WHEAT: THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY

It's not enough to say that wheat is bad for you and you shouldn't eat it, especially when wheat-based products make up such a large part of the American diet. It's important to know exactly what wheat is, how it came to be so important in the human diet, and how eating it affects our bodies and our health.
Making good nutritional decisions and healthful changes requires knowledge. Too often, fad diets advise people to cut out whole groups of foods in an effort to lose weight, while brushing over the fact that those foods provide important nutrients.

wheat

Wheat is a cereal grain that originally grew wild as a plant similar to grasses.

What Is Wheat?

The crop that we know as wheat is a cereal grain that originally grew wild as a plant similar to grasses. The part that we eat is at the top of the plant and is known as the grain. The whole grain is milled to separate the endosperm, bran, and germ. The stem or stalk (what we know as straw) is inedible.

The endosperm alone is ground to make white flour, while the bran and germ are reserved for other uses. In whole-grain flour, the wheat has been ground with the bran and germ intact.

There are several different species of wheat cultivated today. Some of the more common types are semolina, durum, and soft and hard winter wheat. They differ in the amount of protein and gluten they contain, and some are preferred over others for specific uses.

Not Bread Alone

When most people think of wheat, they think of bread. Breads are one of the most common products made with wheat; however, a vast number of foods contain wheat flour. Most pasta is made from wheat, as are many cereals. Even cereals that don't contain wheat as a main ingredient still use wheat as filler.

Wheat is also used in products that, on the surface, seem to have nothing to do with flour or grain. Flavoured coffees, for instance, usually contain a derivative of wheat. So do some herbal teas. Many types of vodka are distilled from wheat. A huge number of artificial colourings and flavourings are derived from wheat.

DID YOU KNOW? Many people committed to lowering their sugar intake are still eating "healthful" wheat products such as whole-wheat bread even though one teaspoon of table sugar has a glycemic index of 59, while a slice of whole-wheat bread has a glycemic index of 72!

As you can see, the bread basket is not the only place that you will find wheat, and there's far more of it in your diet than you might think. Even if you don't each much bread, cake, or cereal, your wheat intake is probably quite significant.

If You Are What You Eat, You'd Better Understand Your Food

There are two key arguments against eating wheat. One is that our bodies weren't actually designed to eat wheat and haven't yet fully adapted to it. The other is that the wheat we`re eating has changed so drastically over the last fifty years that it's dangerous, whether we adapt to eating it or not.

This is why it's so important to know how our bodies process and use wheat and to understand how the wheat we eat today differs from the wheat our ancestors consumed. To do that, we need to understand the history of wheat as a food, from ten thousand years ago right up to the twenty-first century.

The History

The first documented evidence of human beings using wheat for food involves the Natufians, a semi-nomadic people that lived in the areas now known as Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, and Jordan. Archaeologists have found among the ruins of Natufian homes remains of harvested einkorn wheat (the original wild variety of the grain) as well as harvesting tools.

Wheat is easily self-pollinated, and einkorn wheat eventually bred with other grasses and formed a new variety of wheat called emmer. This variety was one of the most common cultivated for food for several centuries, but it eventually changed as well, through a combination of intentional breeding and self-pollination. What resulted was a variety of wheat known as Triticum aestivum.

Triticum aestivum became the most commonly cultivated wheat and the one on which whole civilizations depended. Cities were built around agriculture that consisted largely of wheat, and grain was as good as cash in many societies. Grain became a true staple, with the poorest people often depending on bread for their survival.

Triticum aestivum evolved very little between several thousand years ago and the latter half of the twentieth century. In the mid to late 1900s, as agriculture (and wheat crops) became big business, agricultural scientists and researchers began looking for ways to increase wheat yields without increasing acreage. And they were quite successful. In fact, wheat yields on the average farm acre are now ten times what they were just one hundred years ago. So how do you make a grain yield ten times greater?

This was accomplished through a combination of new chemical fertilizers, the developments of new pesticides, and the breeding of new types of wheat by modifying the wheat`s genetics. This last method is one that impacts our health the most today.

Should We Call It "Frankenwheat"?

To understand how wheat has been changed and how that change affects us, a simple understanding about it, genetics is needed. This cereal has one of the most complex genetic makeups in the natural world. In human beings, the forty-six chromosomes of each parent are blended to create forty-six chromosomes in their child. But in it (like some other plants), the chromosomes of each "parent"  are added to make a new plant. In other words, the genetic makeup of wheat is cumulative. This ability to add chromosomes is called polyploidy, and it doesn't occur in animals or people.

Einkorn wheat started out with only fourteen chromosomes. When it mated with wild goat grass, the resulting strain was emmer wheat, which had twenty-eight chromosomes. Sometime prior to even the Old Testament era, emmer mated with another grass to form Triticum aestivum, which had forty-two chromosomes.

As we said earlier, Triticum aestivum changed very little over the ensuing years. It remained largely the same until genetic modification and hybridization became far better understood and more widely practiced. The fact that this grain has such a complex genetic code actually makes it quite flexible, genetically speaking.

Those agricultural scientists interested in increasing wheat yields quickly turned to altering the actual genetic code of wheat to make it more resistant to disease, more tolerant of heat and drought, and a more compact plant.

The problem is that all of this genetic engineering produced a type of wheat whose proteins, gluten content, and enzymes are very different from Triticum aestivum. In fact, each type of new wheat is also different from its parents. In testing one particular strain, researchers found that 95 percent of the resulting genes matched those of its parent plants, but 5 percent of the genes found were completely new.

To understand where this is heading, imagine that through genetic engineering, new human genes were created. What if people suddenly had a new organ or a new limb? How many new parts would humans need to have before they became another species altogether? It may sound silly, and it is an exaggerated example, but the principle is very close to the truth, and what we consume today is a sort of "Frankenwheat" that bears little resemblance to the ceral our ancestors ate.

Scarier than Frankenwheat?

What makes all this genetic tampering all the more alarming is that while it was taking place, no one was interested in finding out whether these new strains of wheat were actually safe for human consumption. Because these new genetic structures resulted in something that could still be classified as wheat and because being able to grow more food in less space was considered such a good thing, no one was much interested in whether it was actually healthful.

One of the questions that has been raised in recent years is why there have been so many more health problems associated with wheat in the last few decades. Has the incidence of celiac disease skyrocketed or was it just misdiagnosed in the past? Why didn't the wheat-eating population of the 1940s have as many problems with obesity as we now do? Why are breads and pastas and cereals being blamed for blood-sugar problems as much as sugar is?