Can Whole Wheat Solve the Wheat Allergy Problem?

I’m still recovering from the factoid barrage that is a baking class with Craig Ponsford. It felt like my brain had been tossed into the spiral mixer along with the hazelnut bread, danishes, English muffins, chocolate croissants, challah and pretzels doughs he showed us how to make in one action packed day. In between mixing and shaping Ponsford told us his theories about the wheat allergies that everyone seems to have.

What’s sets Ponsford apart from most other bakers is his commitment to the health of his customers. You will find no white flour at his Northern California bakery Ponsford’s Place.¬†All of the breads and pastries he showed us how to make were made with whole wheat flour. While he does use some white sugar, he uses it very sparingly.

Like most bakers he’s in a difficult position in our anti-gluten era. While acknowledging gluten sensitivities, Ponsford believes the problem is more complex and that the solution may be in looking at older forms of wheat as well as the way wheat is milled and baked. The “whole wheat” breads one finds at the supermarket are made with flour that has had most of the best parts of the wheat kernel removed. Millers then throw in vitamins to make up what they’ve taken out. The flours Ponsford works with are what are called high-extraction–they contain most or all of the parts of the kernel. Ponsford claims that many people who have wheat allergies have been able to eat his baked goods due to the use of whole wheat flours.

Ponsford, through his bakery and his classes for amateur bakers, is showing how tasty baked goods can be that are made from real whole wheat flour. But it’s tricky. High extraction whole wheat flours are a lot less uniform than white flours. And they suck up a lot of water when you use them for making bread.

As the co-founder of the Los Angeles Bread Bakers I get the gluten sensitivity question a lot which is why I’m interested in hearing from readers. Do you have a wheat or gluten allergy? Have you tried whole wheat breads? Fermented breads? Have they worked for you? Leave a comment . . .

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  1. My experience with several gluten-intolerant family members (whose perceived intolerance varies widely in severity) is that they’re often so convinced they’ll react badly to it that they won’t even try my whole wheat sourdough. It’s their choice to make, obviously, and I haven’t pressed the issue — not to mention the fact that my bread often quite obviously features certain shortcomings — but I’d be interested to hear under what situations gluten sensitive people have been willing to experiment with different breads.

  2. There are a wide class of problems with wheat that aren’t considered “allergies”, hence the term “intolerance”.

    I am in the gluten intolerant camp, and I’ve tried plenty of sourdough / fermented products made from non-modern-dwarf wheat options (mostly spelt). I honestly don’t know if they were any easier on me. The problem is that one gluten exposure can have lingering effects for a period from days to months (because, again, it’s not an allergic reaction). So, the incentives for experimenting, once you figure out that gluten is problematic, are pretty damn low.

    For the science-minded interested in the mechanisms involved, check out Alessio Fasano’s research.

  3. I have a wheat intolerance.

    I make only sourdough now for my family, from whole wheat, and am even starting to grind our own spelt and transitioning them. But I cannot eat grains.

    I was strictly off grains for a year. My cycles finally balanced out, and I’m 42! I lost weight, I was able to not have that afternoon slump/coffee, so much changed. I then started making the sourdoughs (with starters and whole wheats) and though I didn’t get stomach cramps, it sends my cycles off, I’ll get headaches–even though I can digest the soured/fermented doughs better. So it’s not all about stomach aches, it’s how the wheat causes internal inflammation and how your body reacts to that inflammation. It also spikes my blood sugar like crazy, and I was previously borderline diabetic.

    Hopefully because I ferment the doughs my children won’t have the problems I do, but yeah, wheats are a huge no no for me.

  4. I think Ponsford is right, for some of us the quality of the wheat can make a big difference. I had a lot of trouble with wheat for a long time, I guess in the “intolerance” school, but including intestinal bleeding, yuck. Once I figured out this was caused by wheat, I gave it up, of course. After a couple of years though, still missing the homemade bread my father had baked and taught me to bake, I started experimenting with wheat again. I use whole grains for pretty much everything – my very old but much loved Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book is my go-to reference for baking – and I found flour made from Red Fife wheat, which dates back to the mid-19th century. It’s stone-ground by a small company here in Ontario, CIPM Growers and Millers of Organic Grains. I can bake with this flour with no problems at all, whether I make sourdough or use commercial yeast. Interestingly, I can also have the occasional bit of other wheat products now, and as long as I don’t overdo it, I have no problems.

  5. When I was in college in the late 60’s majoring in Foods & Nutrition we spent a couple of classes on gluten intolerance, it was not a major problem. When working as a dietician in the 70s, in a hospital, I encountered only a few truly gluten intolerant patients. Fast forward to the 80s and 90s and the influx of hybrid wheat and the intolerance increased. Is there a connection? I’m not sure but personally I think there might be something to that. Note Carol’s response and Ponsford’s belief that quality of wheat makes a difference.

  6. So I grew up eating whole wheat that was baked at home as a sourdough. I grew up eating healthy and am still very healthy compared to my cohort.

    My husband has ADHD/Asperger’s and we have been working with diet to help his functioning.

    We went gluten free. I cook everything at home. We’ve not seen major changes for him but are giving it more time. A week or so into the GF I got depressed, had brain fog, was tired all the time and pretty much stopped functioning.

    I spoke with his doc about my reaction. I did GF with him because it is easiest when cooking from scratch to cook one meal. I did GF with him to encourage him. I did GF with him because then my kitchen would actually be GF!

    The doc suggested that I was short carbs. We added rice. We added potatoes. So for the new few weeks I ate oatmeal (GF certified) for breakfast, potato on the side at lunch, and rice with dinner. I was still depressed, foggy, tired.

    In frustration, later one night I pulled a slice of my homemade bread from the freezer, I always slice and freeze half a loaf and there was some left when we began GF. The next day I actually felt better. I ate more the day after and felt almost back to normal.

    We don’t know what to make of this. My husband is still GF, I’m running out of my backup bread in the freezer and will need the kitchen to start baking again if I’m to eat bread. I feel motivated, healthy and normal WITH my homemade bread. We still haven’t quantified results for my husband. He is willing to stick with the GF diet to see if it allows him to reduce some of his ADHD meds.

    I should note that my bread is homeground wheat about 60-80% depending upon what I’m baking mixed with storebought AP for texture/lift etc. Some of my breads are straight yeasted and some are sourdough. I vastly prefer sourdough but sometimes bake for those around me, am visiting etc.

    So we are at a crossroads and with not enough information but but very observable impacts on me but not on him. I am very curious to see if others have ever experienced similar.

  7. It is my understanding, based on reading articles on the subject, that there are different types of gluten intolerance. The most severe being Celiac Disease, which is a genetic autoimmune disease. In Celiac patients, the villi in the small intestine are damaged (flattened) due to the presence of gluten in the diet. This damage in turn creates nutritional deficiencies due to the small intestine’s inability to absorb nutrients, specifically fat soluble nutrients. In Celiac patients 10 mg of gluten is enough to damage the small intestine.

    Then there is non-Celiac gluten intolerance, in which the individual has reactions to gluten, but the small intestine is not damaged.

    My sister has a diagnosed case of Celiac Disease – but she didn’t tell me it was genetic. Typical testing requires the patient to stay on a gluten diet. By the time I went off gluten and reintroduced it after 3-4 months, I got so sick that there was no going back. Being in bed for three weeks while I ate gluten 2-3 times a day, so I could have a blood test and endoscopy was not a path I wanted to take. Instead, I had gene testing – which showed I had one Celiac gene and another gluten intolerant gene. I also was not absorbing fats well, and I had nutritional deficiencies (while taking plenty of supplementation), so for me, completely removing gluten from my diet seemed appropriate. I am also grateful to no longer suffer a host of intestinal problems, my energy is better, and so on.

    I do believe that the changes in diet and our environment since World War II have been part of the reason for the increase of Celiac diagnoses. Our cumulative body burden of toxins has increased. Gluten is in “everything.” Autoimmune diseases are usually triggered by stress – and the stresses of modern life coupled with total body burden are enough to trigger autoimmune responses and allergies.

    I would not venture to try wheat products again, even though they surely would be delicious. It’s just not worth being sick for days. And gluten free breads…well, they are mostly starch. I don’t eat them as often as I ate wholesome gluten breads. I have thought about learning how to make a yeasted millet-chia bread – but I’ll have to use potato starch and xanthan gum to simulate the stretch of gluten. I’ve read about making sourdough with quinoa flour – but quinoa has a bitter taste. Quick breads have been an easy solution to the bread issue for me.

    I stick to making my own yogurt and fermenting veggies. Maybe I’ll get around to making a gluten free sourdough; but for now, it’s not high on my list.

    I hope my response makes it easier for you to work with the gluten-free contingent. Of course there are many people out there who are not eating gluten due to the perception that it’s bad or evil. Some of us really can’t tolerate gluten.

  8. I can’t eat wheat. I have a wheat allergy. Not a gluten allergy. I don’t have trouble with barley and rye. My sister in law has a gluten allergy she can’t eat wheat, rye, barley and so on. If I eat a speck of wheat I go into shock and visit the hospital. If she eats a bit of gluten she is in bed and sick for 3 days.

    Some folks don’t believe in allergies and put up a stink about whiners and fakers. I believe very few would put up with such a diet restriction if they could avoid it.

    That said, I also think that genetics has a part. My ancestors were from north eastern Europe. Probably rye growers. I was not allergic as a child and young person. But went into shock after recovering from a long illness. We think the the stress triggered something biologically.

    Humans really should stop messing with the basic structure of our food. I think Ponsford is correct, separating and reconstituting is not the same as whole.

    I do sourdough with non-wheat grains and no gums. It’s delicious.

    But no one is getting me to eat any kind of wheat because anaphylactic shock is not in my mind and it’s a scary scary ride.

  9. My wife has been avoiding gluten for a while now, so, inspired by Andrew Whitley, I started making whole wheat bread with 100% wild sourdough.

    She can eat my bread with no difficulty or discomfort.

    I also went to a bread workshop this weekend, and heard several similar stories, people who can’t eat wheat, unless it is sourdough.

  10. Amazing to read about wheat/gluten problems today! I just spent last week listening to a Gluten Summit podcast that had experts from all over the world talking about health problems from the wheat that we have hybridized over the past 60 years. I have family members with severe intestinal problems that are caused by wheat and so I read Dr. William Davis’ book Wheat Belly this past summer. Since I have never been fond of refined flours or even pastas I have never consumed much, but after a major illness I became very sensitive to white flour (over whelming fatigue, sleepiness, headaches, body aches). I found that if I eat true sour dough, I do not have any symptoms. But since this seminar I am trying to avoid all wheat, barley and rye in an effort to see how I feel. Later on I plan to test my reactions to sour dough and heavily seeded organic breads. But meanwhile I would highly recommend Dr. Davis’ book Wheat Belly.

  11. I’m based in Europe (the UK) and suspect that I have easier access to older grain types, which seem to be easier to digest. I have no official gluten allergies or sensitivities by my system is definitely happier if I make bread:
    – with leaven rather than commercial yeast; AND
    – use stone ground wholegrain rather than grains ground on modern steel mills. This baffled me but after some research, I learnt that a stone grinding wheel is less uniform than steel plates and you get more of the fibrous grain in the final grind. Pretty logical when you think about it.

  12. A “factoid barrage” is what I experienced while reading your proofing post.

    When I was 23, I had such a severe allergic reaction to a moldy basement in a parsonage, that I was in bed, so ill I could barely care for my 6-month-old infant and The toddler that was 2.5-years-old.

    When I went to an allergist, he said I was not meant to live in this world. I was allergic to all foods except lettuce and beets. I don’t eat beats. When I sealed off the moldy basement and went on a strict diet that included no bread or much of anything, my health improved dramatically. I avoided bread of any kind like the plague. After a year and allergy shots, I gradually added things back to my diet.

    My gastroenterologist just took a biopsy during and endoscopy. He said the lesions were pre-Barretts. That scared me!

    Then, at the next visit, he said the results of the biopsy came back and it was an unusual diagnosis, one that only children and young people had.(67 here) I have white blood cells in my esophagus. He said it is caused by a food allergy.

    He is sending me to an allergist. The first allergist was in 1971. I wonder if I am still allergic to wheat. I do eat wheat, but less of it. My throat starts swelling shut and someday could kill me.

    I noticed that anything that was vinegary made my eardrums hurt. Since white vinegar is made of distilled wheat, I solved the mystery of why my ears hurt, throat swells, and I run a temp of over 100. My doctor had been plying me with antibiotics for 20 years. I just needed to eat less or no wheat and less or no vinegar.

    A friend remarked that I was the only person in Alabama who wore earmuffs in May. Since I felt so bad all over and could barely swallow, I thought and the doctor thought I needed an antibiotic. I thought the wind and dust caused the illness, earache, sore and swollen throat. I know the wind does not cause allergies, but the pollen/dust/particulates was affecting my allergies which usually results in sinusitis which affect ears, Eustachian tubes, throat and eventually bronchitis.

    Once I bought expensive whole wheat bread and thought I was going to die after the first bite. I know it sounds dramatic, but the reaction started with stabbing pain in my eardrums, referred pain, as the doctor explained, when my throat started swelling shut. Amazingly, eating white bread does not affect me at all. I would rather eat whole wheat bread and do. Plus, only that one brand affected me so soon and so viciously.

    I have IBS and now wonder if bread could be a problem with that. I already know ice cream and ground beef/round give me problems.

    I got lucky (sarcasm) since I have contact dermatitis, allergies to wind borne particulates, and food and drink. Allergies have negatively affected my quality of life for years.

    • My DH was just diagnosed with a mold allergy. We have had mold problems in our house, so it is probably from that over-exposure. He was told to avoid both yeast bread and sourdough bread because of the molds they contain. When I tried to buy commercially produced syrian bread and tortillas, I discovered that they are made with dough conditioners and vinegar, both of which contain mold. He is eating homemade muffins for now, and sandwiches are off the menu.

  13. Obviously, from the above notes, every individual is individual in their responses, so there will not be any one size fits all. Know people who say they are GI and have gone to Europe and had no problem with wheat/gluten foods. Then there are comments coming out of Italy that say their cases of Gluten intolerance are increasing as they are using more American raised wheat flours in their pasta. Lots of people who are eating GF are self diagnosing. after being diagnosed with Hashimotos disease (auto-immune thyroiditis) went GF to see if that would help. 6 months later tried some wheat again and 3 days later had handfuls of hair fall out! and then stop on day 4. So its highly doubtful that I’ll willingly try to eat wheat again – even though I believe as you are saying; in most cases it is modern wheat as well as how it is processed and stored.

  14. I stopped all gluten/cows milk foods based to correct an ayurvedic imbalance… and have been gas/bloating free since making those changes (and a few others). I love bread and miss making/eating those wonderful loafs. It makes sense that the older wheat strains would create a lower gluten reaction and if sourdough, true sourdough, is the answer than count me in!

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