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?
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.
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-?9, 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-?9. 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.
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.