There are so many noteworthy experiences to relay from the 6,800-mile journey. Yet one of the experiences that I found most compelling was driving through millions of acres of wheat in the northern plains. As a professional in the field of nutrition, I am aware that refined grain is the largest source of calories for Americans and plays a significant role in our current obesity epidemic. Driving through these wheat fields, talking with local farmers only increased my fascination with wheat.
We depend on wheat. It is a cornerstone of many countries’ food culture. We commit more of the world’s farmland to it than to any other crop and have set it as a focal point of our commercial agricultural industry. Wheat as most of us would recognize is bleached, refined, and tucked into breads, pastas, sauces, bars, cakes, cookies, and other snacks. Americans currently consume an average of 146 pounds of wheat a year, sourced from across the globe. However, the wheat that is grown today is fundamentally not the wheat our distant ancestors grew.
Wheat was originally a much different plant, native to only a small region in western Asia and the Ethiopian highlands. After the tour this fall and reading a term paper that my daughter, Alexandra, wrote on the health impacts of modern wheat, I thought it was time to share my views on this popular little grain.
During the tour, we had the pleasure of visiting Bluebird Grains Farm in the northeast Cascades, Washington in late September, where Sam and Brooke Lucy farm an ancient type of wheat called emmer (www.bluebirdgrainsfarm.com). We spent time on the farm touring the fields, production, and storage areas and learned about the process of bringing this ancient organic grain from farm to table. The more I learned about the importance of seasonality, demand based production and the low gluten, high nutrient content of emmer wheat, the more I began to question the conventional grain industry.
Wheat domestication and hybridization has changed a small grain with a long, narrow shape into a more uniform, larger grain that is a genetic puzzle. Wheat as we know it originates from the hybridization of three ancient grasses. A typical wheat variety is hexaploid—it has six copies of each gene, where most plants have two. Einkorn, spelt, and emmer, which is widely known as faro in European countries, are all genetically closer to their common ancestral grain.
What I find fascinating is that commercial wheat has 42 chromosomes and a significantly higher gluten content that gives bread products the elastic texture that consumers have grown to prefer. The wheat genome is known as the Mt. Everest of genomes; it is five times the size of the human genome and contains a massive 16 billion base pairs of DNA.
Ancestral emmer, on the other hand, contains a total of 24 chromosomes. The gluten proteins found in conventional wheat (triticum aestivum) are noticeably dissimilar from those in einkorn, emmer, and spelt. The comparison of emmer’s genetics to those of conventional wheat clearly illustrates how much wheat has changed during the domestication process.
Modern wheat not only differs from older strains genetically, it is also processed and eaten in dramatically different ways. Due to the emphasis of the commercial grain industry on surplus production, much of cereal grain is stored for up to a year onsite before it is milled and likely stored again for lengthy periods in flour form. Furthermore, grain silos are prone to pest infestation and mold. For this reason they are routinely treated with antifungal agents and industrial pesticides.
In an unprecedented 4-fold increase over the last 40 years, some 20 million Americans experience gluten sensitivity and 3 million have celiac disease. This staggering increase in the incidence of gluten intolerance and celiac disease may very well be caused by our increased consumption of modern wheat. I believe that our digestive system was not meant to eat this genetically manipulated grain.
Visiting Bluebird Grains Farm as one of our first stops truly captured the essence of one of our primary goals of the tour: highlighting America’s very best in agriculture, whole foods, and the people who grow them with passion and dedication to maintaining balance between high-quality food production that nourishes our bodies as well as the planet. For more details on the impact of refined grain on obesity and health, please read my latest book, “The Social Network Diet: Change Yourself, Change the World” (http://www.fastpencil.com/publications/2863-The-Social-Network-Diet). In the book I also provide a 1-Day No Refined Grain Challenge that readers may find interesting.