What's wrong with modern wheat

How an ancient food staple became toxic junk food, and what we can do about it (without 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, releasing its nutritional bounty when the seed is ground and prepared into fresh breads or porridges. This is how grains have been consumed over the millennia: stored in whole kernel form and milled fresh, full of life and nutrients.

It’s a 10,000 year food tradition. But in the last few generations, something’s gone wrong.

At farmers' markets and natural food stores, we've talked to hundreds of people 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’s changed? In fact, almost everything.

The way we grow it, the way we process it and the way we eat. The very wheat itself. 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.

Revolution # 1:
Industrial milling, white flour and the birth of the processed food industry

Our rallying cry is “Bake Like it’s 1869”. That's because, in the 1870’s, the invention of the modern steel roller mill revolutionized 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 “fancy 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 system: where vast quantities of shelf-stable “food” are 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.

Revolution # 2:
Radical genetic modification and industrial “high-input” farming

Most of us are too young to remember, 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 one 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 light-years 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.

Oooops.

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, drought 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). Put another way:

We have mutant seeds, grown in synthetic soil, bathed in chemicals. They're deconstructed, pulverized to fine dust, bleached and chemically treated to create a barren 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.

So how do you 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 immediately. 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!

Pigs want it fresh and so should you

Modern people don’t think of flour as needing to be fresh—that’s because the industrial flour of 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, freshness is an issue.

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. Watch the short video on our Home Milling Page to get an idea of how easy it is.

Solution # 2:
Our Heritage Baking Mixes

If grinding your own doesn’t appeal, that’s where our fresh-ground organic baking mixes come in. You are limited to quick breads and cookies, but it’s super fast and easy and next best thing to home grinding. Learn more about GRAINSTORM Heritage Baking Mixes

Let’s get back to wheat as a nourishing staple

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.