THE LATEST STATISTICS on food allergy and intolerance will come as no surprise to those who have wondered why shop bread doesn’t agree with them. Coeliac disease now affects one in a hundred people, other wheat intolerances probably more. Even before the Atkins diet, people were giving up wheat bread because it made them feel ‘bloated’, or worse. Consumption of our staple food – the staff of life – has declined by more than half in the last forty years. Does it matter if more and more people steer clear of bread? After all, most of us have an unparalleled range of foods from which to choose, at prices that have never been cheaper (if the checkout cost alone is counted). I think it does.

For one thing, if people abandon bread, they need to be sure that what they replace it with is at least as nutritious. Leaving aside bread’s value as a source of dietary fibre (of which almost everyone in the UK consumes too little), the evidence suggests that other foods too have been progressively degraded by intensive production. Fruit and vegetables contain half the vitamins and minerals they did fifty years ago, chicken is much fattier, and intensively produced milk is shown up as deficient in the essential fatty acids whose role in physical and mental health is becoming widely recognised.

Equity comes into it, too. The relatively affluent may be able to afford a varied diet, but poorer people depend disproportionately on bread. For them especially, it matters that every slice is as good as possible. Sadly, the signs are that the opposite is true. Bread’s fate stands as an example of what the industrialised food system does to all food.

Bread Matters contends that, at each stage of its transformation, from seed to wheat, from flour to loaf, changes in production and processing have made bread worse. We have bred wheat for high yield in intensive growing conditions with scant regard for its nutritional quality: modern varieties have 30–40% fewer minerals than traditional ones. Roller milling separates grain into its constituent parts so effectively that white flour has up to 88% less of a range of minerals and vitamins than whole wheat. A recent study showed that organic stoneground flour had 50% more magnesium and 46% more zinc than conventionally grown roller-milled flour. When it comes to baking, the story is no better. Almost all British bread is made in a hurry, with masses of yeast and no time for the fermentation that releases the nutrients in bread. Undeclared enzyme additives puff it up and keep it squidgy for days. Fair enough, if that’s what you like. But it now emerges that one of these added enzymes actually changes part of the wheat protein, making it toxic to people with a predisposition to wheat intolerance.

Bread is life. Literally, in the sense that, properly made, it has what George Stapledon called “the ability to enliven”; symbolically, in that it stands for all food. Modern bread, however, symbolises food in a more sinister way. It embodies the moral vacuity of reductionism, the assumption that we can live on an essentially denatured food provided only that we fortify it with whatever isolated nutrients (folate, omega 3, selenium, etc.) the scientists from time to time ordain.

There is an alternative. For bread, this means wheat from a living soil, milled to preserve its inherent vitality and turned into loaves by a slow process that harnesses natural systems. We urgently need research into the exact ways in which modern growing, milling and baking have depleted our bread. But rather than wait for conclusive proof, we can take matters into our own hands – by making bread using flour stoneground from organic wheat. This is more radical than a gesture, more life-changing than therapy. Think of it as the first stage of a planned withdrawal from the Tescopoly. At a stroke, between 10% and 20% of our diet is back under our control. It is fresher, less carbon-dependent and guaranteed to contain only what we decide to put in it. If the seven million or so people who own but do not currently use domestic bread machines started to do so, even the food industry might be forced to recognise that bread matters.

Andrew Whitley founded The Village Bakery and now teaches bread-making. He is the author of Bread Matters (Fourth Estate).