Is Modern Wheat Killing Us?

Wheat field, Froid, Montana, 1941. (Library of Congress image)

It’s been a bad decade for grains. Between publicity about grain allergies and fads such as the Atkins and paleo diets, a lot of people are shunning wheat, rye and barley. At a panel discussion this weekend sponsored by Common Grains I heard Monica Spiller of the Whole Grain Connection and Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills make some compelling arguments that will forever change the way I see grain. It was, no exaggeration here, a paradigm shifting discussion. Some of the questions Spiller and Roberts raised:

  • Could modern hard wheat varieties, bred for the convenience of industrial agriculture, have the unintended consequence of increasing allergic reactions? Are older varieties healthier for us?
  • What have we lost in terms of flavor when we decreased the diversity of grain varieties?
  • Is sourdough bread a pro-biotic food? Could some of the allergy problems associated with bread be related to commercial yeast strains and the way commercial yeast processes sugar?

I’ll spend the rest of this week taking a deeper look at these issues, including some practical suggestions about what we can do in our kitchens and gardens to bring back heritage grains.

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  1. Thanks for studying on this. I miss bread and wheat berry dishes. It would be great if sourdough meant wheat was back in the picture. Then it would be time to find sources for bulk heirloom wheat, I guess.

  2. After the book Wheat Belly was released with great fan fair, I predicted a great rise in the popularity of heirloom wheat. Today’s modern wheat is problematic for many more people than is commonly known. The fad of low or no grain diets was very popular for a couple million years. Scientists will argue that a human diet high in grains is actually the fad.

    • hmmmm – reality check – paleo and atkins are hardly “fad” diets and only humans only 200,000 years around? the genetics of becoming human has a traceable history of about 7 million years – and for only .001428 % of that time (ant that’s the high end) have we been trying to eat essentially non-human food – grains.

      i believe this qualifies grain-eating as the “fad” diet–

  3. I remember as a kid tasting a sweetness when chewing wheat grain at a friends ranch in the midwest. Now you dont get that sort of sweetness, so manufacturers, breadmakers, etc are probably adding more sugar then ever before. Interesting topic and something people dont usually think about.

  4. I have a 64-square foot bed in my backyard I just planted with a local heritage wheat (Sonoran white, should do well in LA, too). It won’t produce all the flour we use, but it may eventually produce six months’ worth, once I figure out how to grow it well. We bake bread for two other households as well as ours, so being able to grow any heritage wheat means less out-of-pocket.

    We plan to expand the grain growing so that we’re growing some kind of grain year-round. I have a second bed that is planted with bush beans, and we’ll flip

  5. I heard about this recently and have been wanting more information myself. I have a daughter with celiac and I wonder how much of that is related to this. I know many young adults who don’t do gluten anymore. Some know they are not celiac, but they just do not feel well when they eat gluten.

    Relative to the GMO PROBLEM, I wonder what the impact is? I also what the alternatives are and if there are wheat varieties that are still available to grow instead.

    So glad to see you address this.

  6. Coincidence as the subject of grains as it relates to diabetes came up in comment on my blog. I don’t know what I’d do if I had a gluten issue. Grains are an economical & healthy food for us, the reality is that as much as I loved being on an Atkins diet I a broke American.
    Any chance that discussion will become a podcast?

  7. I’m very interested in learning about alternative grains that are suitable to particular regions and climates (especially my own, of course). I would love it if someone (hint) came up with a practical guide to very small scale grain production for those working at the backyard/homesteader scale.

    The idea that sourdough breads are potentially healthier gets first-pass plausibility. But I think it’s a long way to saying that commercial yeast itself is *the* major culprit in food allergies. What about the very slow rise breads (no-knead) that start with a tiny amount of commercial yeast, and let it (and the aceto- and lacto-bacillus bacteria naturally present) do their things over the better part of a day? It may be that the fast-rise commercial breads that add a LOT of yeast to get the job done faster are problematic because at that proportion, the yeast easily muscles out the bacteria which would also ferment the sugars in the flour, if given the chance. Of course, letting those bacteria have a place at the table, so to speak, also results in bread that just tastes better.

    Still, I look forward to hearing whatever else you have to say on the topic.

  8. I’ve read a few articles lately about how addictive the modern wheat is due to pesticides, and genetic modification. I have resolved to eat more whole grains, but I have gone fairly gluten free because of it, and feel a whole bunch better. I am a serious fan of the articles tips and tricks you guys post! Thanks for always having something wonderful to read!!!

  9. I’m definitely suspicious of cheap processed flour–the kind you find in mass-produced crackers,tortillas, baked goods, etc. I’m not allergic to wheat, but I did go off it for the month of January. What I noticed was not so much that I felt any better, but I knew I eating better, because I couldn’t fill up on cheap carbs. It meant no quick lunch of a quesadilla or bowl-of-pasta-with-stuff-on-top for dinner. I had to make real food.

    I’m thinking at this point that grains might become like meat for me and Erik. That is to say, we are mostly vegetarian, because most meat is terribly produced and we won’t eat it. But if we’re presented with home-raised or happy-small-farm raised meat, we will eat it. With grains, we may end up rejecting all grains which are the product of the industrial ag system, and turning exclusively to these more primitive grains and sourdough processes. But there’s still research to do.

  10. As someone who has just discovered (as in, this week) that she may indeed be gluten intolerant, I look forward to this information and speculation!

  11. This topic is really fascinating. The increased incidence of celiac disease and non-celiac gluten intolerance is significant. Is it because of increased gluten content in today’s wheat varieties? Or is it because we are bombarded with so many chemicals that weren’t in use 50 years ago? Or is it because our lives are so stressful? I don’t believe it’s any one cause – it’s systemic just like other health problems we face today.

    From everything I’ve read, celiac is often triggered by stress – not that the stress causes the disease – it’s related to the genes (two for celiac and a number of gluten intolerant genes) – and the eventual effect of the immune system being so over taxed that it no longer handles the gluten and it attacks the small intestine.

    I’m one of the undiagnosed – but I have two suspect genes – one for celiac and one for intolerance. Eliminating gluten is one of the best things I’ve done for my health. I’m so glad not to be sick any more! My kids with the same gene profile do not show signs of autoimmune dysfunction(yet) – so one eats gluten and one does not. One child wants to stay healthy, and the other will just wait and see if it catches up with him.

    For those who don’t know, getting a celiac diagnosis requires the patient to continue eating gluten, have a positive blood test and then a positive endoscopy test that reveals flattened villi. Unfortunately there are a lot of false negatives on the blood test, so many people go undiagnosed, or they stop eating gluten and use that as the “diagnosis.” There’s an alternative diagnosis method – anyone diagnosed with dermatitis herpetiformis that resolves on a gluten free diet doesn’t have to go through all the rigamarole. Probably more than anyone wanted to know – but the information might help someone out!

  12. We try really hard to avoid yucky grains and prepare the ones we eat in a healthy way. We have a bread share with a bakery that spent time encouraging farmers to grow native grains and then purchases them to make many bread products. Many people who formerly thought that they had wheat or gluten allergies can eat it without worry. I think that’s a really cool habit we should all get into.

  13. Supposedly, I am allergic to wheat. This is according to an allergy test. I do eat wheat and suffer allergies–stuffy sinuses and other problems.

    For years, eating some breads gave me an earache, the kind where it feels your ear drum is being pierced. But, I did not connect bread to earaches. I just figured it out. Finally, one year I wore earmuffs until June. Yes, I looked strange.

    Then, an ear infection would not clear up with two rounds of antibiotics. The ENT said I had no ear infection, just angioedema.(airway can swell and I can die My throat was swelling shut from some allergy, she said. That is when I connected wheat to ear problems. I found that the more processed the wheat, the more I hurt.

    For years, I had complained of pain in glands in my neck. The quack I went to gave me antibiotics every time. As it turns out, I can easily die from my throat swelling shut. Okay, when allergies bother me, I do run a substantial temperature. And, I do develop infections in head and lungs. With the throat swelling shut, my throat does hurt, also. So, maybe he did the best he could.

    I have also noted to doctors that anything with vinegar seems to make my ears hurt. All just look at me strangely, laugh, or make quizzical noises. Soooo, I thought about it–white vinegar is distilled wheat. When I say I am allergic to pickles, that is sort of shorthand for don’t feed them to me. I don’t go into long explanations.

    Finally, I decided I had to have one brand and type bread that is full of “seeds.” It was also whole wheat. Whole wheat bread does not bother me.Okay, some does but most does not. I have not unraveled that mystery.

    Now,after reading this post it seems another factor might be at work. Oh, I was diagnosed with a wheat allergy about 40 years ago. I was diagnosed with angioedema about 20 years ago. A friend said she had it too, but the doctor said it was self-limiting and would subside in about two years. Neither of us are free.

    I need to know where to find wheat that is an older variety. I doubt that source will be readily available here in the South.

    Maybe by the time I am 80, this allergy mystery I have will be solved. I am slowly unraveling it.

    • When my youngest son was 6, he started having episodes in which his tongue would itch. He’d rub the side of his tongue against his teeth to allay the itching to the point that his tongue would bleed. We dragged that poor child to doctor after doctor and he was tested for the most exotic diseases, including AIDS (this was 20 years ago after all). Finally, when Benjamin was 10, I mentioned the problem in passing to my doctor and he said that he’d give Benjamin an antihistamine and if it worked, at least we would knew it was some sort of allergy. Well, it did work (why didn’t any of the other dozens of doctors mention this?) and when we took Ben to a naturopathic allergist, we discovered that he was reacting to the citric acid used in foods, particularly canned tomatoes. All of this is a long way of saying that there is a dizzying list of food additives that can cause problems and you can drive yourself crazy – or into poverty – trying to track down the cause of your problems.

    • My tongue, throat, inside of mouth has always itched. The only relief I ever get is putting a Pep-O-Mint Life Saver in my mouth. I used to eat them by the ton. Antihistamines don’t work well for that itch.

    • Practical Parsimony, you may want to consider treating yourself for Candida. I’m not a doctor, so this isn’t a diagnosis, but your symptoms could be due to an overgrowth of candida albicans. Multiple regimens of antibiotics would only compound the symptoms. Eliminating Candida naturally involves removing sweet foods from the diet – sugar, fruit, dairy, refined foods, and instead eating whole foods. Additionally, there are herbs that naturally kill off the bacteria – garlic, oil of oregano, pau d’arco tea, myrrh, etc. And then there’s support for the body to encourage healing and promote healthy bacterial colonies in the intestines – pro-biotics, detoxifying agents, fiber, beta carotene, essential fatty acids (EPA, GLA, etc.). You should be able to find a protocol online or in a book from your local natural foods store.

  14. This really has me thinking about gluten sensitivity! I made seitan from vital wheat gluten (from scratch) a few years ago in an effort to reduce meat consumption and always had digestive issues after eating it. We’ve been making almost all bread products at home for years from King Arthur flour w/o issue. Several weeks ago I bought a few dozen bagels at a local bakery during a weak moment. I’ve been eating bagels every morning and afternoon coinciding with skin rashes and throat swelling in the evening. Now I’m faced with redefining dinner…again.

  15. Scientists who study evolutionary diets will point out that humans have only been cultivating and eating grains for a mere blip of our existence – the last 10,000 years or so. Paleo (which shuns dairy and grains) and Atkins (which shuns carbs) are not fads; the real fad is the modern Western diet averaging 300+ grams of daily carb intake from grains (including HFCS). This high carb diet is linked to a litany of diseases that plague Americans (metabolic syndrome or Syndrome X) and is bankrupting our health care system. The epidemic of Type II diabetes is but one of these diseases.

    Big Ag is – for all practical purposes – Big Carb: (corn, wheat, soy) and the government subsidizes BC to the tune of billions of $$ per year. They’re literally paying us to develop Type II diabetes with our own money. BTW, Paleo/Atkins aren’t high protein so much as they’re high fat. But fat doesn’t have lobbyists in Washington, so the government has vilified fat and pushes a diet high in so-called “healthy” carbs. However, unlike essential amino acids and essential fatty acids, there is *no* essential MDR of carbs for humans. There’s lots of good science out there on the subject – and some fascinating but disgusting history on the skewed “science” that “proves” the fat theory of heart disease, but suffice to say, neither Atkins or Paleo are “fads”.

  16. Allergies and gluten intolerance aside, what about the lectins and phytates in wheat, and other grains? I’d be intereseted in your take on these issues as well.

    • Miranda, check out Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon regarding phytic acid in grains. She recommends soaking grains and flour with whey, yogurt, or a little lemon juice or vinegar with water.

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