Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Wheat, a global staple. Or is it?

Wheat is on my mind. I remember a delicious whole wheat bread loaf that my grandmother kneaded by hand as one of the healthiest foods out there; especially with the zucchini, carrots and other garden treats baked in. Whole grain cereal, wheat bran, whole grain pasta, these are all products sold as health-conscious eating choices, but recent research tells me they may not be. Is wheat good for us, or is it an unhealthy snack in disguise?

Wikipedia tells me that in 2010 wheat was the third most produced cereal, next to rice and maize. My last trip to the grocery story validates this fact. A closer look at food labels tells me that in North America wheat is in almost everything. It appears that we, at least in North America, depend on wheat to function. If this is true, why hasn't the news that wheat could be unhealthy hit the grocery stores or our dinner tables? I took some time to research what is wrong with wheat. Here is what I found: 

Wheat is heavily modified

What we know as wheat is in fact a hybrid or a mix of many different plants. Wheat plants have been selectively bred (crossed) to remove certain undesirable traits and to increase desirable ones. For example, wheat has been bred to make it short. I've seen this done to coffee, it makes it easier to pick. So far not so bad. But, wheat has also been hybridized (cross-bred) with non-wheat plants to introduce different and new genes into a wheat plants' DNA. Now, I'm getting a little concerned. What plants' (or animals') genes am I eating in my morning toast? Another - and more sneaky - form of modification is the process of chemical mutation. Scientists have exposed wheat seeds to radiation and chemicals, such as the toxic-to-humans sodium azide, to change the make up of this plant. The use of sodium azide on wheat was done to produce a herbicide resistant form of wheat called Clearfield wheat. The wheat we eat now is nothing like what my great grandfather was farming in the late 19th century. 
Spanish officers inspecting bread in France, taken circa 1918 (National Library of Scotland)

What do these modifications mean for our health? 

I can’t find a list of impacts and maybe there is a reason for this. But, after some digging, I found Dr. Davis’ hypothesis, that the 1985 introduction of modern semi-dwarf, high-yield wheat was followed by a surge in weight gain and a diabetes epidemic for United States of Americans. Dr. Davis attributes weight gain other health problems to modified proteins in wheat. For example, research over the past 30 years suggests that one of these proteins, gliadin*, is thought to be modified in our intestine to create bi-products that may increase the human appetite. *Gliadin is a protein found in gluten.

Another factor is gluten. Gluten is made up of various proteins and is found in wheat (along with rye and barley). You may have heard of gluten in relation to celiac disease, an auto immune reaction to partially digested gluten (gliadin to be specific). If you have celiac, you avoid wheat gluten. But, should even the non-celiac person consider avoiding the gluten found in wheat? 

Over the last 100 years for example, the amount of gluten found in wheat has increased 10-fold; now 90 % of protein in wheat is gluten. Even if you don't have celiac, 90% of this hard-to-digest (and potentially harmful) protein is a lot for a digestive system to handle.

A 2009 study in the Journal of American Medical Association, found that if you are a non-celiac person, but have problems digesting gluten, you may be at high risk for many inflammatory conditions such as heart disease. This was enough for me to test my gluten tolerance (using a food elimination and reintroduction program). After detecting I do have a mild gluten-intolerance, and after reading the potentially-harmful wheat breeding practices, I think I am ready to eliminate wheat in my diet for good. 

I think a few readers may say that eliminating wheat is an extreme measure. Everything in moderation is a good life-philosophy, right? I agree. But what happens when you try to eat in moderation while some people are secretly changing your food? Can you really assess moderation if you don’t know what you are eating? 

Don’t hold me to the accuracy of this next example (I can’t find the citation), but it was helpful for me to understand what it means to be eating gluten-enhanced wheat. I read that because gluten in wheat has been substantially increased, eating two pieces of bread now would be like eating 17 pieces of bread say in the late 19th century. Now that is something I need to digest.


  1. Very good Liv ! What sort of alternatives do you suggest for wheat. Would bread made entirely from rice flour be practical? Is there any way of getting back the original wheat that was healthy?

  2. Thanks dad. For those who are sensitive to gluten or want to give up wheat, there are many alternatives. For example, sorghum, rice, millet, chickpeas, yucca, oats (oat bran has no gluten), and buckwheat come to mind. If you want to make bread from some alternative flour such as rice flour you need to add a binding agent (gluten makes the bread stick together). Some recipes suggest potato or tapioca starch (see I have tried one gluten-free pizza crust with a mix of flours including chickpea, potato flour, brown rice flour (Bob's Red Mill gluten-free flour mix) and it turned out really well. As for your last question, I don't have an informed answer. As for modern wheat, I doubt it. But there is still hope for other cereal grains. Many agriculturalists want to protect other cereals so they don't go down wheat's path. You can see peoples efforts to embrace natural crop diversity if you hit a health food store; there you'll see ancient grains such as spelt or black wheat.