Karen O’Donoghue has a goal: to cure everyone in Ireland of IBS. And, paradoxically, she’s aiming to use bread to do it.
Already you can see the bands of gastroenterologists around the country tut-tutting at such a tall order.
Yet, O’Donoghue should know a thing or two. In 2018 she was named Gut Specialist of the Year in the UK and she is currently a judge for the World Bread Awards.
Actress Goldie Hawn rates her anti-inflammatory bread so highly that she took ten loaves with her back to the US and claimed it cured both her and her son’s Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
“Every system and organ in the body is dependent on the health of the gut microbiome so when you nourish the microbiome, it automatically nourishes the brain,” says O’Donoghue from her new bakery in Mayo.
“You’ll make better decisions in your life, have more energy, and you’ll enjoy better sex,” she adds, with a twinkle.
Bread activism — it kind of has a ring to it.
And this is the business O’Donoghue is in, swapping prescriptive medicine for a food-led approach to managing and healing one’s own body.
As the founder of the Happy Tummy Company in London in 2014, she is responsible for single-handedly pioneering a scientifically-developed range of breads aimed at alleviating IBS (her UK customers coined the term “magic poo bread” for how much it helped them), mental health issues, period and menopause pain, and, what she describes as functional rehab for both physical injury and trauma from illness.
The Happy Tummy Company was born out of a deep desire to help others, and in turn, out of illness.
Growing up in Cork where her parents ran a horticulture company, when O’Donoghue was 10 years old her mother was diagnosed with cancer.
She vividly remembers the lightning bolt moment that would dictate the course of her future.
“During the time of my mum’s cancer treatments I remember digging the soil with my dad, planting beech saplings, and I had this epiphany: when I’m older I’m going to create a brand that’s all about food as preventative medicine.”
Fast forward to 24-year-old Karen living in London.
Having spent most of her life battling with IBS, she found herself depressed and anxious.
“The older I got and the more my IBS became an issue, I knew I needed to go back to that ambition I had as a little girl. Intuitively I always knew that food is medicine.”
She started poring over scientific research papers to learn about the gut microbiome and discovered that our gut bacteria works to a specific mathematical equation: we should be eating 66% dietary fibre to 33% dietary protein and five grams of prebiotic fibre every day.
Based on this, she created her own formula (her father was a maths teacher — they regularly discussed theorems at the dinner table) and applied it to the bread making process.
It was during this time that she discovered a gluten-free grain from Africa.
The star ingredient is teff, grown in Ethiopia’s highlands, which is high in protein, calcium and iron, along with prebiotic fibres and antioxidants, all of which stimulate the growth of good gut bacteria, reduce inflammation and nourish the lungs, brain, skin, and nervous system. Teff relieves bloating and constipation and also helps to balance hormone levels, stimulate digestion and strengthen bones.
After 18 months of a mad scientist-like existence in her London flat she developed a loaf of bread that would completely rid her of her IBS.
From having one bowel movement every three weeks, within a week she was doing two poos a day.
The shape of her tummy changed, her depression and anxiety disappeared and she started to feel alive again.
That loaf is now her best-selling Chia Teff Loaf, aka ‘the magic poo bread’
In 2014 she established her London bakery, The Happy Tummy Company (cue Goldie Hawn and many more high-profile followers) in Hackney and a school where she taught students how to use food both as preventative and prescriptive medicine.
The bread-making process started as a means to cure her own IBS but once the word got out, loaves were flying off the shelves like IBS-crusading hotcakes.
Last year, after 13 years in the UK, she decided to relocate the business headquarters to Westport in Mayo.
O’Donoghue walks the talk. She beams of health and is genuinely positive, which is infectious to be around.
O’Donoghue believes we need to pare back how we look at bread and start viewing our consumption of it primarily from a health perspective, and flavour as a secondary issue.
The reason bread has a branding problem, she believes, is because bakers “are obsessed with the aesthetics of what they are making over nourishment”, creating white, fluffy sourdough breads using commercial wheat.
“Consumers, particularly those who have issues with gluten or coeliac disease, eat these breads and all of a sudden feel bloated, lethargic, and agitated. And that’s not surprising.
“You are eating a wheat that is not very natural.”
The Chia Teff Loaf takes about three days to make and is packed with organic teff (so no herbicides or pesticides), sprouted buckwheat, walnuts, Brazil nuts, almonds, linseed, and chia seeds — all expensive ingredients.
It costs €25 per loaf.
“I know it’s generally not politically correct to go so hard on this organic way of eating because people will argue that it is elitist, privileged and only a certain percentage can afford organic food.
“But when I had the bakery in Hackney we had loads of customers who were on the breadline buying our bread because they fundamentally understood the importance of organic, wholegrain food in their diet.”
This month O’Donoghue launches her 48-hour soaked wholegrain Chia Teff Loaf, aka “the magic poo bread”, to the Irish market on a nationwide delivery service.
She also runs baking classes at her school house, Teach Scoile, in Westport to educate people on the benefits of teff.
As a baker, she separates bread makers into two camps.
“There are those who nourish, and there are those who feed,” she says.
“And I’ve always wanted to nourish.
“When I had that epiphany at 10 years of age I knew that this brand will be more of a vocation than a business. “
What I’m doing here is a vocation about preventative medicine to give every single person suffering with IBS access to food and education that works.”
- The Happy Tummy Company operates out of Teach Scoile in Westport, Co Mayo.