Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
18 Oct

The Problems with Modern Wheat

This may seem like a redundant topic, since most of you following a Primal eating plan are already avoiding wheat. The occasional dabbing of soy sauce, maybe a bit of crusty bread at a restaurant, sure, but for the most part, you’re not munching on baguettes in parks on sunny days, wolfing down huge sandwiches, and eating pasta. Wheat avoidance tends to be the rule in our circle. Still, though, haven’t you had that moment where someone asks “What’s wrong with wheat?” and you mutter something about gluten and the advent of agriculture that doesn’t really sound convincing, even to you? Consider today’s post a crash course in exactly why modern wheat in particular is a problem. To borrow a horrible concept that has helped politicians and their cronies obfuscate the truth for decades, these are “talking points” to which you can always refer when asked. The only difference is that these talking points are based on actual research.

Before we begin, what is modern wheat?

Modern wheat is dwarf wheat, a cultivar developed in the ’60s to massively increase yield per acre. But this dwarf wheat wasn’t the lovable, bearded, wisecracking, clownish, comic relief-providing, overly self-conscious Gimli of the Lord of the Rings films, nor was it the fearsome, highly respected, resolute dwarven warrior Gimli in the books. It was a high-yielding cultivar with larger seed heads and thick, short stocks that could bear the extra weight. Being shorter, it received less sunlight than traditional wheat cultivars, but it produced a lot of grains on less acreage. Agronomist Norman Borlaug pioneered the development of these high yield dwarf varieties, refining and perfecting already existing wheat strains, and received much acclaim (including the Nobel Peace Prize) for introducing the dwarf wheat and modern agriculture to developing countries. He certainly helped many millions of people find sustenance and livelihood through wheat agriculture, but what were the unintended consequences of his forays into genetic manipulation of wheat? How is modern wheat different? What are the problems – if any – of modern wheat?

It’s less nutritious.

In 1843, agronomists at Rothamstead Research Station in Hertfordshire, England began what would become one of the longest-running continuous agronomic experiments in the world: the Broadbalk Winter Wheat Experiment. For the last two centuries, generations of scientists involved in the experiment have grown multiple wheat cultivars on adjacent plots of land and applied different farming techniques and fertilizers to study the effect on yield, nutritional content, and viability of the crop. They’ve rotated crops in and out, switched up fertilizers, and tracked the change in mineral content of both soil and wheat grain. It’s a stunning example of a well-designed, seemingly never ending (it continues to this day, as far as I can tell) experiment.

Between 1843 and the mid 1960s, the mineral content, including zinc, magnesium, iron, and copper, of harvested wheat grain in the experiment stayed constant. But after that point, zinc, magnesium, iron, and copper concentrations began to decrease – a shift that “coincided with the introduction of semi-dwarf, high-yielding cultivars” into the Broadbalk experiment. Another study found that the “ancient” wheats – emmer, spelt, and einkorn – had higher concentrations of selenium, an extremely important mineral, than modern wheats. Further compounding the mineral issue is the fact that phytic acid content remains unaffected in dwarf wheat. Thus, the phytate:mineral ratio is higher, which will make the already reduced levels of minerals in dwarf wheat even more unavailable to its consumers.

Increased yield leading to dilution of mineral density is one possible explanation for the reduction in wheat mineral content, but modern wheat has shorter root systems than ancient wheat, and longer roots allow greater extraction of minerals from the soil. Some people have proposed soil mineral depletion as the cause of reduced nutrient content of food, but – at least in the Broadbalk experiment – soil mineral content actually increased over time.

It’s more damaging to celiacs and gluten-sensitives.

One of the primary proteins in wheat, gluten provides the “viscoelastic properties” that allow wheat to be turned into bread, dough, pasta, and all sorts of processed foods. Gluten provides the chewiness of good bread, the bite of al dente pasta. Bakers, cooks, and foodies prize it – but some people fear it, and rightfully so. I wrote all about gluten sensitivity and celiac disease a few weeks back, but the basic gist is that for many people, consuming gluten inflames the body, perforates the gut, and opens them up to a whole host of health maladies.

So what’s the deal with modern wheat? Well, celiac disease is on the rise, and some researchers have suggested that this is caused by the prevalence of certain gluten proteins that predominate in the new varieties of wheat. Namely, a gluten peptide known as glia-α9, which is nearly absent in older wheats but prevalent in modern wheats, is the most reactive “CD (celiac disease) epitope.” In other words, a majority of people with celiac disease react negatively to glia-α9. It’s a common trigger, and older wheat doesn’t have as much of it.

Meanwhile, einkorn, an ancient variety of wheat, has been shown to cause less intestinal toxicity in patients with celiac. Einkorn and other related ancient strains of wheat still contain gluten, of course, but they do not appear to be as damaging to people sensitive to or completely intolerant of gluten and its related protein subfractions.

It’s prepared differently.

Consider how bread is made today:

With refined, old (often rancid) white flour instead of freshly ground wheat.

Using quick rise commercial yeast instead of slowly fermenting with proven sourdough cultures.

On an industrial scale instead of in the home.

Meanwhile, for the vast majority of our wheat-eating history, humans have been grinding whole wheat berries up fresh and fermenting them before baking and eating the stuff. Dr. Weston Price famously found several traditional cultures who thrived on wheat, but they weren’t eating refined white flour treated with quick-rising yeast. They were stone-grinding fresh wheat. They were fermenting it. They were doing all the things a person has got to do if they want to make wheat a staple of their diet and maximize the nutrition in the process. Later, Price conducted experiments in which he reversed dental decay and remineralized cavity-ridden teeth in refined white flour-eating people using wholesome, varied diets that included some freshly ground wheat. Fermentation effectively “pre-digests” the proteins in wheat, as I mentioned previously. If you have the right organisms, you can even break down wheat gluten to the point that celiacs can eat it without suffering symptoms.

That’s not to suggest you should go eat wheat. It’s simply to suggest that if you do, fresh, whole, ancient wheat prepared the old way is definitely healthier.

So, there you go: a few good lines of solid evidence showing why modern wheat – which is the only kind of wheat most people are ever going to encounter in the real world – should be avoided. Does that help? If you’re interested in more, check out Dr. Davis (of Wheat Belly fame), who’s made it something of his mission to rail against what he calls a “perfect, chronic poison.”

Thanks for reading, folks. Lemme know what you think in the comment section. And don’t go rushing out to buy artisan einkorn bread and spelt fusilli or anything like that. Ancient wheat is still wheat, it’s still a grain, it’s still got gluten, and it’s still problematic for a lot of people.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Great information. We have some too! Check us out and tell us what you think of our recipes…

    WOWUBlog wrote on November 1st, 2012
  2. As noted above selective pollination is not the same as genetic modification. GM involves taking the genes from one organism and shooting them into the DNA of another different species, making an unknown gene sequence never seen before in the history of the world. In the case of the bt variety of corn or soy, the GM producers take the genes of a bacteria found in soil that produces a toxin (bt) and insert them into the corn or soy DNA. After completing the process and cloning each cell in the resulting plant produces its own bt toxin. When an insect eats the plant the bt toxin perforates their gut and they die. Contrary to the claims of Monsanto and the like the bt toxin affects mammals too. The rise in leaky gut among humans is related to consumption of GM corn or soy (which is in MOST prepared foods). Modern wheat is being the Fall Guy for GM foods. Check out the “Genetic Roulette” documentary on the web.

    Wally wrote on November 2nd, 2012
  3. I’ve been surfing online more than 3 hours nowadays, yet I by no means found any attention-grabbing article like yours. It is beautiful worth sufficient for me. In my opinion, if all web owners and bloggers made excellent content as you did, the web can be a lot more useful than ever before.

    Gros wrote on April 23rd, 2013
  4. Is it just me, or does the “Gimli” comment make one identify Norman Borlaug with the Balrog?

    dogfood wrote on June 26th, 2013
  5. “Being shorter, it received less sunlight than traditional wheat cultivars”

    Err.. surely the amount of sunlight on the field doesn’t change?

    kraut wrote on October 14th, 2013
  6. Einkorn wheat has 16 chromosomes. Modern hybrid wheat has 42! I am gluten sensitive and I can enjoy an occasional homemade knish made with Einkorn flour with no ill effects.

    Primal Tom wrote on October 15th, 2013
  7. I stumbled upon your blog this morning as I was doing more research about my gluten free diet. A year ago I went to my doctor and asked if I could be gluten intolerant and if I needed a test. She told me that I know best: If I eat something and feel bad, I probably should not eat it anymore. My diet change (I was already dairy-free for 4 years) solved almost all my awful mystery symptoms, namely extreme nausea and vomiting several times a day though I was eating a ‘balanced’ diet, avoiding drugs and alcohol, staying hydrated and living an active lifestyle.

    Now I work as a ski patroller and am part of a study about the effects of nutrition and proper body mechanics on performance at work. The woman leading is stressed the importance of eating lots of grain-based carbs and refueling with dairy products. I inquired as to what the best alternatives are if neither of these are an option. She retorted that she thought the ‘whole gluten thing is just another fad’ at which point I felt more than slighted. To have someone who makes diet and exercise her profession tell me that my sickness is just a fad is an outrage.

    So now I am doing more research about the scientific facts behind why I can live my life without fear of throwing up for no reason. It also is nice to learn about some of the reasons gluten intolerance and celiac is so prevalent because this is one of the biggest questions I encounter when I people find out I am gluten free. Thank you for your informative blog posts.

    megsprocket wrote on December 3rd, 2013
  8. I have suffered from chronic sinus infections; I cut gluten out and after a few years, I was free of them. Last week after being gluten free for 8 years I had 3 regular rolls at a diner. BAM! A week later, sinus infection. Lesson learned.

    Mike wrote on February 18th, 2014
  9. I read the article and some of the comments but not the book. I have not seen any remark on where the cultivated wheat is being used or how wide it is spread. I grew up, in the 1950ies, on a farm where they ground (stone ground) their own wheat and baked their own bread. I believe that I would know what ancient wheat bread tastes like. Yes, most breads you get in the supermarket taste different and definitely not as good. However, there are breads that taste very similar, and when I make my own bread I get it to taste the same as the bread I grew up with. Therefore, calling gluten toxic, in my humble opinion, goes way too far.

    Norbert wrote on March 17th, 2014
  10. I have CD I have purchased flour form Italy and have no problems digesting it at all. Breads, pasta pizza ect….

    Michelle wrote on December 16th, 2014
  11. The Coeliac Society of New Zealand told me that if you don’t have coeliac disease (or at least an intolerance to gluten) a gluten free diet is actually a very bad diet. It’s also extremely unpalatable and horribly expensive.

    Laraine wrote on December 24th, 2014
  12. Jboy wrote on May 8th, 2015

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