There is a parodox in the Jewish tradition that has bothered me for quite some time. Bread is considered the perennial "staff of life" and yet bread today isn't particularly nourishing.
If we look at bread in Jewish tradition, we see that it plays a central role and is considered the nourishing food par excellence. Pirkei Avos teaches (3:17) that Torah cannot exist without flour, nor flour without Torah; also,(6:4) the way to acquire Torah is to "eat bread with salt, drink water in small measure," etc. Bread is the only food for which the Torah commands that we bless G-d in thanksgiving after eating it (Deuteronomy 8:10 "Ve'achalta ve'savata u'verachta" etc.), the other brochos having been instituted by Chazal. According to the opinion of R' Yehuda in Brachos (40a), wheat was the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. His opinion is because he reasons that "a child doesn't know how to say 'father' and 'mother' until it has tasted of grains."
Also in chapter 5 of Tanya: "[Torah] is therefore called the 'bread' and 'food' of the soul. Just as physical bread nourishes the body when it is ingested and absorbed within it, and when it is transformed there into blood and flesh of one's own flesh, and only then will the body live and be sustained." We see from all these sources that bread is considered to be very bound up with knowledge and learning.
I am particularly fond of stories of Jews of Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, illustrating that many individuals were literally sustained by bread, day by day, week by week. For instance, this excerpt from The Lubavitcher Rabbi's Memoirs (p. 119) describes a simple Jew who lives by bread alone: "Yet, although Shlomo grew up to be so ignorant, he nevertheless had an urge to be frum. . . As he only knew the brachot for bread and water, these were the only items of nourishment he would allow himself." In pesukei dezimrah every morning we read of bread as a metaphor for all food, as for example in psalm 147: "He makes grass grow on the mountains; He gives the cattle its food ("lachma," literally "its bread.")." These sources show how bread has truly been a unique source of nourishment.
In Judaism, a meal is not considered a meal without bread. As Tamar Adler phrases it in An Everlasting Meal, "'Breaking bread' means eating. 'Our daily bread' means food. It is also called the staff of life, which I like: bread there, all life leaning against it. Our lives don't lean against it anymore: we've decided that bread is bad for us." As, indeed, it is.
I'm not going to go into detail, but there is sufficient data to suggest that many of today's breads are actively bad for you in various ways. So is it a staff of life or a cause of disease?
As it turns out, there is no paradox. The bread of Jewish tradition and the bread we have today are radically different from each other (excluding non-yeasted breads).
This revelation started for me when I read Tartine Bread, which is master baker Chad Robertson's paean to bread. As he writes (p. 8), "My strongest inspiration came not from real bread but from images--images of a time and place when bread was the foundation of a meal and at the center of daily life. . . This was elemental bread that sustained generations. To find this bread, I would have to learn to make it. Thus began my search for a certain loaf with an old soul. . . The bread would be a joy to eat fresh and would keep well for a week."
As with almost all food today, industrialization of the bread industry has completely changed what bread is. Here are some of the differences:
The single most outstanding difference is yeast. Baker's yeast, also known as bread yeast, used almost universally today for making bread, became widely popular just in the last century. Before then, if you wanted an airy loaf it required a lengthy fermentation period with sourdough cultures.
However, as Robertson points out in Tartine Bread on the topic of French breads, by which we can generalize to all breads, that the introduction of baker's yeast was the beginning of the end of real bread: "As bakers added more yeast to their dough, they found they could inflate their dough quickly and omit the time-consuming bulk fermentation. This made their bakery production more efficient, but the quality of the bread was radically degraded. Bakers were aerating the dough instead of fermenting it, sacrificing flavor and altering the very nature of French bread--the soul of the bread had gone from it. Bread that was once revered around the world now gained the reputation for staling within hours. . . Although bread was still considered the staple of the French diet, historians note that bread consumption in France sharply declined after the 1940s." (p. 125) As French bakers succumbed to "progress" so did bakers around the world.
Stored as a whole grain, wheat and other grains can remain viable for a long time. But once ground into flour, the same material goes rancid very quickly. For whole wheat the time limit is months and for refined flour maybe a year. The taste and smell of rancid flour is noticeable, but probably only perceivable to those with attuned senses. We're probably all used to the flavor and smell of rancid flour by now since most of the flour products we eat are probably rancid. However, more than the flavor degrades, the nutritional quality of the flour changes.
Additionally, flours of antiquity were probably often made of what we today call sprouted grains, as Sally Fallon states in Nourishing Traditions (p. 112): "In the past we ate most of our grains in partially germinated form. Grain standing in sheaves and stacks in open fields often began to sprout before it was brought into storage. Modern farming techniques prevent grains from germinating before they reach our tables." The nutrient profile of sprouted or germinated grain and non-germinated grain is very different.
Classical bread was composed of three ingredients: flour, water, and salt. Today you find all kinds of fillers and conditioners in bread, from refined oils to who knows what. Obviously that makes a difference.
So it seems that a fellow like the Shlomo mentioned in the beginning of this post who lived in the 18th century, or the pious individual of Pirkei Avos, were eating what is today considered a delicacy, only available at a small handful of the finest bakeries around the world. That bread was nutrient-dense, flavorful, did not go stale for a week, and even after it had gone stale was an excellent and hearty addition to soups and sauces.
I have not found any commercially available kosher (pas yisroel) real bread, by which I mean bread living up to Tartine Bread's standards.
The closest I have found is Vital Vittles bakery in Berkeley, CA which is pas yisroel and sourdough fermented and organic whole wheat, but the flavor is noticeably sour, there is no crust, and it is rather crumbly and doesn't keep very well. The other closest option is Ezekiel Bread, which is pas yisroel and is made from sprouted grains but is not sourdough fermented and also doesn't keep very well outside of refrigeration.