight, triggering the growth of photosynthetically active organisms.” Operation of the water wheels inside buildings may also explain why the carbonate deposits were not regularly removed from the woodwork.

The Berbegal complex was the largest and earliest known industrial utilization of hydropower by any society, and seems to contradict the idea that the Greco-Roman society was technologically stale. The watermills exhibit a series of impressive innovations which only re-appear during medieval times. Researchers suggest that there are other similar complexes in the area just waiting to be discovered.

“Because both the location of large urban centers and harbors in the Roman Empire, as well as the sites of large aqueducts and their springs, are known, it should be possible to predict the locations of further large and hitherto undiscovered mill complexes,” researchers conclude.

Dr. Amaia Arranz-Otaegui and Ali Shakaiteer sampling cereals in the Shubayqa area. Credit: Joe Roe.

Oldest bread found in Jordan predates agriculture by 4,000 years

In the Black Desert in northeastern Jordan, archaeologists have come across a crispy find — the charred remains of flatbread that was baked 14,400 years ago. This is effectively the oldest evidence of bread making found to date, suggesting that hunter-gatherers were perhaps inspired by their success with wild cereals to set off the agricultural revolution.

Dr. Amaia Arranz-Otaegui and Ali Shakaiteer sampling cereals in the Shubayqa area. Credit: Joe Roe.

Dr. Amaia Arranz-Otaegui and Ali Shakaiteer sampling cereals in the Shubayqa area. Credit: Joe Roe.

The team of researchers at the University of Copenhagen, University College London and the University of Cambridge analyzed 24 charred remains retrieved from fireplaces at a Natufian hunter-gatherer site known as Shubayqa 1.

These remains — which are very similar to flatbreads retrieved at Neolithic and Roman sites in Europe and Turkey — show that our ancestors had been using the wild counterparts of domesticated cereals, such as barley, einkorn, and oat, long before they domesticated the food crops. The wild cereals were ground, sieved, and kneaded prior to being baked into bread.

University of Copenhagen archaeobotanist Amaia Arranz Otaegui, first author of the new study, thinks that the production and cultivation of bread by hunter-gathers may have influenced the domestication of crops — something which the researchers hope to evaluate in the future.

One of the stone structures of the Shubayqa 1 site. The fireplace, where the bread was found, is in the middle. Credit: Alexis Pantos.

One of the stone structures of the Shubayqa 1 site. The fireplace, where the bread was found, is in the middle. Credit: Alexis Pantos.

Today, we’re used to plumpy tomatoes and plentiful corn but the wild varieties from whence they came were far less nurturing. For instance, the first bananas that were cultivated in Papua New Guinea used to be stocky and filled with seeds. By contrast, today’s bananas are smooth on the inside and seedless.

It took us more than 10,000 years of selective breeding in order to turn tiny kernels on tall grass into juicy corn on the cob. Imagine the determination, patience, and insight that was required of the first hunter-gatherers that made the huge leap to agriculture.

Carrots were biennial plants, meaning they took two years to complete their biological cycle. They also used to be very thin and frail. Today, carrots are tasty orange roots that are an annual winter crop. Credit: Flickr, macleaygrassman / Flickr, adactio.

Cabbage, broccoli, and kale all come from the same species, originally a wild mustard plant that is now often referred to as wild cabbage. The images speak for themselves. Credit: Wikipedia / Flickr, akaitor.

It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t love plump, juicy tomatoes. It’s even harder to picture how pathetic ancient tomatoes looked in comparison. These unmodified tomatoes were a lot smaller and darker, and resembled berries rather than the apple-shaped delight we all know today. Credit: Flickr, aris_gionis / Flickr, jeepersmedia.


“Natufian hunter-gatherers are of particular interest to us because they lived through a transitional period when people became more sedentary and their diet began to change. Flint sickle blades as well as ground stone tools found at Natufian sites in the Levant have long led archaeologists to suspect that people had begun to exploit plants in a different and perhaps more effective way. But the flatbread found at Shubayqa 1 is the earliest evidence of bread making recovered so far, and it shows that baking was invented before we had plant cultivation,” explained  Tobias Richter, who led the excavations at Shubayqa 1 in Jordan.

“So this evidence confirms some of our ideas. Indeed, it may be that the early and extremely time-consuming production of bread based on wild cereals may have been one of the key driving forces behind the later agricultural revolution where wild cereals were cultivated to provide more convenient sources of food,” he added.

The flatbread was identified after it was analyzed with electronic microscopy at the University College London, a method that allowed the researchers to locate the microstructures and particles of each charred food remain. This was less straightforward than it sounds, however. The researchers had to devise a new set of criteria for identifying flatbread, dough, and porridge-like products.

“Bread involves labor intensive processing which includes dehusking, grinding of cereals and kneading and baking. That it was produced before farming methods suggests it was seen as special, and the desire to make more of this special food probably contributed to the decision to begin to cultivate cereals. All of this relies on new methodological developments that allow us to identify the remains of bread from very small charred fragments using high magnification,” said Professor Dorian Fuller of the UCL Institute of Archaeology.

The findings were reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Finland baker launches bread made almost entirely of crickets

The food of the future is here: it’s baked in Finland, and it contains about 70 crickets.

Image credits: Fazer.

Bakeries are usually warm, cozy places, filled with pleasant, inviting scents. But if you were to visit one of Fazer’s bakeries in Finland, you might come across something else. The company has developed a new type of bread, which includes crickets for extra protein and nutrients.

“It offers consumers with a good protein source and also gives them an easy way to familiarize themselves with insect-based food,” said Juhani Sibakov, head of innovation at Fazer Bakeries.

“We made a crunchy dough to enhance taste and increase mouthfeel. The result is delicious and nutritious. Cricket bread is a good source of protein. Insects also contain good fatty acids, calcium, iron and vitamin B12.”

Fazer took advantage of a recent change in national legislation: Finland, along with five other countries (Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Denmark) removed a ban on insect use in the food industry, effectively allowing insects to be raised and marketed for food use. Sibakov said they had the bread ready since last summer, but they had to wait for the legislation to be passed before the bread could hit the shelves.

Each loaf contains crickets which have been dried, ground, and mixed with flour, wheat, and other seeds. Sara Koivisto, a student from Helsinki who tried the bread, told Reuters that “I don’t taste the difference … It tastes like bread.”

Whether or not other consumers will have the same opinion remains to be seen, but for now, Fazer, who has a sales figure of about 1.6 billion euros last year, plans to sell it in all 47 of its stores by next year. The price is €3.99 ($4.74), compared with €2-3 for a regular wheat loaf. However, in order for that to happen, they need to import more crickets, which they are currently bringing from the Netherlands.

Insects are commonly eaten in many parts of the world, with the UN listing more than 1,900 edible species that are eaten by 2 billion people. However, in the West, the idea of eating insects is just recently gaining traction, particularly among those seeking a gluten-free diet or wanting to protect the environment. Farming insects is touted as being less energy and water intensive, while also requiring less land. For instance, production of 150g of grasshopper meat requires just a few liters of water, while cattle requires 3290 liters to produce the same amount of beef. Fazer says that the cricket bread could be an easy way to accustom Western clients with insect-based food.


Credit: YouTube, Space Bread.

ISS astronauts will bake the first crumb-free, space bread in 2018

A team of researchers wants to ‘bake were nobody baked before’. Sometime in 2018, a microgravity oven is slated for launch to the International Space Station where it will bake the first space-grade bread in history. As anything on the International Space Station, this won’t be your regular bread. Designed and inspected from all scientific angles, the space bread will not only be filling and fresh, but also safe for the special environment.

On March 23, 1965 astronaut John Young launched to Earth’s orbit aboard the Gemini 3. With him were crewmate Gus Grissom and a two-day-old corn beef sandwich, smuggled without permission on the spacecraft. Apparently, Young was trying to do Grissom a favor since the latter enjoyed corn beef sandwiches so much. Here’s an excerpt of the comm-link between the two.

Grissom: What is it?
Young: Corn beef sandwich
Grissom: Where did that come from?
Young: I brought it with me. Let’s see how it tastes. Smells, doesn’t it?

The two might have had some laughs, but when they got back home no one was laughing. Grissom put the sandwich away after a bite or two, but even that was enough to litter the cabin in a myriad of floating breadcrumbs. Some of these crumbs could have infiltrated sensitive electronics and jeopardize the entire mission, including the astronauts’ lives. Of course, microgravity affects the odor molecules as well, and the smell went stale throughout the cabin. Since then, considerable attention has been given to space food and what astronauts are allowed to eat in space.

Even more than 50 years since the Gemini 3 rye bread sandwich stunt, astronaut food is still not the best, to say the least.  On the ISS, due to constraints regarding water generation, most of the food is be delivered frozen, refrigerated, or thermostabilized once every 90 days.

Typical ThanksGiving dinner on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA.

Typical ThanksGiving dinner on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA.


One small step for bread, one giant leap for mankind

In space, that’s just how things are — it’s an alien environment (literally) so astronauts not only are prepared, but even embrace the fact that they will miss out on many of things they enjoy on Earth. But seeing how astronauts are forced to eat every day, it would really be great if it was enjoyable too. Though far from kosher, astronaut food is getting better and better by the day. In 2015, Samantha Cristoforetti, an Italian astronaut, sipped the first coffee brewed in space using a brand new micro-gravity espresso machine. Late last year, astronauts ate the first veggies grown on the International Space Station. Soon enough, they’ll also be treated to the first space-baked bread.

The experiment called Bake In Space is led by a group of scientists and engineers from Germany, among them former shuttle astronaut Gerhard Thiele. The noble goal of the mission is “to address the scientific and technical challenges relating to the production of fresh bread in space.”

Before the shuttle missions, NASA still allowed astronauts to carry bread in microgravity but only in pre-cut, bite-sized cubes that were coated with gelatine to keep any crumbs from floating away. Then, tortillas replaced bread altogether.  Now, it’s time to make bread a thing again.

To bake the space bread, most likely a low-energy convection oven will be used to bake a special dough that produces a crumb-free bread. The challenge is to make a crumb-free bread tasty too since this property often means baking tough and chewy bread.

According to Bake In Space, the food produced will be an adapted type of weekend German bread rolls. The hope is the fresh bread will not only offer sustenance but psychological comfort too.

“Besides [being] a source for nutrition, the smell of fresh bread evokes memories of general happiness and is an important psychological factor,” the project website states. “It is a symbol of recreational time and procedure down on Earth.”

The first space bread is slated for 2018 when the necessary equipment will arrive on the ISS during Alexander Gerst’s second science mission on the complex as an ESA astronaut.




What is gluten and why some people have gluten intolerance

“Gluten” is an umbrella term used to denote the mix of storage protein compounds found in all species and hybrids of wheat and its related grains (barley, rye, etc). Not a single substance but rather a mixture of various kinds of protein, gluten is, simply put, the way these cereals store building materials for the future.


*gluten intensifies*
Image credits Hans Braxmeier.

Owing to proteins’ tendency to bunch up or string together, gluten lends elasticity and texture to baked goods, making them either chewy or crunchy — “gluten” is actually the Latin word for “glue”. It’s also the object of many a fad diet and legitimate dietary concerns (primarily in the shape of allergies or intolerances), and a cool compound to use in making DIY playdough.

What is gluten made of

So right off the bat, gluten doesn’t have a set chemical structure. Its composition varies depending on the species in question and the exact percentages very likely differ from individual to individual. But in a general sense, gluten is a mixture of prolamins and glutelins.

Prolamins are a family of storage proteins used to stockpile (mainly) proline and glutamine, two amino acids which underpin protein synthesis for plants. Each crop produces and stores a different brand of prolamin — gliadin in wheat, hordein for barley, secalin in rye, zein in corn, kafirin in sorghum, and avenin (minor protein) in oats. Glutelins do basically the same thing as prolamins in chemically-different combinations and shapes. They’re rich in amino acids, particularly glutenin (wheat), though to a lesser overall degree than prolamins.


The two amino acids gluten mainly stores.

All plants use protein stores of one kind or another, mostly concentrated in fruits in the case of endosperms, earmarked to supply budding plants during germination. The term gluten is sometimes extended to these stores as well (especially for corn or rice as they’re also cereals) but true gluten (with prolamins and glutelins) is only found in wheat, its related grains, and their species and hybrids. Some other gluten-free grains you’re likely to bump or bite into are quinoa, amaranth, and oats — although this last one is usually not recommended by dietitians, as it’s usually processed through the same channels as wheat-related grains, which can contaminate it with gluten.

Why gluten is good

Proline is considered to be a non-essential amino acid in the human body (the need can be covered by internal synthesis), while glutamine plays a non-essential/conditionally essential role (it is usually supplied by the body’s own synthesis processes, but must be supplemented by diet in certain stressful conditions). Glutamine has the distinction of being the most abundant free amino acid in the bloodstream.

So while they do have nutritional value, for the most part, our bodies don’t really need these amino acids. But gluten plays a central part in how we process and then consume grains. It accounts for the lion’s share of proteins in bread — anywhere between 75 to 80% — so to understand what it does, let’s take a quick look at how these behave.


Those stretch-like marks are made by gluten holding the dough together during yeast fermentation.
Image credits Lebensmittelfotos.

Proteins are essentially long chains of amino acids strewn together and folded into certain shapes. They do all sorts of stuff in living bodies, such as pumping compounds in and out of cells or moving things around. But the thing we’re interested in right now is that they are also the go-to compounds when mechanical resilience and stiffness are required. Your nails are so hard compared to your skin because they’re rich in keratin. Your nose never breaks because elastin strands hold the cartilage together, just like the iron rods do in reinforced concrete. Cells keep their shape because tiny filaments of protein run from wall to wall and prop them up.

And that’s what gluten does in pretty much any foodstuff made from flour. By kneading it with water, bakers “weave” gluten into long elastic strands which act similarly to those of a polymer. These strands are made up of glutenin molecules which criss-cross into a microscopic net-like pattern along with gliadin (wheat glutenin) molecules, making the dough hold together, feel a bit rubbery, and stretchable. Heat treatment such as baking or boiling breaks the folding in gluten and makes it coagulate, which, along with starch, gives bread its mechanical properties. Gluten has also been identified as playing a part in the staling of bread, likely by binding atmospheric water molecules.

To get an idea of the physical properties of gluten and how it ties food together, you can play around with a lump of pure gluten. It’s quite fun — keep your hands clean and (most of) you can eat it afterward, too. If you don’t have any lying around, tofu is a similar product (soy/plant proteins but with a higher % of fat mixed in) which is more widely available.

What is gluten intolerance

Now, my reaction to hearing about a new fad diet is a wide smile and a knowing, paternal chuckle. And a big part of the demand for gluten-free products comes down to just that — a fad. To each his own (wallet) but, considering a number of foodstuffs that have gluten and their nutritional value, going gluten-free without any medical reason isn’t the best of ideas as it could end up making your diet way worse overall.

At least some people have a sense of humor about it.
Image credits William Murphy / Flickr.

That being said, some people who are gluten-sensitive or gluten-intolerant can’t eat gluten. There are several gluten-related disorders: celiac disease (CD) is the most common form of intolerance, then there’s the still-debated-on non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), and a slew of other nasty reactions from dermatitis herpetiformis and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) to gluten ataxia and wheat allergy. People suffering from CD see their bodies produce an abnormal immune response when digesting gluten, making their digestive tract unable to absorb nutrients. About 18 million Americans have gluten sensitivity, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. Those with NCGS exhibit many of the same symptoms, due to poor digestion or a placebo effect, still under debate. So why does this happen?

The first thing you have to keep in mind is that while humans are omnivores, our bodies just aren’t geared to eating absolutely everything out there — but we’re very good at adapting. Certain populations overcome diet limitations over time through contact with traditional types of food.

For example, Western society as a whole is much less lactose intolerant than the rest of, well, mammals, since in nature milk is reliably on the menu only before weaning — after that, it’s highly unlikely to pop up, so mammalian bodies don’t maintain a stock of lactase because it doesn’t make economic sense for them to do so. But most westerners today have acquired lactose resistance through (relatively few) generations of natural selection for the ability to eat dairy, as milk was an important source of nutrients here. Writing in the New York time on this subject, Moises Velasquez-Manoff said:

“Few Scandinavian hunter-gatherers living 5,400 years ago had lactase persistence genes, for example. Today, most Scandinavians do.”

The “we’re not yet adapted to it” approach has a lot of support, and there may be some limited validity to that point of view in certain cases. We know of grain consumption even before agriculture, albeit on a reduced scale. It’s also likely that those cereals were poorer in gluten or might not have employed it all together (such as is the case with wild oats), meaning there was no reason to adapt to eating a lot of grains by that time. There is evidence tying CD to genetic factors. However, I’d say that adaptation similar to the one above led to a greater digestibility of gluten and likely worked up a natural tolerance for the majority of humans — else people wouldn’t have eaten it for like 23,000 years.

One other factor cited to play a hand in gluten intolerance is that selective breeding of wheat and related crops up to modern times led to increasing levels of ATIs (-α-amylase/trypsin inhibitors), which the plants use to fight off insects but also interfere with the digestive tract’s processing of gluten, and our bodies are still catching up to that. But research doesn’t point to any increase in ATIs.

One final factor may be more modern — after the transition to agriculture, the genes which cause autoimmune disorders may have provided an evolutionary advantage by keeping people extra-safe in the crowded, pathogen-rich environments of early settlements. And we’re seeing an overall increase in autoimmune disorders of every kind recently as more of the slack is taken away from our immune systems by drugs, making it liable to react out of proportion to perceived threats.

The bottom line is that we don’t really know where gluten intolerance stems from yet.

As for the other disorders, their causes vary quite a lot and may not even be understood or still debated in some cases. If you think you may have a form of gluten sensibility, speaking to a physician is your best way of getting more information.

Cool stuff gluten can do for you

You can still have some fun with gluten, even if you can’t eat it. Candia on Instructables has a nice guide set up so you can make some at home. The cream of tartar will make the dough more elastic, but even if you take it our of the mix the gluten is strong enough to keep the play-dough in one piece no matter how you stretch it. It’s basically dough so you don’t have to worry about the kids (or yourself) sneaking a bite out of it — but be mindful of intolerance.

If you’d rather feel like gluing your kids to the wall (I don’t judge), Wheatglue can come in handy. It’s as easy as mixing flour and water, as Instructabler theRIAA shows. It’s one of the oldest glues ever, used since antiquity to bind books and in the more modern art of plastering posters. Plus, it’s biodegradable so the little ones will come off on their own after some time.

This is not chicken — seriously. It’s seitan, which is basically gluten. The broccoli is just broccoli. Image credits: John / Flickr.

You can use gluten as an alternative to tofu (seitan) and will likely appreciate its more robust texture and stronger aroma compared to the subtle soy product. And as a bonus for vegetarians, you’ll finally have a go-to answer for when people ask where you get your protein from. It even looks a lot like meat, and it’s much healthier than tofu.

So is gluten right for you? Well, statistically speaking, probably yes.


The Fellowship of the Ring needed 675 pieces of lembas bread to reach Mordor, study finds


Legolas is delighted with lembas. 

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, a motley crew formed of humans, elves, dwarfs, and hobbits are tasked with saving Middle Earth. To reach their goal, they have to throw the One Ring into the fiery abyss of Mt. Doom but to get there they would have to walk all the way from Imraldis with lembas bread as their only source of sustenance. According to a new study published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Science Topics, the fellowship would have required hundreds of pieces of lembas.

The study was carried out by Skye Rosetti and Krisho Manaharan, both from the University of Leicester. To find out how much food the fellowship required, the pair calculated the total calorific consumption of the 92-day journey using the metabolic rates for each species.

The fellowship consisted of four hobbits (Peregrin Took, Meriadoc Brandybuck, Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee), the Dúnedain ranger Aragorn, Boromir of the race of men, the Istari Gandalf, dwarrow Gimli and the elf Legolas Greenleaf. A previous study used animal analogues to determine basal metabolic rates for different species from Middle Earth, like foxes for humans, deer for elves and possums for hobbits. As such, a 34-year-old male of each species should expect the following daily calorie consumption:

  • Hobbits: 1818.61 kcal/day
  • Men: 1702.2 kcal/day
  • Elves: 1416.95 kcal/day

Though half the height of a man, hobbits burn a lot of energy. They’re always hungry, at least.

To compute the total number of calories consumed by the party, the researchers made a couple of assumption. In their ideal journey, the group doesn’t separate and Boromir is still alive and well for the whole duration of the trip. That’s because Frodo’s path beyond Imraldis is considered which means there are no skirmishes near Parth Galen. The researchers also assume Frodo isn’t captured by Orcs and Gandalf isn’t lost during the fight with Balrog of Morgoth.

With this in mind, the combined daily calorific consumption of the fellowship was determined to be 16,147.68 kcal/day

The stops the fellowship made which were used to determine the degree of exertion for the fellowship. Credit:

The stops the fellowship made which were used to determine the degree of exertion for the fellowship. Credit: Journal of Interdisciplinary Science Topics. 

Concerning lembas bread, we know from reliable sources that a cake would satisfy a man for an entire day, which is equal to 2638.50 kcal.  So, to support the fellowship on its journey to Mordor, the party would have had to carry a minimum of 675 pieces of lembas. Those are quite a few pieces of bread but fortunately, one lembas cake is very small and if wrapped in mallorn leaves can stay fresh for months. In other words, it’s totally plausible for the party to sustain their very long and arduous trip on lembas alone.


“Using hourly metabolic rates for the species, this is approximately 304 pieces for the hobbits, 214 for the ‘men’, 99 for Gimli and 60 for Legolas, assuming that they only eat their daily required amounts,” the researchers concluded.


This study answers some questions Lord of The Rings fans might have asked themselves but there are still many things we don’t know. For instance, does lembas contain gluten? Are there any side effects of eating only lembas for weeks? A follow-up would be gladly welcome. So, who wants to fund this?

Learn how to bake ancient bread from this 2,000-year-old Roman recipe

Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

In AD 79, a baker prepared a loaf in the Roman city of Pompeii. He stamped it with his name — ‘Property of Celer, Slave of Q. Granius Verus’, the loaf reads — and split it into eight pieces. Sadly for him, both he and the bread were subjected to a much higher temperature than expected when Mount Vesuvius violently erupted, burying the city of Pompeii with virtually all its inhabitants. However, the bread was excellently preserved. Some 2,000 years later, archaeologists found it and put it in a museum in Napoli, from where it was borrowed to the British Museum for a temporary exhibition. There, researchers worked with Giorgio Locatelli, an Italian chef working in the United Kingdom, to backtrace the recipe. Here’s what they came up with:


  • 400g biga acida (sourdough)
  • 12g yeast
  • 18g gluten
  • 24g salt
  • 532g water
  • 405g spelt flour
  • 405g wholemeal flour


Sourdough bread features a fermented batter-like dough starter to make them rise more and enhance their flavour. The dough is fermented using naturally occurring lactobacilli and yeast and it has a mildly sour taste due to the fermentation. The advantage of it is that it naturally keeps longer (and some people prefer the taste).

Of course, it’s hard to say that this is exactly the Roman recipe or exactly the Roman method, but it’s pretty damn close.

Method #1 — easy mode

Basically, you melt the yeast in the water like you would in any bread and you add it to the biga. Mix and sieve the flours together with the gluten and add to the water, continuing to mix until homogenous. After this, add the salt and keep mixing for three minutes. By now, you should have a pretty nice mix — make a round shape like this one and leave it to rest for an hour.

After an hour, it should start taking shape — we’re now just looking at cosmetics. Put some string around it to give it the distinctive shape and make the cuts on top. We don’t know why the cuts were there, but perhaps it was easier to split or sell by the slice. Then, put it in the oven at 200 degrees for 30–45 minutes and voila!

Thankfully, bread-making techniques have evolved significantly since Roman times and modern bread makers enable anyone, with very little effort, to enjoy the smell and taste of freshly baked bread from the comfort of their own home.

Method #2 — the real artisanal bread

As the writers at The Fresh Loaf point out, this doesn’t really feel like an artisanal bread. It features modern gluten and yeast, which the Romans, of course, wouldn’t have used. So they took out the modern flour, yeast, and gluten additive and replaced them with a sourdough preferment, ancient flours, and artisanal techniques to develop gluten. They used Kamut, rye, and spelt flour, which were common in the Roman world. The technique they used gets pretty complex (and a bit more expensive), so I recommend checking it out on their page — at the very least, it should make for an interesting reading. I’d only recommend it if you have a lot of baking experience and want to take things to the next level. Be sure to have a stamp to mark your bread!

If not, then the first method should make for an excellent (and delicious) experiment. It’s definitely something to get the dinner conversations rolling.

Roman baking

If you find this interesting and would like to explore the subject even further, research has revealed quite a bit about Roman baking. Baking flourished in the Roman Empire from as early as 300BC. In 168 BC, the first Bakers Guild was formed as bread turned from a luxury to a common good. Within 150 years there were more than three hundred specialist pastry chefs in Rome.

The best bakers were trained at the Collegium Pistorum, and did not allow the bakers or their children to withdraw from it and take up other trades.

In the ruins of Pompeii, archaeologists have found dozens of bakeries, as well as communal ovens to which you could bring your dough (bread-stamped, of course) to be baked overnight. Rather ironically, many of the ovens were made from volcanic rock. Eighty charred loaves alone were recovered from the ovens of one baker, Modestus. Sometimes, the Romans would add milk, eggs and butter to their bread — but this was a privilege only the rich could afford.

There were also oyster bread (to be eaten with oysters); ‘artolaganus’ or cakebread; ‘speusticus’ or ‘hurry bread’, tin bread, Parthian bread and the Roman Style Slipper Loaf. All in all, they had quite a rich tradition