By Dr William Davis
Wheat, more than any other foodstuff (including sugar, fat, or salt), is woven into the fabric of the American food experience, a trend that began even before Ozzie met Harriet. It has become such a ubiquitous part of the American diet in so many ways that it seems essential to our lifestyle. What would a plate of eggs be without toast, lunch without sandwiches, beer without pretzels, picnics without hotdog buns, dip without crackers, hummus without pita, lox without bagels, apple pie without the crust?
If it’s Tuesday, it must be wheat
I measured the length of the bread aisle at my local supermarket: 68 feet.
That’s 68 feet of white bread, whole wheat bread, multigrain bread, 7-grain bread, rye bread, pumpernickel bread, sourdough bread, Italian bread, French bread, bread sticks, white bagels, raisin bagels, cheese bagels, garlic bagels, oat bread, flax bread, pita bread, dinner rolls, Kaiser rolls, poppy seed rolls, hamburger buns, and 14 varieties of hot dog buns. That’s not even counting the bakery and the additional 40 feet of shelves packed with a variety of “artisanal” wheat products.
And then there’s the snack aisle with 40-some brands of crackers and 27 brands of pretzels. The baking aisle has breadcrumbs and croutons. The dairy case has dozens of those tubes you crack open to bake rolls, Danish, and crescents.
Breakfast cereals fill a world unto themselves, usually enjoying a monopoly over an entire supermarket aisle, top to bottom shelf.
There’s much of an aisle devoted to boxes and bags of pasta and noodles: spaghetti, lasagna, penne, elbows, shells, whole wheat pasta, green spinach pasta, orange tomato pasta, egg noodles, tiny-grained couscous to 3-inch wide pasta sheets.
How about frozen foods? The frozen foods freezer has hundreds of noodles, pasta, and wheat-containing side dishes to accompany the meat loaf and roast beef au jus.
In fact, apart from the detergent and soap aisle, there’s barely a shelf that doesn’t contain wheat products. Can you blame Americans if they’ve allowed wheat to dominate their diets? After all, it’s in practically everything.
Wheat as a crop has succeeded on an unprecedented scale, exceeded only by corn in acreage of farmland planted. It is, by a long stretch, among the most consumed grains on earth, constituting 20% of all calories consumed.
And wheat has been an undeniable financial success. How many other ways can a manufacturer transform a nickel’s worth of raw material into $3.99 worth of glitzy, consumer-friendly product, topped off with endorsements from the American Heart Association? In most cases, the cost of marketing these products exceeds the costs of the ingredients themselves.
Foods made partly or entirely of wheat for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks have become the rule. Indeed, such a regimen would make the USDA, the Whole Grains Council, the Whole Wheat Council, the American Dietetic Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Heart Association happy, knowing that their message to eat more “healthy whole grains” has gained a wide and eager following.
So why has this seemingly benign plant that sustained generations of humans suddenly turned on us? For one thing, it is not the same grain our forebears ground into their daily bread. Wheat naturally evolved to only a modest degree over the centuries, but it has changed dramatically in the last 50 years under the influence of agricultural scientists. Wheat strains have been hybridized, crossbred, and introgressed to make the wheat plant resistant to environmental conditions, such as drought, or pathogens, such as fungi. But most of all genetic changes have been induced to increase yield per acre. The average yield on a modern North American farm is more than 10-fold greater than farms of a century ago. Such enormous strides in yield have required drastic changes in genetic code, including reducing the proud “amber waves of grain” of yesteryear to the rigid, 18-inch tall high-production “dwarf” wheat of today. Such fundamental genetic changes, as you will see, have come at a price.
Even in the few decades since your grandmother survived Prohibition and danced in the Big Apple, wheat has undergone countless transformations. As the science of genetics has progressed over the last 50 years, permitting human intervention at a much more rapid rate than nature’s slow, year-by-year breeding influence, the pace of change has increased exponentially. The genetic backbone of your high-tech poppy seed muffin has achieved its current condition by a process of evolutionary acceleration that makes us look like Homo habilis trapped somewhere in the early Pleistocene.
It’s in the Bible. In Deuteronomy, Moses describes the Promised Land as “a land of wheat and barley and vineyards.” Bread is central to religious ritual. Jews celebrate Passover with unleavened matzo to commemorate the flight of Israelites from Egypt. Christians consume wafers representing the body of Christ. Muslims regard unleavened “naan” bread as sacred, insisting it be stored upright and never thrown away in public. In the Bible, “bread” is a metaphor for bountiful harvest, a time of plenty, freedom from starvation, even salvation.
Don’t we break bread with friends and family? Isn’t something new and wonderful “the best thing since sliced bread”? “Taking the bread out of someone’s mouth” is to deprive that person of a fundamental necessity. Bread is a nearly universal diet staple: chapatti in India, tsoureki in Greece, pita in the Middle East, Aebelskiver in Denmark, naan bya for breakfast in Burma, glazed doughnuts any old time in the U.S.
The notion that a foodstuff so fundamental, so deeply ingrained in the human experience, can be bad for us is, well, unsettling and counter to long-held cultural views of wheat and bread. But today’s bread bears little resemblance to the loaves that emerged from our forebears’ ovens. Just as a modern Napa Cabernet Sauvignon is a far cry from the crude ferment of 4th century B.C. Georgian winemakers who buried wine urns in underground mounds, so has wheat changed. Bread and other foods made of wheat have sustained humans for centuries, but the wheat of our ancestors is not the same as modern commercial wheat that reaches your breakfast, lunch, and dinner table. From the original strains of wild grass harvested by early humans, wheat has exploded to over 25,000 varieties, virtually all of them from the result of human intervention.
In the waning days of the Pleistocene period, around 8,500 B.C., millennia before any Christian, Jew, or Muslim walked the Earth and before the Egyptian, Greek and Roman empires, the Natufians led a semi-nomadic life roaming the Fertile Crescent (now Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and Iraq), supplementing their hunting and gathering by harvesting indigenous plants. They harvested the ancestor of modern wheat, einkorn, from fields that flourished wildly in open plains. Meals of gazelle, boar, fowl, and ibex were rounded out with dishes of wild growing grain and fruit. Relics like those excavated at the Tell Abu Hureyra settlement in what is now central Syria suggest skilled use of tools such as sickles and mortars to harvest and grind grains, as well as storage pits for stockpiling harvested food. Remains of harvested wheat have been found at archaeological digs in Tell Aswad, Jericho, Nahal Hemar, Navali Cori and others. Wheat was ground by hand, then eaten as porridge. The modern conception of bread leavened by yeast would not come along for several thousand years.
Natufians harvested wild einkorn wheat and may have purposefully stored seeds to sow in areas of their own choosing the next season. Einkorn wheat eventually became an essential component of the Natufian diet, reducing the need for hunting and gathering. The shift from harvesting wild to cultivating grain was a fundamental change that shaped their subsequent migratory behavior, development of tools, language, and culture. It marked the beginning of agriculture, a lifestyle that required long-term commitment to more or less permanent settlement, a turning point in the course of human civilization. Growing grains and other foods yielded a surplus of food that allowed for occupational specialization, government, and all the elaborate trappings of culture (while, in contrast, the absence of agriculture arrested cultural development at something resembling Neolithic life).
Over most of the 10,000 years that wheat has occupied a prominent place in the caves, huts, adobes, or on the tables of humans, what started out as harvested einkorn, then emmer, followed by cultivated Triticum aestivum, changed gradually and only in small fits and starts. The wheat of the 17th century was the wheat of the 18th century, which in turn was much the same as the wheat of the 19th and first half of the 20th century. Riding your oxcart through the countryside during any of these centuries, you’d see fields of 4-foot tall “amber waves of grain” swaying in the breeze. Crude human wheat breeding efforts yielded hit-and-miss, year-over-year incremental modifications, some successful, most not, and even a discerning eye would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the wheat of early 20th century farming from its many centuries of predecessors.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, as in many preceding centuries, wheat changed little. The Pillsbury’s Best XXXX flour my grandmother used to make her famous sour cream muffins in 1940 was little different from the flour of her great, great grandmother 60 years earlier or, for that matter, from that of her great, great, great, great, great, great grandmother another two centuries earlier. Grinding of wheat had become more mechanized in the 20th century, yielding finer flour on a larger scale, but the basic composition of the flour remained much the same.
That all ended in the latter part of the 20th century, when an upheaval in hybridization methods transformed this grain. What now passes for wheat has changed, not through the forces of drought or disease or a Darwinian scramble for survival, but through human intervention. As a result, wheat has undergone a more drastic transformation than Joan Rivers, stretched, sewed, cut, and stitched back together to yield something entirely unique, nearly unrecognizable compared to the original and yet still called by the same name: wheat.
Modern commercial wheat production has been intent on enhancing features like increased yield, decreased cost of production, and large-scale delivery of a consistent commodity product. All the while, virtually no questions have been asked about whether these features are compatible with human health. I submit that, somewhere along the way during wheat’s history, perhaps 5,000 years ago but more likely 50 years ago, wheat changed.
The result: A loaf of bread, biscuit, or pancake of today is different than the bread of a thousand years ago, different even from the bread or muffins our grandmothers baked. They might look the same, even taste much the same, but there are biochemical differences. Small differences in wheat protein structure can spell the difference between a devastating immune response to wheat protein versus no immune response at all.
Wheat: The UNhealthy Whole Grain
So now you understand that modern wheat is not exactly what you thought it was. It has been shortened, thickened, mutated into something barely recognizable as wheat. As a result, wheat products of our time are very different from the wheat products of the 19th century and preceding times.
But why has wheat come to dominate the American diet? How did it come to provide 20% of all human calories worldwide? How did wheat, along with corn and rice, come to provide 50% of all calories?
Easy: Unlike, say, green peppers, apples, or chicken wings, these grains—really the seeds of grasses—enjoy extended shelf-life: They can be stored, shipped via transoceanic tanker over weeks or months, then stored again until consumption. Few other foods allow this long distance, long-term translocation. They are also cheap and can be produced in large quantities, allowing commercial scalability of massive proportions.
This also allows such foods to be commoditized, traded in large lots with paper or electronic trading as futures, hedges, and other complex derivative financial instruments, financial manipulations not easily achieved with most other foodstuffs.
In other words, the unprecedented dominance of wheat is part of the push by agribusiness and very powerful grain traders to control the food of the world. The ironic twist is that they also persuaded our own USDA and other “official” providers of dietary advice that this was the way people should eat. It proved enormously profitable for the right people.
“Healthy whole grains”? Yes, that’s right: Financially healthy for the people who pushed this agenda.