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