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What Went Wrong With Wheat – Is This Staple Grain Making Us Sick?

Ila lives in the Garden State with her family and four chickens. She has been growing produce and perennials for 20 years, and recommends gardening for food and fun, but not for fortune.
Published: March 9, 2022
What exactly went wrong with wheat and other staple foods?
Wheat is a staple food in most cultures, and one of the three most eaten grains worldwide, yet it has become almost trendy to avoid it. What went wrong with wheat - what have we done to turn it against us, or ourselves against it? (Image: Agrasys SL via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

With a whopping one in seven adults suffering some degree of sensitivity to wheat, many have explored the factors behind this dietary dilemma and what went wrong with wheat. While some believe it is the wheat itself, others blame the modern herbicides it is laced with, or the refined state in which most people enjoy it. More than likely it is a combination of all three, giving us a range of possible ways to improve our health through a more traditional diet. 

An abbreviated history of wheat

Wheat goes all the way back to the “cradle of civilization,” or the Fertile Crescent, where it was cultivated over 10,000 years ago. While it arrived in the UK some 5,000 years ago, the grain was not introduced to North America until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Milling did not become popular until the 12th century, after which wheat gradually became one of the most highly consumed grains in the world. 

Up until around 150 years ago, wheat enjoyed great genetic diversity. It was a tall – over five foot – grain of ‘landrace’ varieties that were naturally selected by farmers saving seed from their crops every year; promoting the adaptation of the plant to the environment where it was grown.

The work of monk Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), considered the “father of genetics,” introduced the practice of hybridization, which became a widely used tool for creating new varieties of many plants, including wheat. Industrialization, and the green revolution, soon pushed out the traditional landrace varieties in favor of less diverse “dwarf” varieties in the following way:

Chemical fertilizers were used to bring higher yields, but the tall landrace plants were susceptible to falling over with the increased weight of the ears. Shortness then became a desirable trait to breed for, yet these plants lacked the height that effectively blocked out weeds, and thus herbicides were employed. The use of chemicals made the soil unsuitable for natural cultivation, so farmers became dependent on both the patented hybrids, and the products required to grow them. 

Gluten intolerance and celiac disease

A trip to any grocery store will tell you that a broad range of gluten-free products have become widely available, and for good reason. An estimated 3.1 million Americans have gone gluten-free. According to the Food Intolerance Institute, 15 percent of the population suffers from some degree of gluten intolerance, with many facing the life changing celiac disease

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Celiac disease causes the inflammation of the intestinal mucosa, which may lead to villous atrophy of the small intestine. (Image: scientificanimations via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

Statistics suggest that nearly 2 million Americans have been diagnosed with Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder marked by gastrointestinal malabsorption; while an estimated 83 percent of Americans suffering from celiac disease remain undiagnosed. Gluten, the protein found in wheat, rye and barley, causes an immune reaction which damages the lining of the small intestine. It can result in over 200 symptoms, including fatigue, diarrhea, bloating and abdominal pain; and will eventually cause the intestinal villi to atrophy, thus preventing the absorption of nutrients. The only cure for this disease is a strict gluten-free diet.

Gluten intolerance is an inability to digest gluten. This can cause similar symptoms to celiac disease, ranging from severe to mild, and usually temporary, as there is no permanent damage to the intestine. Many who believe they are “allergic” to wheat actually have a gluten intolerance. 

Wheat allergies are more common in children, and affect approximately 3 percent of pediatric patients. Wheat allergy symptoms are similar to other food allergies, including hives, sneezing, and asthma-like symptoms, with the possibility of anaphylactic reactions. Children will commonly outgrow this allergy by the age of 16.

Nutritional value plummeted

Whether or not gluten intolerance can be traced to how we have manipulated the wheat plant over years is up for debate, but the nutritional value of the wheat products we consume today is drastically different from what it was 150 years ago.

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Early landrace wheat was tall and diverse. Through selective breeding, modern wheat has become a dwarf variety with a change in nutritional composition and value. (Image: Elias Gayles via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Although wheat has not yet been genetically engineered, it has been selectively bred for specific qualities. With a high priority placed on yield, studies suggest that the protein content of landrace varieties was higher than our modern, more starchy, wheat. The ongoing Broadbalk Wheat Experiment, which has gathered information on wheat crops every year since 1843, documented a sharp decline in minerals such as calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, and zinc with the sudden increase in yield recorded in 1968. 

One possible explanation for the drop in nutrition is that the shorter plants bred for higher yield have shorter roots, which have a reduced capacity to take up minerals. 

 

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A wheat kernel and its nutritional value. Data sources illustration and composition of wheat kernel is based on (and simplified from) Berghoff (1998). (Image: Jkwchui via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

The most obvious loss of nutrients in modern wheat is due to processing. In order to have a fine-textured, shelf-stable product, wheat is highly refined to remove the portions that could spoil, including the highly nutritious ‘germ’ and the fibrous bran. The remaining endosperm comprises white flour, desirable for light, fluffy pastries and breads. It is very high in carbohydrates and very low in nutrition. 

Traditionally, people everywhere used whole grains in their diet, which retained the valuable nutrients, minerals, fat, and fiber that are stripped away from refined grains. While government recommendations agree with the Whole Grains Council, suggesting that at least 50 percent of the grains we consume should be whole grains, few people are hitting the mark. According to the CDC, actual whole grain consumption is less than 20 percent of grains consumed.

Is our food laced with poison?

With the widespread use of herbicides necessary to control weeds in cultivating our modern short wheat varieties, one might wonder, “what happens to all that poison?” Since many crops have been genetically engineered to be herbicide-resistant, entire fields are often sprayed, introducing large amounts of toxins, which leave residue in the air we breathe and the water we drink, not to mention the food that we eat. 

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Roundup has been recommended for pre-harvest spraying, essentially soaking our grains in poison, for optimal harvest. (Image: Mike Mozart via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Glyphosate, which the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has labeled a probable human carcinogen, is the active ingredient in the popular weedkiller Roundup. While the manufacturers of Roundup, Bayer/Monsanto, were found liable for $10 billion in damages to users who were diagnosed with blood cancer, the product is not only still widely used to kill weeds; it is being promoted for the off-label usage as a pre-harvest desiccant on a variety of crops, including wheat. 

The pre-harvest spraying guide recommends that conventional farmers spray their crops a mere three days before harvest, as it “allows for uniform crop maturity which gives you the option to straight cut harvest.” While this may ensure a great yield, the crop will be laced with toxins. Whole grains products end up even more highly contaminated; and the consumption of conventionally grown wheat can lead to more than cancer.

According to Bob Quinn, ancient grain expert and Ph.D in Plant Biochemistry, “Research in Canada has demonstrated that glyphosate residue is mimicking the symptoms that people have from wheat sensitivities and there have been all kinds of health problems that disappear, in children when they go on an organic diet.”

For a safe, healthy diet, return to tradition

Before the British Agricultural Revolution tremendously increased crop production, people relied on a traditional diet based on whole, organic, and locally grown foods. While there may have been less food, it was more nutritious, and thus more satisfying.

Today we are faced with a myriad of processed products that one could hardly call “food.” They are neither nutritious nor satisfying, often addictive, and frequently lead to overeating. At the same time, we also have the luxury of being able to choose quality foods without even growing them ourselves.

Making better food choices may seem expensive and impractical, but when you look at the bigger picture, it makes perfect sense both financially and logistically. The modern diet of cheap, processed foods is linked to countless, costly health problems. Optimal health and vitality are priceless, and, in many ways, our own responsibility. Whether you want to dive in all at once, or take it gradually, there are several steps you can take to improve your diet.

Go organic

Various studies have demonstrated improved individual health upon transitioning to an organic diet. Aside from conventionally grown wheat and other grains, many fruits and vegetables are highly likely to be contaminated with toxic residues. A 2018 article in Time magazine covered a  report revealing the “dirty dozen,” a list of produce well-worth the extra cost for organically grown. The list included strawberries, citrus, apples, cherries, grapes, and even greens like kale and collards as most likely to be contaminated, along with the specific toxins they are linked with. 

If budget is the main concern, try growing a garden. Many municipalities maintain low-cost “community gardens” where one can obtain a small plot to tend year after year. Not only will you enjoy the freshest, healthiest produce around; you will also be getting valuable outdoor time, while experiencing the spiritual benefits of physical labor. Learn the traditional art of canning and preserving your produce for the winter, and you’ll save enough money to splurge on organic grains.

Choose heritage whole grains 

Mass production of less-diverse grains and their high degree of processing has drastically reduced the nutritional value of our food. Consuming a variety of heritage grains offers a broad range of valuable nutrients, with less gluten than modern wheat. Ancient grains like kamut, emmer, einkorn and spelt are highly-nutritious old varieties of wheat that can be used in similar ways. These grains do contain some gluten, however, so if you are bound to a gluten-free diet they should be avoided.

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Quinoa plant in bloom. Chenopodium quinoa, a relative of spinach, produces tiny edible seeds that can be used much like cereal grains. As a member of the Amaranthaceae family, quinoa is not a true cereal, but its nutritious seeds are high in protein and fiber. (Image: allispossible.org.uk via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Other grains like quinoa, millet, sorghum and amaranth are naturally gluten-free. Gluten-free flour mixes can be expensive and are not necessarily organic, but if you are going to be baking on a regular basis, check the ingredients and make your own. They tend to include a variety of flours such as sorghum, tapioca, potato, chick pea, and almond flours to achieve a balance of texture, moisture, elasticity and nutrition. 

Cooking with new ingredients may be a bit intimidating, but facing that challenge could prove immensely satisfying on so many levels. 

If you can’t commit to doing your own cooking, it pays to be aware of some sly marketing ploys. Molasses is often used to make a standard white bread look brown, so don’t assume that you can identify a good bread by its color. Foods labeled as “cracked wheat,” “multigrain,” “seven grain,” “stone-ground,” or “bran” are unlikely to be whole-grain products. Look for specific organic whole grains on the list of ingredients. 

At-home celiac test

If you are all-too-familiar with many of the symptoms mentioned in this article, wheat may be having an adverse effect on your health. While it is recommended to seek professional medical advice, simple at-home tests are now available for celiac disease. Alternatively, simply avoiding wheat and all glutenous products (including oats) for a period of time is an effective way to find out how they affect you.

If you suddenly find that you have more energy, less irritability, greater comfort, and improved digestion, you may decide give up wheat entirely. As is taught in both the Buddha school and the Tao school, giving up human attachments is the key to happiness.