What's wrong with modern wheat
What's wrong with modern wheat?
How we turned an ancient food staple into toxic junk food, and what we can do about it
(Hint: For most of us, the best solution isn't going gluten-free)
Grain has been at the heart of humankind's diet for thousands of years. It is, in fact, the foundation of civilization: it cultivates easily, stores for years in kernel form (as a living seed), and is very nutritious when freshly prepared as breads and porridge. This is how grains have been consumed over the millennia: stored in whole kernel form and milled fresh, full of life and nutrients.
But something’s gone wrong.
At farmers' markets and natural food stores, we talk to hundreds of people each month about wheat. And it’s very clear to us: modern wheat is making people sick. More and more people are going "gluten-free" to fix long-standing digestion issues and they feel better. Yet, it is also very clear that there is more to this than gluten. For instance, we get many people telling us how they can't eat gluten so they eat spelt or Kamut. Yet both these ancient grains have gluten.
So what is going on? What has changed? In fact, almost everything. The way we grow it, the way we process it and the way we eat. The very wheat itself. For 10,000 years, wheat was a nutritional foundation, and nothing much did change. But since industrialization, everything has changed, and it has happened in two distinct “technology revolutions”. The first was in milling, the second in cultivation and farming. Both have had a profound effect, yet most people have no idea.
The first technology revolution:
Industrial milling, white flour and the birth of
the processed food industry
In the 1870’s, the invention of the modern steel roller mill industrialized grain milling. Compared to old stone methods, it was fast and efficient and gave fine control over the various parts of the kernel. Instead of just mashing it all together, one could separate the component parts, allowing the purest and finest of white flour to be easily produced at low cost, so every class of person in rapidly growing cities could now afford “rich people’s flour”. People rejoiced for modern progress.
And, beyond being cheap and wildly popular, this new type of flour shipped and stored better, allowing for a long distribution chain. In fact, it kept almost indefinitely. Pest problems were eliminated because pests didn’t want it. (Of course, we now know that the reason it keeps so well is that it has been stripped of vital nutrients. The bugs and rodents knew this way before we did.)
The steel roller mill became so popular so fast that within 10 years nearly all stone mills in the western world had been replaced. And thus was born the first “processed” food and the beginning of our industrial food distribution system: where vast quantities of shelf-stable “food” is produced in large factories many months and many miles from the point of consumption.
This excerpt from Wikipedia says it well: “From a human nutrition standpoint, it is ironic that wheat milling methods to produce white flour eliminate those portions of the wheat kernel (bran, germ, shorts, and red dog mill streams) that are richest in proteins, vitamins, lipids and minerals.”
While these “advances” in milling were hailed as an innovation of modern living, nobody thought much about what was happening to the actual food value of wheat. Ironic indeed.
Even more ironic perhaps, is that although we’ve understood this problem for many many decades, industrial white flour is still—by far—the most popular way to eat wheat.
But there is another, newer problem, caused by a second technology revolution in the 20th century, which is not nearly as widely understood: so-called “advancements” in farming food production may have wrecked wheat itself.
The second technology revolution:
radical genetic modification and industrial "high-input" farming
Most of us are too young to remember this (and those old enough will likely remember it only as a shining example of the wonders of modern science) but the world’s wheat crop was transformed in the 1950s and 60s in a movement called the “Green Revolution”. The father of the movement, Norman Borlaug, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, credited with saving 1 billion lives.
According to his Wikipedia entry, Borlaug led initiatives that “involved the development of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, expansion of irrigation infrastructure, modernization of management techniques, distribution of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides to farmers.”
He pioneered new “improved” species of semi-dwarf wheat that, together with complimenting fertilizers and pesticides, increased yield spectacularly. This amazing new farming technology was propagated around the world by companies like Dupont and Monsanto, while mid-20th-century humanity applauded the end of hunger.
Like the industrial milling revolution before it, the green revolution applied new technologies to improve efficiency and output, with little or no regard to the effect on human nutrition. This Green Revolution was about solving world hunger, but we’re now discovering some unintended consequences.
According to Wheat Belly author Dr. William Davis, “this thing being sold to us called wheat—it ain’t wheat. It’s this stocky little high-yield plant, a distant relative of the wheat our mothers used to bake muffins, genetically and biochemically lightyears removed from the wheat of just 40 years ago.”
And now scientists are starting to connect modern wheat with all manner of chronic digestive and inflammatory illnesses. And based on our personal and customer experiences, we would have to agree.
So let’s summarize
For 10,000 years, we cultivated wheat, stored it, milled it and consumed it. The system worked, and it nourished civilization. Then, in the industrial era, we changed things.
First we invented mechanical technologies to turn wheat into barren white flour. Then, we invented chemical and genetic technologies to make it resistant to pests, draught and blight and easier to harvest, dramatically increasing yield per acre. And, while we were tweaking genetics, we also figured out how to increase glutens for better “baking properties” (fluffier results).
So, put another way: We have mutant seeds, grown in synthetic soil, bathed in chemicals, then deconstructed, pulverized to fine dust, bleached and chemically treated to create a nutritionally void industrial filler that no other creature on the planet will eat. And we wonder why it might be making us sick?
If all this alarms you, the simple and obvious prescription is “don’t eat wheat”. Hence the gluten-free craze. But, for most of us, there is an alternative solution: don’t eat industrial flour made with modern wheat.
The gluten-free bandwagon: Misinformation and confusion
As we mentioned, in our many market conversations, we hear all the time: “I’ve gone gluten-free and feel so much better. Now I only eat spelt or Kamut”. (These both have gluten.)
What’s going on here? For the very small percentage of the population that is celiac, even minute traces of gluten can cause terrible discomfort. But for the vast majority of people (myself included) with some level of “wheat sensitivity”, symptoms are much milder and seem to be triggered not necessarily by gluten per se, but by *something* about modern wheat. There is an increasingly understood distinction between gluten intolerance and modern wheat sensitivity, yet as more and more people go gluten-free, many are unaware of any difference.
So we have waves of people (with varying degrees of wheat sensitivity) going gluten-free to be healthier. And the food industry is responding. A dizzying selection of gluten-free products has popped up, seemingly overnight, to cater to this new “healthy” lifestyle choice.
The irony, however, is that most gluten-free versions of traditional wheat-based foods are actually junk food. Check the ingredients and you’ll likely see some combination of rice starch, cornstarch, tapioca starch, potato starch and guar gum as a substitute for white flour. These are the same kind of highly refined industrial starches that spike blood sugar as much—or even more than—white flour.
So don’t fall for gluten-free junk disguised as health food. For the vast majority of gluten-free eaters that are not celiac, we propose a return to honest to goodness old fashioned flour: organic heritage wheats, freshly stone ground.
How to get “healthy” flour
Sadly, it’s not easy. The reality for the health-conscious consumer is that almost all supermarket flour is made from industrial modern wheat, and almost all of it is made with industrial processing.
Many people think “I just need to buy the healthy “whole wheat” flour. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. In Canada, “whole wheat" is nothing more than white flour with some bran added back in. It’s processed on the same mills, in the same way. And other than that extra bit of fibre, it’s the same barren industrial filler. There’s nothing “whole” about it.
You need to look for stone-ground “whole meal” flour, where the entire wheat kernel is ground and the germ is crushed into the flour. It’s hard to find because it doesn’t keep well—delicate fatty acids start to degrade just days after milling. So if you do find the real stuff, it has likely been oxidizing for months in the distribution chain, turning stale and rancid. Of course you can taste this. It’s that bitter unpleasantness that we so often associate with whole grains. Which is yet another irony, because that flavour signifies that nutrients have been lost. No wonder so many people think they don’t like whole grains!
Most people don’t think of flour as needing to be fresh, but that’s because the industrial flour we are all used to for the last few generations *doesn’t* need to be fresh. But when it comes to real stone-ground flour, we can’t emphasize it enough. Like any whole food, grain tastes best and is most nutritious when it is fresh. Animals know this. A farmer friend of ours told us: “Our pigs are grain-fed. We grind it for them fresh everyday. If it's not fresh, they don’t like it, and they don’t thrive.”
So, eating wheat in the traditional nourishing way is turning out to be quite a project. You need to buy freshly stone-ground “whole meal” flour made from an ancient variety like spelt or Kamut. Or a heritage variety like Red Fife. You’re not going to find this in the supermarket. You might find some at your local farmers’ market, or perhaps a really good natural food store. But even still, it’s likely not that fresh.
Solution # 1: Mill your own
The best way to get fresh wholesome flour is to buy yourself a countertop grain mill, source organic heritage wheat, and mill it yourself, as you need it. The quality is amazing and you will be thrilled with the results.
The idea of home milling may seem outrageously labour-intensive, but there are modern home grain mills that are very fast and easy to use. And your baking will taste amazing. [learn more about home grain milling]
Solution # 2: GRAINSTORM Heritage Baking Mixes
If grinding your own doesn’t appeal, that’s where our fresh-ground organic heritage baking mixes come in. You are limited to quick breads and cookies at this point, but it’s super fast and easy. And this is the whole idea of our product. [learn more about our heritage baking mixes]
Let’s make wheat a nourishing staple again
We are big believers in the Whole Food Philosophy, which simply says: mother nature knows best. After all, we are creatures genetically adapted over the eons to a certain diet. Yet, just in the last century, we have gotten away from traditional food. It seems self-evident that chronic health and obesity problems around the world are a result of this modern, dysfunctional new diet. It also seems clear that the closer we stay to a fresh, natural diet, the better. It's simply what our bodies expect, and need, to be healthy, vital and strong. Yet modern wheat, converted into industrial white flour, is about as far from this as can be imagined. No wonder our bodies are protesting en mass.
So let's reject the profound genetic changes in modern wheat, in favour of traditional species our bodies recognize. Let's reject the chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides of modern industrial farming in favour of organic farming and clean seed.
Let's reject industrial white flour, in all it’s phoney incarnations. Let's go back to simple stone-ground flour, milled FRESH with all the nourishment of the living seed intact. The way the pigs and the bugs like it.