Wheat. Misunderstood or maligned?

What is Wheat?

Wheat: a staple ingredient in most parts of the world, had humble beginnings as a wild grass. Researchers found that approximately 10,000 years ago, humankind domesticated this wild grass through planting it's seeds and selecting the best performing plants for replanting (Heun et al., 1997). These earliest forms of grass resulted in einkorn and emmer wheats, which were direct descendants of wild grass populations. An interesting finding by Snape and Pa ́nkova ́ (2006) was that bread-wheat was created through hybridising emmer wheat with an unrelated triticum grass, creating a wheat strain that was unable to survive on its own in the wild without human assistance! Humankind turned a previously wild and resilient grass into one that could only survive through our cultivation.

Researcher Moshe Feldman (2011) details the route of wheat in history and how it ended up on our plates: 

"The main route into Europe was via Anatolia to Greece (8000 BP) and then both northwards through the Balkans to the Danube (7000 BP) and across to Italy, France and Spain (7000 BP), finally reaching the UK and Scandanavia by about 5000 BP. Similarly, wheat spread via Iran into central Asia reaching China by about 3000 BP and to Africa, initially via Egypt. It was introduced by the Spaniards to Mexico in 1529 and to Australia in 1788."

Unrivalled in it's spread of growing areas (it is grown everywhere from Australia to Scandinavia!), wheat is the third largest food item in the world's diet (third behind corn and rice). Over time, further hybridisation has created two main triticum varieties that are used predominantly for breads (Triticum aestivum, 95% of wheat production) and pastas (Triticum durum, 5% of wheat production).

What has happened to Wheat?

The use of wheat as a food source has been only 5% of our documented existence (homo sapiens has been around for ~200,000 years), and recently as the world population has surged, we have continued our domestication of the wild grass to a point where we are now creating mutations in wheat varieties through laboratory methods.

The domestication of wheat allowed humans to choose the best seed from plants that grew with ideal attributes; for example, yield, grain size, stalk height and flour quality. This natural process allowed natural hybrids and semi-natural selection of the grain to suit our needs. This all changed in the 1960s, where mutation of seeds was introduced through gamma rays, x rays, chemicals and UV radiation - which are technically not required to be classified as GMO! A search on the United Nation's Mutant Variety Database shows 254 different wheat mutants that have been created since 1960! 

Another major shift in wheat in recent history was the hybridisation of wheat to have shorter stems in the 1950s, taking a naturally short variety of Japanese straw wheat and crossing it with two versions of American wheats (L. P. Reitz and S. C. Salmon, 1963). This hybridisation shifted how wheat could be produced, allowing improved yields through the plant's ability to withstand wind breakage and allowing increased fertiliser inputs without "overgrowing the wheat". 

Interestingly, these two changes in how we produced wheat seeds coincided with what many term the Green Revolution in agriculture from the 1930s to the 1960s. The Green Revolution brought many changes to how food was produced, combining hybrid plants with the use of artificial fertilisers and artificial pesticides to increase yields and ability to grow crops in areas where once not feasible.

A LOT has happened with wheat, are these changes the cause of issues parts of the population are experience with coeliac disease, gluten sensitivity and wheat sensitivity? Science has not agreed upon what the causes are, but when changes as dramatic as those above happen in the space of 50 years (of the 10,000 years of wheat's existence), there is a high likelihood that these may be contributors. Time will tell.

What are the causes of human sensitivity?

Wheat is one of the "big eight" allergens that account for 90% of allergic reactions (Poole et al., 2006). Generally the allergies stem from proteins within the wheat, and can present as dermatitis, anaphylaxis, and asthma (P. R. Shewry 2009). Dietary intolerance is more common than allergic reactions, with approximately 1-2% of the Western European population being diagnosed as Coeliac (Feighery, 1999). There are many doctors now estimating that the 'real' number of people with Coeliac are magnitudes higher; however, due to the lack of awareness of related symptoms and common blood tests only testing for 1 in 30 ways that a body could be reacting to wheat, false negatives are common and many people are living with the intolerance but are still unaware. What causes these allergies and intolerances?

Gluten

Gluten: the grouping of hundreds of proteins found in grains. The ones most people react to are found in wheat, barley, rye, and oats (via contamination). The prevalence of Coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity is considerably high, with between 1-2% of the population being affected. Where sensitive or allergic to gluten, the body responds through releasing autoantibodies to respond to the gluten in the body. This response can affect the digestive tract and also other organs in the body (Knut & Wijmenga, 2015). This irritant will be the subject of another blog post in the future!

Phytic Acid

Phytic acid is found in the hulls of nuts, seeds and grains, acts as a phosphorus store for these fledgling plants, allowing them to draw on it during the sprouting and growing process. It is indigestible by humans, and it acts as an anti-nutrient, easily binding with iron, zinc and calcium and being excreted with the bound nutrients after digestion (Dendougui F; Schwedt G. 2004). Phytic acid can be broken down by pre-soaking your grains for at least 8hrs prior to cooking them, or through fermentation. Many people who notice symptoms from having normal bread find the symptoms are less or unnoticeable when they have a properly fermented bread which is called sourdough. Make sure to look for a sourdough that does not also have yeast in the ingredients to ensure it has been properly fermented. Also please note: just because you notice less or no symptoms when eating sourdough vs normal bread doesn't mean you have solved the WHOLE problem. If your body is reacting to something in wheat/bread etc. it is like the fuel on a fire. We will not be able to ever extinguish that fire (heal the body fully) if we keep putting fuel on it, little or lots.

Chemicals

During the preparation, sowing, growing and harvesting of wheat, there are many agricultural chemicals applied to the growing field. These chemicals can be loosely broken up into three groups, fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. Chemical fertilisers are widely used in most agriculture around the world, and formed a key component of the Green Revolution. These provide macro nutrients for the plant, but do not offer a diverse range of micronutrients, creating a much less healthy and less resilient plant overall. Chemical herbicides and pesticides are applied during the wheat lifecycle to stop soil borne pests, seed borne pests and foliar diseases. Some researchers are now suspecting that these chemicals (Glyphosate in particular - found in RoundUp) are more to blame for the rapid increase in food sensitivities than even gluten may be. (Dr. Stephanie Seneff)  Note: certified organic wheat is free from all artificial chemicals and fertilisers.

FODMAPS

A recently emerged science, FODMAPs are Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Monosaccharides And Polyols, put simply, carbohydrates. It has been discussed that FODMAPs may contribute to gastrointestinal disorders, and studies by Monash University have shown that removing high FODMAP foods from diets result in improvement of gastrointestinal disorders. Wheat contains fructans, an oligosaccharide, which can contribute to these gastrointestinal disorders. It is the personal opinion of the author that there is an underlying reason why some people are "all of a sudden" being found to be sensitive to these foods. If one can get down to the reason of WHY the body is sensitive to these types of carbs found in very normal fruits and veggies then the restricting FODMAP diet can be avoided. Here we often explore the existence of leaky gut and microbiome imbalance.

What is wheat in?

Wheat is found in many foods, some obvious, whilst some are hidden. The safest way to avoid wheat is to READ ALL INGREDIENT LABELS!!! Here is a list of foods that may contain wheat:

  • Breads (many rye and corn breads contain wheat), pitas, crumpets, muffins, tortillas, tacos , doughnuts, cakes, cookies, biscuits, crackers, croutons, packet snacks, rusks, waffles, pancakes, crepes, pizzas, pretzels, breadsticks, communion wafers, pasta and pastry.

  • Breakfast cereals! Check ingredients, most popular cereals can contain wheat;

  • Flours and pasta - most pasta is made from wheat, and most baking flours are wheat based;

  • Meat and Fish - sausages, crumbed meats, rissoles, luncheon meats can contain wheat;

  • Vegetable Products - canned foods, dips, crumbed vegetables;

  • Sauces and condiments - wheat is used as a thickener in these products, check the ingredients. Vinegars, soy sauce and tamari can also contain wheat;

  • Desserts - ice creams, cheesecakes, pastries can all contain wheat;

  • Beverages - beer, whisky, gins, malted milks can contain wheat;

  • Confectionery - liquorice and chocolates can contain wheat;

  • Medication - some medications can contain wheat, check with your pharmacist;

  • Glue, and even postage stamps!

Can I lead a life without wheat?

Yes you can! And although it will take time to adjust, it may turn out to be one of the biggest blessings in your life to 'force' you to incorporate more variety=nutrition potential into your diet while discovering a plethora of new foods to enrich your life and palette with!

If you suspect you may have a sensitivity to wheat, it is recommended that you learn how to listen to the symptoms in your body. If you feel it already quite 'far gone' and serious, please check with your GP or Naturopath for proper testing (knowing standard testing can give up to 90% false-negative results). With the rise of the paleo diet (which avoids grains), there are many wheat free (and gluten free) products on the market. The easiest way to avoid wheat is to read labels, look for wheat free or gluten free on labels - Coeliac Australia has created a label to ensure wheat free shopping confidence, keep an eye out for their logo.

 

Substituting is easy to remove wheat from your diet, there are many wheat-free breads, pastas and other staples. The key is to look for gluten free on the label, wheat-based ingredients will be highlighted in the ingredients panel (this is labelling law). Take note that sometimes where wheat or gluten is removed, other ingredients are added that are potentially worse for you - remember my mantra, how many steps away from nature is this product? If you can't pronounce it, or it is a number, then it is likely bad news for you! 

As a transition point, sourcing certified organic long-fermented sourdough for your bread allows you to access wheat-based bread that is chemical free and fermented, reducing your risk of exposure to phytic acids and chemicals. A recommended Sunshine Coast brand is Walter's Artisan Bread, these guys do true long ferment sourdough and are certified organic!

References:

Heun M, Schafer-Pregl R, Klawan D, Castagna R, Accerbi M, Borghi B, Salamini F. 1997. Site of einkorn wheat domestication identified by DNA fingerprinting. Science 278, 1312–1314. 

Snape J, Pa ́ nkova ́ K. 2006. Triticum aestivum (wheat). In: Marquart L, Jacobs DR Jr, McIntosh GH, Poutanen K, Reicks M, eds. Encyclopedia of life sciences. John Wiley & Sons Ltd. 

Feldman M. 2001. Origin of cultivated wheat. In: Bonjean AP, Angus WJ, eds. The world wheat book: a history of wheat breeding. Paris, France: Lavoisier Publishing, 3–56. 

Reitz, L. P.; Salmon, S. C. (November 1968). "Origin, History, and Use of Norin 10 Wheat". Crop Science 8 (6): 686–689.

P. R. Shewry (2009), "Wheat". Journal of Experimental Botany, Vol. 60, No. 6, pp. 1537–1553

Feighery C. 1999. Coeliac disease. British Medical Journal 29, 236–239.

Knut E.A.L. & Wijmenga, C 2015. "Coeliac disease and autoimmune disease—genetic overlap and screening". Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology 12, 507–515

Dendougui, Ferial; Schwedt, Georg. "In vitro analysis of binding capacities of calcium to phytic acid in different food samples". European Food Research and Technology

September 2004, Volume 219, Issue 4, pp 409-415, 2004.