One of the questions that most often comes up when talking about gluten is why wheat is suddenly a bad thing. Before I go further, let me stress that not all wheat is the same and therefore a statement saying that all wheat is bad would certainly not be true. In the 1960s a new variety of wheat was introduced called Dwarf wheat. It’s a pretty amazing variety really. It is about 2 feet tall, half the height of other varieties, and is therefore able to support the larger head of grain which it also has. This variety of wheat was an incredible achievement in both the scientific and humanitarian aspects, as its high-yield and hardiness prevented mass starvation in India and China. However, there may have been unintended consequences as well.
What’s Wrong with Wheat?
The modern wheat most of us consume is quite different from that only 50 years ago. To help understand how much wheat has changed let’s look at the progression of wheat over the ages.
Einkorn: The earliest known variety of wheat cultivated 5,000-10,000 years ago. Einkorn is still available. It has only 14 chromosomes and less gluten.
Emmer and Kamut®: Cultivated after Einkorn. Has 28 Chromosomes.
Spelt: Cultivated from Emmer and goat grass. An ancient relative of Common wheat or Bread wheat. 42 Chromosomes.
Durum and Modern Wheat: Likely a descendent of Spelt. Also has 42 Chromosomes but has been changed drastically through hybridization and mutagenesis.
The number of chromosomes doesn’t necessarily indicate bad things have happened to wheat over the ages. Most of the high chromosome varieties have been around for centuries. However, the methods of producing new varieties of wheat have become more severe. At least some have been modified through a process known as mutagenesis, which uses radiation or chemicals to induce mutation of a plant. This is done for many reasons including finding a mutation that is resistant to herbicides (like RoundUp). Many countries refuse to import modern wheat because there have been no long-term studies to guarantee its safety.
Changes in How Wheat is Consumed
Not only has the wheat plant itself been changed over the years, the way we consume wheat has also changed quite a bit.
We used to sprout our grains
Traditionally, grains as well as beans, were soaked until they softened or sprouted and\or soured. Many recipes for Indian food call for soaking and allowing grains to ferment before using. Soaking the wheat berries actually performs some pre-digestion, making the actual digestion of wheat and breakdown of gluten easier. However, this also means planning ahead and patience. It is an overnight process just to soak, and another several hours or days, either in a dehydrator or some cool dry place, to dry again so that it can be ground into flour.
In some cases the sprouted grains can be drained and blended in a food processor or blender and used right away.
We used to grind our own flour
“Bread Flour – The wheat flour used by Ma Ingalls and Mother Wilder was ground between buhrstones, then sifted or “bolted” to separate the fine white powder from the coarser hulls, or bran, and the germ. Whole-wheat or graham flour was unbolted. Mother Wilder and Ma preferred white flour because it lacks germ oil that can sour and because it produces baked goods light in texture and color. But most of the time Ma uses a less refined, less expensive middle grade, flecked with brown bran.” – The Little House Cookbook
At first it may not seem to matter, after all, if you grind it or some factory grinds it, it’s still ground right? Unfortunately no. After wheat is separated from the hull it begins to go rancid. In about 3 days it will begin to mold and smell. To prevent this from happening there are a few tricks. One, wait to grind the flour until it is needed and use up your supply in a few days. Two, parboil the wheat berries and dry, resulting in bulgur wheat, an ancient method of preserving wheat invented by the Jews.
So then, how does flour from the stores stay on the shelves for so long without going rancid? Commercial flour is processed and stripped of oils and nutrients, usually through a bleaching process. Preservatives and vitamins are then added to aid in shelf-life and nutrition. However, all of this is done for the benefit of the business, not the consumer (you).
We used to eat other grains (Yes there are other grains!)
Perhaps one of the strongest arguments for the increase in wheat related allergies is the sheer amount we consume of the same variety of grain. Not only are we consuming more wheat than ever before, we are consuming the same variety of wheat, often from the same seed base. There is no time for our bodies to heal from the onslaught of gluten. One of the great things about going gluten-free is that the world of grains opens up.
Other than the varieties of wheat above there are several grains that used to be quite common and all are still available:
- Barley (also contains Gluten)
- Oat (gluten-free but can be cross-contaminated)
If the above sounds like something you have experienced, stay tuned. In the next parts I’ll discuss what may have caused wheat to be bad for us, how to determine if you are gluten sensitive, how to avoid it and find alternative grains, and finally, an easy and delicious gluten-free bread recipe.
Articles in this series:
- Part 1 – What is Gluten?
- Part 2 – Not Your Grandfather’s Wheat
- Part 3 – Is Gluten Bad for You?
- Part 4 – Gluten Free Bread Recipe