Mending the Staff of Life

We’ve been eating wheat for ten thousand years. Why has it suddenly started giving us trouble?

TO ME THERE IS SOMETHING SACRED about growing wheat. Nearly every spring of my life, I have held in my hands seeds passed down over five hundred generations, seeds that have nourished my fellow humans for some ten millennia. Holding that wheat seed in my hands, I feel connected to the billions of my human brothers and sisters who have turned to this same grain to break bread with one another: to nourish, to celebrate, to earn an honest living. So much of what is meaningful in human life is there in that grain. I struggle to fully comprehend the value of this gift.

Believed to be among the first plants domesticated by humans some ten thousand years ago, this prolific grass soon became the staff of life for ancient civilizations from Babylonia to Persia to Han China to Rome. Up until the past century or so, wheat — in the form of bread — made up the bulk of the diet of most Europeans, and as recently as the 1930s and 1940s, Americans obtained more of their calories from bread than from any other food. Nutrient dense and suited to a variety of growing conditions, wheat remains the most widely planted crop today, accounting for one-fifth of the calories in the human diet. But 15 to 20 percent of Americans say they can no longer comfortably eat it.

As an increasing number of my friends and neighbors have come down with symptoms of “gluten sensitivity” in recent years, I’ve read everything I can get my hands on to try to understand what might be wrong with our wheat. But none of these books have answered the burning question nagging at me: If we’ve been eating wheat for ten thousand years, why has it suddenly started giving us trouble? Has something broken the staff of life?

THE MONTANA FARM I GREW UP ON is a half hour’s drive southeast of the closest town, Big Sandy, and surrounded by windswept prairie. Standing on my front porch as a kid, I could see for miles around. Sixty miles to the south were the Judith Mountains, and on a clear day I could even see the taller range beyond them, the Little Belts. Eighty miles northwest, along the Canadian border, were the Sweet Grass Hills. And just a few miles away, the Bear Paw Mountains rose up to the northeast in a jagged sweep of indigo. My grandfather had started farming the place in 1920, and my dad had taken over in 1948, a year after I was born. It was a midsize family operation for those days: 2,400 acres, half wheat, half cattle.

By the time I took over the reins of my family farm in the early 1980s, the nutritious wheat varieties passed down over 500 generations had become a rarity. In place of this rich diversity of wheat, painstakingly selected and adapted to different growing regions over thousands of years, contemporary plant breeders had substituted a handful of recently developed varieties. These new varieties are bred primarily for high yield and loaf volume, which increases the number of loaves of bread industrial processors can squeeze out of each bag of flour by pumping as much air into the dough as quickly as possible. When raised under ideal growing conditions, with plentiful supplies of fertilizer, pesticides, and water, today’s wheat varieties do yield much more grain than the varieties planted by our forebears. But the environmental and public health consequences of such chemically intensive agriculture are beginning to add up, and all this cheap modern grain is antagonizing people’s digestive systems and devastating rural America.

In order to understand why most of the wheat in the contemporary US diet is so radically different from the wheat our ancestors ate, it helps to know a little more about the grain itself. There are three main components in a grain of wheat. The majority of the fiber resides in the nutrient-rich outer coating known as the bran. Essential fatty acids abound in the germ, the living embryo that would sprout into a new wheat plant were you to sow the seed. Together, bran and germ contain most of the grain’s iron, vitamins, and antioxidants. But the majority of the calories are in the largest, starchiest component: the endosperm.

Most of the wheat in contemporary US diets is radically different from the wheat our ancestors ate.

People have had a taste for endosperm since ancient times. As far back as the Roman Empire, bakers painstakingly attempted to sift the prized starch out from the other components of wheat flour, producing expensive “white” bread — a fashionable luxury food for the wealthy.

This sifting process was not without its critics: The ancient Greek philosopher Plato registered concerns about the nutritional value of refined flour in his Republic. But the ancients’ white bread was nothing like the cellophane-wrapped supermarket loaves we see today. Sifting eliminated only the largest chunks of bran, so much of this fibrous coating and nearly all of the oily germ remained. Until, that is, the nineteenth-century arrival of the steel roller mill, which finally shaved the endosperm cleanly away from both bran and germ.

Just one small hurdle stood in the way of truly white flour: the beta-carotene (the precursor to vitamin A) that tinted refined wheat slightly yellow. Industrial processors discovered that exposing the flour to gusts of chlorine gas could eliminate that. Flour — and the panoply of products that would soon be made from it — was now pure, gleaming white starch. It could be stored for years.

photo a man in a field holding grain in his handBob Quinn’s forays into growing organic, ancient wheat eventually blossomed into a multimillion-dollar heirloom grain company. Photo by Hillary Paige.

Picking up where Plato left off, a group of French and British doctors and medical experts raised concerns about the nutritional value of this white flour, noting the nutrient deficiencies and chronic diseases that appeared to follow in its wake. Joining this chorus of warnings against white bread was Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister and health food crusader whose 1837 Treatise on Bread and Bread-Making converted many leading public intellectuals of the day to whole grain diets, including Henry David Thoreau. In the early twentieth century, Graham’s ideas were revived by brothers Will and John Kellogg, who manufactured the first graham cracker and went on to develop America’s first mass-market line of breakfast cereals based on Graham’s ideas.

The biggest push for whole grain, however, came in the 1940s, when 30 percent of the men originally drafted for service in World War II were turned away for diet-related physical deficiencies. A national campaign to improve nutrition ensued, and it appeared white bread might be doomed.

But legislating whole grain would have undermined the business model of the burgeoning food-processing industry, which relied on standardized, shelf-stable ingredients. So instead, politicians were persuaded to adopt another strategy: injecting white bread with added vitamins such as thiamine. By the middle of World War II, 75 percent of the country’s bread was thus “enriched,” and public relations experts were already perfecting the art of persuading Americans that value was being added to their bread rather than subtracted from it.

Whole grain bread and flour were relegated to the shelves of idiosyncratic health food stores until the late 1960s, when a generation of counterculture activists began raising concerns about the corporate food system. These activists were concerned about the nutrient content of their own diets — and deeply distrustful of the preservatives and other additives used in industrial food processing.

In the attempt to create an alternative “people’s food system,” they formed cooperative grocery stores and bakeries, purchased whole grains in bulk, and spurred a large-scale revival in home baking that spread well beyond college towns and hippie enclaves into the American mainstream.

By the late 1970s, a growing number of these cooperative bakeries and grocery stores not only wanted to buy whole grain, they wanted to buy it directly from family farmers. But beyond a handful of pioneering companies like Little Bear Trading Company in Minnesota and Arrowhead Mills in Texas, they struggled to find sources. So my cousin and I decided to focus our business on serving these renegades: bakers who wanted to work with real, complex, whole grain.

For a commodity wheat farmer, selling whole grain directly to bakeries was a powerful first step toward mending the staff of life. By selling my grain whole, I was retaining more of the nutrition, and by selling direct, I was retaining more of the profit. But as I quickly realized, changing the way my grain was processed was just one third of the equation. I also needed to change the way it was produced — which I began doing in the late 1980s with my transition to organic farming. And finally, I needed to change the varieties I was growing.

WHEN I FIRST STARTED GROWING AN ANCIENT wheat variety called khorasan, it was just a side project. I thought it might be a good specialty crop for us on a few acres, sold as whole grain to a few macrobiotic shops that were interested in it. But that changed once this ancient grain captured the attention of Royal Angelus Macaroni Company, which was trying to develop a more palatable whole wheat pasta.

Breads and cookies made with an ancient wheat variety called khorasan. Compared to modern wheat, it has higher levels of eight out of nine minerals, 65 percent more amino acids, and 40 percent more protein. Photo by Hillary Paige
Breads and cookies made with an ancient wheat variety called khorasan. Compared to modern wheat, it has higher levels of eight out of nine minerals, 65 percent more amino acids, and 40 percent more protein. Photo by Hillary Paige.

In the mid-1980s, due to a burgeoning demand for whole grain foods, some food companies began to produce whole wheat pasta. This pasta was pretty terrible. Gritty. Grainy. Bitter. It scratched the back of your throat. The reason for this was that modern varieties of wheat had been bred to produce extremely hard bran — the fibrous part of the grain that formed its outer coating — so that it would be easy for roller mills to flake it off. The assumption was that the wheat was going to be refined and eaten as white flour, white bread, Twinkies, mac and cheese from a box — the staples of the contemporary American diet. The bran wasn’t bred to be nutty or flavorful or nutritious; it was bred to be readily discarded.

When people started getting concerned about the nutritional value they were losing by flaking off the bran, they tried to put it back. That was the idea with conventional “whole wheat,” as opposed to stone milling. Go ahead and refine away the bran and the germ and then try to put some of it back later. But when you put the bran back later, the sum of the parts equals the whole, nutritionally speaking. And unless you really pulverized that bran, you had a texture problem. It was hard as a rock and splintered like glass.

Royal Angelus wanted to make whole wheat pasta more appetizing, so they were trying all sorts of different experiments to fix the texture. Santo Zito, a Sicilian-born artisan, ran Royal Angelus’s test kitchen and managed pasta production. He knew about ancient wheat ,from his relatives in Sicily, who’d given him seeds from older varieties that looked similar to the ones we were growing. He transformed the grain I gave him into pasta, grinding it into flour and then experimenting with just the right ratio of water and flour to create the perfect dough. When he cooked up his initial batch of ancient wheat macaroni, the first thing that struck him was the pungent aroma that filled the room. But even more remarkable was the consistency of the pasta when he put it in his mouth. It was smooth. Almost silky. When Santo thought about it, it wasn’t hard to understand why. Here was a wheat that preceded all the aggressive breeding for hard bran. It was meant to be eaten whole.

Once Santo gave his boss a taste of the new ancient wheat pasta, Royal Angelus promptly introduced it into the product line. Santo gave me a box full of samples, which I shared with a number of my neighbors. My dad took some too, and he gave it to a good friend of ours, Laura, who had very severe environmental sensitivities.

When I say severe: Laura came to church one time when we had a new building, and she had to leave because of the formaldehyde fumes emanating from the new carpet. She couldn’t tolerate chemicals at all. Her muscles would stop working, and if it got bad enough, she would collapse. She couldn’t be around anyone wearing perfume or cologne. And she had to be very careful about what she ate.

I wouldn’t have had the audacity to give this woman any kind of food. But my farm was organic by then, so I guess my dad thought she might appreciate a box of pasta made from wheat that was grown without the use of chemicals. Laura thought it was worth trying, so she decided to take a chance on it. The next day, she called my parents’ house and asked my dad, “What is this stuff? It makes me feel better.”

It was still more than a decade before I would meet a team of researchers in Italy who would make groundbreaking discoveries about the effects of an ancient grain diet on chronic disease. Still more than a decade before I’d meet the man who would tell me he’d been in declining health, with ailments that stumped his doctors and threatened his life, before switching to ancient wheat and making a full recovery. Still more than a decade before I would receive the phone call from a mother, crying, thanking me for growing the only grain her daughter could eat.

There is now a whole new community of farmers, millers, bakers and eaters who are interested in ancient grains.

But that conversation with Laura in the late 1980s was my wake-up call that growing wheat organically and leaving the grain whole wasn’t enough to recover the full value of this staple food. The most insidious way in which the staff of life had been devalued involved transformations to the seed itself, when industry breeders sacrificed all else to focus on marginal gains in yield and loaf volume. I had stumbled onto ancient wheat by chance and had initially seen it as a fun novelty crop with an intriguing legend. But Laura’s epiphany led me on a long search to understand how heritage grains — the varieties our forefarmers selected and saved — can help us recover what we’ve lost.

I WOULD SOON LEARN THE BASICS of the nutrient profile of the ancient wheat, trademarked as “Kamut,” that I and many other farmers now grow on a commercial scale. Compared with modern wheat, it had higher levels of eight out of nine minerals, 65 percent more amino acids, and 40 percent more protein. Given such major differences in the fundamental composition of this ancient food and its aggressively bred cousins, it was plausible to me that our bodies would metabolize them differently. But I felt a rigorous scientific inquiry into the nutritional differences between ancient and modern wheat was necessary.

Photo of wheat
Kamut is an ancient wheat that many farmers now grow on a commercial scale. Photo by Hillary Paige.

By this time in the early 2000s, researchers had started doing studies on gluten, hoping to find some cure for America’s suddenly rampant ailment. But very few of them looked at the difference between ancient wheat and modern wheat. Unfortunately, much of the financial backing for nutrition science in the United States comes from big players in agribusiness. Heavily invested in modern wheat, these corporate funders weren’t terribly interested in supporting science that could call their products’ nutritional value into question. Eventually, my company Kamut International ended up funding several years of research into the nutritional profile of Kamut wheat by a team of scientists at University of Bologna, Italy.

Our studies have just scratched the surface, but already they have revealed that a diet high in organic, whole-grain ancient wheat lowers patients’ harmful cholesterol and inflammation, and reduces fat in the liver and improves liver function enzymes. We also found that this wheat has a more diverse variety of antioxidant compounds than modern wheat, and that it increases levels of health-promoting mutualists of gut microbiota. Mounting clinical and research evidence collected by other researchers, in the meantime, has suggested that components of wheat other than gluten — lectins, wheat germ agglutinin, or alpha-amylase/trypsin inhibitors — could activate the immune responses involved in so-called gluten sensitivity. All of these components of wheat had been modified through modern breeding.

We’ve now published nearly 31 papers, but our medical trials have been fairly modest in size. Strictly speaking, they are what researchers would call preliminary studies; results found in populations this small should be confirmed with larger groups. We don’t have the budget for that (Kamut International has already spent nearly $2 million on this research, modest as it may seem), and if we did, people would probably be skeptical of it. Nutrition science has been badly corrupted by the agricultural-industrial complex. Private companies with a horse in the race are not the right people to be funding our nutritional science. I’d like to see an interdisciplinary team from multiple universities apply for a big grant from the National Institutes of Health to compare an ancient wheat diet with a modern wheat diet.

The other good news, meanwhile, is that there is now a whole new community of farmers, millers, bakers, and eaters who are interested in ancient grains. Initiatives like the California Grain Campaign, The Whole Grain Connection, and the Washington state-based Bread Lab are bringing together wheat breeders, bakers, and nutrition researchers who are interested in propagating and using more delicious and healthful varieties of grain that are suited to organic production systems.

This budding revival of wheat — back to its former status as the staff of life — has given me hope, not just for this crop but for the future of our society and our planet. Looking out over my fields, I see that we may finally be moving away from a commodity mentality in favor of products that explicitly assign value to soil quality, rural livelihoods, climate stability, and human health.

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