Rules for Eating Wheat

Antebellum-Style Graham Wheat Flour from the Anson Mills website

Much of the bad press surrounding wheat in recent years is well deserved. Wheat and grain allergies may be some of the most common allergies known to medicine. I strongly suspect that the cause for these allergies may be in the types of wheat we’re growing.

Let’s start with some history. Humans have eaten and tinkered with grain genetics for at least 30,000 years, well before the development of what we now call “agriculture”.  But with each change in wheat genetics came new, unexpected outcomes. Those changes greatly accelerated in the last one hundred and fifty years.

  • In the 19th century farmers moved away from growing soft wheat varieties and shifted to hard wheat, which performs better in mechanized roller mills. 
  • In the mid 20th century Norman Borlaug launched the green revolution by developing new wheat varieties.
  • And now, Monsanto and Bill Gates are anxious to bring us genetically modified wheat. 

The problem? When you make radical changes to a complex system such as wheat genetics you risk unforeseen consequences, what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “black swans”. The unforeseen consequences may be the large percentage of the population with wheat allergies. I’ll admit that this is a hunch of mine not based on any peer reviewed study. But scientists have identified at least 27 potential allergens in modern wheat and researchers are looking at simpler forms of ancient wheat such as Einkorn to see if they have fewer allergens.

So what can we do to prevent wheat based black swans? I think we need a wheat equivalent of Michael Pollan’s food rules, so here it goes:

  • Acknowledge our ignorance in the face of the great complexity of nature. Thus, we should be conservative when it comes to plant breeding. Saving seed and developing local varieties are a good thing. Genetic modification is probably a huge risk. 
  • Breed wheat for flavor and disease resistance not shipability and ease of mechanical harvesting.
  • Our markets should have at least as many flour varieties as flavors of soda.
  • We should be willing to pay a little more for a higher quality flour.
    • Eat whole grains rather than refined grains whenever possible. The nutrients and substances we remove from whole grains to make refined white flour may contain substances that prevent allergic reactions.
    • Support local farmers who are growing older forms of grain (soft wheat such as Sonora and ancient wheat such as Einkorn). If you can’t find something local, mail order your flour. 
    • Consider growing grain at home as part of a rotational strategy in your garden. See Lawns to Loaves for inspiration.

    One source for interesting flour by mail order:

    Anson Mills

    If any of you know of other sources for heritage flours (either brick and mortar or mail order) please leave a comment.

    Share this post

    Leave a comment

    26 Comments

    1. They probably don’t have as large a selection, and some is ground there and some not, but buttecreekmill.com is an especially amazing place to visit (they let you in the grinding room!). I haven’t ordered from there, but bought there. They also do custom grinding for anyone with acres in variety wheat in southern Oregon….

    2. Up here in the Bay Area Eatwell Farm has a CSA that provides various soft wheat varieties including Sonora. I’ve wanted to join just for the wheat but I don’t think they offer just a wheat CSA.

    3. I live in Columbia SC, where Anson is located. I also have a friend that works in the mill/ grows grains for Glenn. They work they do truly is stellar. While their flours have not made it into my regular pantry (they are pretty expensive, but what real food isn’t?), their oatmeal and grits are phenomenal.

    4. I hope it’s okay to leave a comment even if I don’t know other sources for heritage flours, because I have . . . questions.

      You realize that if we “breed wheat for flavor and disease resistance[,] not shipability and ease of mechanical harvesting,” prices will skyrocket, and wheat will often be spoiled when you open the bag. Shipability and ease of harvest aren’t minor details, and a great many Americans can’t necessarily afford the crappy homogenized allergenic wheat we’ve got now, much less have the money for locally-grown varieties or the time to bake their own bread. I don’t disagree that having more varieties available would probably be a good thing, but it seems like any solution to this problem has to address it for everybody, not just the people with the money to buy boutique wheat (the Anson Mills flour photographed in your post is about 4 times the price of Gold Medal All-Purpose, from what I can determine on-line) or the land and time to grow (and thresh, and grind, and bake) their own. Am I misunderstanding?

      “Be conservative when it comes to plant breeding” and “developing local varieties [is] a good thing” seem to be contradictory.

      Allergies in general have been increasing; one of the leading hypotheses is that children are being kept in cleaner homes, and spending less time outdoors, so their immune systems aren’t being trained to distinguish between good and bad organisms. (There’s also the tapeworm hypothesis, which is basically that we co-evolved with tapeworms, and the immune system expects to be fighting them, so when none is present, the immune system starts fighting whatever’s handy.) I don’t have a problem believing that wheat allergies may be on the increase, but if modern wheat varieties are causing problems, then there should be evidence that wheat allergies are increasing faster than allergies to everything else. Do you have such evidence? ‘Cause I’m going to need something like that before I’ll agree with you that we should revamp our entire wheat-production system.

      Also, “with each change in wheat genetics came new, unexpected outcomes.” What were the changes in wheat genetics, and what were the new outcomes? As far as I can tell from this post, you don’t say.

      And: “The nutrients and substances we remove from whole grains to make refined white flour may contain substances that prevent allergic reactions.” Yes. True. Also they may have no effect on allergic reactions, or they may worsen allergic reactions. Why do you think it’s the first option, and not the other two?

      To be clear: I’m not necessarily questioning the desirability of alternate wheat varieties; I’m more saying that . . . I’m not sure you’ve made your case here? (I know you’re planning more posts on the subject this week, so maybe that’s addressed later.)

      • Hey Mr. Subunctive–good to hear from you–would like to have you on our podcast when we get around to that.

        This was probably the most tortured blog post I’ve ever written. I spent hours pouring through contradictory and inconclusive peer reviewed studies and ended up just throwing up my hands in confusion. Perhaps I should have expressed that sense of inconclusiveness better.

        Monica Spiller of the Whole Grain Connection addressed the cost issue very eloquently at the panel I was at over the weekend. It’s her contention that the health costs associated with what she believes are the deleterious effects of modern wheat varieties and the way they are used (commercial yeasted breads) cost us more in the end, in terms of health care costs, than would more expensive flour. Is this backed up by peer reviewed evidence? No. It’s a hunch, one that I share.

        Researchers are looking into the differences between ancient and modern wheat in terms of allergies particularly when it comes to celiac disease (gluten intolerance). The changes, incidentally, in wheat genetics over the years have been the addition of extra chromosomes. See this study for more on what those extra chromosomes have caused: http://www.gastrojournal.org/article/S0016-5085%2804%2901998-5/abstract?referrer=http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=einkorn%20celiac. And a completely contradictory study here: http://www.springerlink.com/content/a4v7gu778875m42q/.

        In the end it gets down to a philosophy in dealing with complex (in the mathematical sense of that word) systems like nature and our bodies. Like Nassim Taleb I’ve come to the conclusion that we’d be better off eating the simpler, less processed foods of our ancestors–what Michael Pollan is getting at when he suggests we not eat anything our grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. I believe this not because of what we know but because of what we don’t know. Taleb has a nice Umberto Eco quote to the effect of, “the most important books in my library are the ones I haven’t and will never get around to reading,” i.e. beware of the unknown, unknown when, say, radically transforming grain growing in a short period of time. The last 80 years of our food history are a huge aberration compared with the last 10,000. Perhaps this is a cop-out but I’m not sure I can make a “case”. Just saying it’s best not to get to innovative when it comes to what we eat.

      • I was going to post something along the lines of mr_subjunctive’s thoughts, but he beat me to it. This post is very, very long on supposition and unsupported statements with a large dose of wishful thinking.

        If people tried to sell heirloom tomatoes based on hunches that they might contain more of some obscure nutrient, no one have ever bought the first one. Instead, we say they are beautiful, tasty and a specimen of agricultural heritage — all of which are wonderful reasons to buy and eat them.

        Heirloom and ancient wheats are much the same. They have unique and subtle flavors with slight differences in how they respond to various cooking methods, and are lovely additions to your kitchen in their own right. Plus we can say that the genetic resources in ancient wheats may have solutions to future crop problems. Aren’t those reasons good enough on their own?

    5. King Arthur Flours is a more mainstream source that has the ‘white whole wheat’ that is actually a soft wheat. their site has more info. They also have organic and nonwheat varieties.

    6. Here is my list of rules for eating wheat it is very simple
      healthy and safe.
      1. Never eat wheat.
      2. If it contains any wheat do not eat it.
      3. Wheat is evil

    7. “Our markets should have at least as many flour varieties as flavors of soda.”

      I think I’m going to see about getting bumper stickers printed with this on them!!!

    8. The rougher and coarser the bread, the more wheat berries, the easier it is for me to tolerate as evidenced by less allergic reaction (swollen and painful throat/neck, less tongue itching, and no earache). That tells me something since the doctor declared that I was not meant to live in this world. I am allergic to trees, grasses, pollens and everything he tested for except lettuce and meat, and I have contact dermatitis. (Well, the loaf says there are wheat berries.)

    9. My son is allergic to wheat, so can not go home wheat. I try to study the different types of wheat to know the origin of the problems of him.
      Thanks for this information, I found it very useful. Greetings from Italy.
      Sara inpdap

    10. I was excited to hear that you were going to put in some research on this subject, I’m very interested in the rise of wheat allergies. I’ve also heard people talk about the changes in the way we process whole wheat grains down to flour as contributing to possible links to the rise of allergies. Have you heard or seen this talked about in your research?

    11. I found your article excellent and Thank You for taking the time on it.

      This reminds me of the milk debate. So many people are lactose intolerant these days, but they dont have a problem with raw milk. I prefer raw milk myself… the taste is incredible, but the time to get to one of the few places selling it and cost prevent me from purchasing it all the time.

      Sprouts Farmers Market sells raw milk and my only easy source to obtain it. Whole Foods stopped carrying it a couple years ago. I guess they caved in to Bill Gates, Monsanto, etc.

    12. you should talk to a wheat breeder at a university. I studied soil and crop science as an undergrad at Purdue and we had an outstanding breeder named Herb Ohm (not sure if he is still there). You could get an email address from a university website. I did know someone who worked for a wheat breeder, and she was responsible for making bread with the new varieties – can’t remember much more about her job. She was either at Colorado or Colorado State.

      Corn and soybeans used to be bred by universities but private industry (such as Monsanto) has taken over much,if not all of this. However wheat varieties are still bred at universities, and are known as public varieties.

      It would be interesting to get a perspective from a wheat breeder as to what is currently being bred for, aside from agronomic attributes such as yield, winter hardiness, drought tolerance etc.

      You could also contact an extension specialist at a university, I am sure UC Davis has some very good ones. Although they may not be as accessible as one in Kansas or Nebraska.

    13. At this point, I don’t consume wheat if I can avoid it. Sourdough breadstuffs, I’ll eat, but the standard supermarket bread, no way.

      All it takes is a passing glance at the ingredients label on the package for a rude wakeup call. Soy flour, soy protein, lecithin, corn syrup, corn sweetener, corn meal. I remember walking up the street to the local Orowheat outlet store, as a child. A loaf of whole wheat bread contained wheat flour, some form of sweetener, water, yeast, probably oil, and if I grabbed the white bread by mistake, there were umpteen bazillion vitamins in there as well to sugarcoat the crime of bleaching and removing the vitamins when the flour was milled and processed.

      Now? Forget it. There are two breads I’ll buy at the local Foods Co if I didn’t have time to bake. Just two breads. In a huge two-sided aisle with four shelves on each side.

      What truly pisses me off is that if we decide we’re going to stock up on flour so we can bake our own, and we get a 50 lb sack from CostCo…. dollars to donuts it is bleached to hell and back, and fortified with faux nutrients to make it look passable as a food ingredient, and is going to make poor bread.

      I have grains from the Kusa Seed Foundation but have yet to find time to weed up workable soil for planting anything beyond buckwheat. And I have grains from the bio-intensive folks in Willits, too.

      • Alicia,

        Thanks for the link! We’re at the beginning of, I believe, a revolution in the way we see wheat. Specifically, we’ll see many more varieties being grown.

    14. We’ve been growing and milling antique varieties of wheat for several years now and the response has been staggering. Friends and family with gastrointestinal issues eating these old, heirloom, entire wheat flour products have had their issues return to normal. We have perhaps hundreds of customers with similar results. We started growing the old varieties in order to try to preserve the genetics. The unforeseen consequence has been a health-food revelation for us and many people around us. For whatever reason the militant “gluten-free” and “paleo” fad dieters are extremely defensive over these claims…all I can say is support your local heirloom variety farms and give the old grains a try. Probably worth the effort.

    15. Hayden Flour Mills, great story of remembering; learned about at Slow Money Natonal. http://www.haydenflourmills.com

      Also, a three part article in Edible Marin and Sonoma called ‘Amber Waves of Grain’ that supports much of your
      thesis. Eureka concept; reunite the grower, the miller and the baker!!

      rock on!!

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published.


    3 + 5 =