The Grain Changers
1. an event, idea, or procedure that effects a significant shift in the current manner of doing or thinking about something.
For the past several years I have been bumping up against and seeking out grain changers – folks that are stirring things up and beginning to question and challenge how we think about grains and in particular wheat – and immersing myself in the literature from Stephen Yafa’s Grain of Truth to Amy Halloran’s The New Bread Basket to academic food science journals in order to untangle and debunk many of the myths that have sprung up around gluten and grain.
I have come out the other side as a wheat defender. Now I don’t pretend to be a nutritionist or a scientist but I do consider myself an advocate and I read a lot and I live it - I consider myself a well educated resource. With the incredible power behind marketing it is a challenge to not get lost in all the lingo – gluten free, ancient grain, paleo - and untangle the truth behind all the latest dietary hype. When I say advocate I mean don’t just mean an advocate for my own body and health but for flavor and food. In my own kitchen, I have rediscovered the incredible flavor of wheat and how deeply satisfying a slice of whole grain bread can be to both body and soul.
In the end, the debate over whether wheat is “good or bad” for you comes down to human intervention - the way we grow and process it from seed to shelf unlocks the story of what has happened to wheat and provides the answers to how we can once again welcome bread back to the table.
THE WAY WE GROW IT
Let’s begin with the seed. The wheat seed, like all seeds, is designed to do everything it can to get itself into the ground, become a plant and carry on its legacy. All living things try to avoid being eaten. That means that the wheat seed like many, many other plants has certain compounds that make it difficult to digest. Luckily, humans have figured out ways – namely long slow fermentation –to unlock all the vitamins and minerals in grains. But that’s processing, which we will get to next…
Processing begins once again with the seed and with the beginning of the grain chain, the grower. The industrialization of wheat eventually led to the development of modern varieties and modern production systems that placed a high value on yield – Norman Borlaug and The Green Revolution applied new technologies to improve efficiency and output, namely chemical inputs in the form of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides as well as hybrid seeds. Contrary to what one might, think these modern varieties do not contain “extra” gluten in their genes and are not necessarily at the heart of gluten sensitivity – but from a nutritional perspective they do however contain less of the minerals and vitamins found in ancient varieties. There is some very interesting research that suggests that the effects of fertilization in modern systems could be increasing some of the reactive proteins in wheat.
That leads to the first level of what may be wrong with the wheat we are eating today – chemicals.
THE WAY WE PROCESS IT
But I am getting ahead of myself- we can’t have a real understanding of the story of wheat without mention of one of the main technological inventions that spurred on the industrialization of wheat – the invention of the roller mill in the 1870s. Compared to stone milled methods, the roller mill was fast and efficient and was able to control the various parts of the kernel – bran, germ and endosperm - and to produce that most coveted of all, white flour. With the bran and germ removed – oh and all the essential vitamins, minerals and lipids – flour could be shipped long distances and stored on every supermarket shelf. Gone was the local grain chain and gone was the flavor and the nutrition you can only get when bran, germ and endosperm are left intact.
Now the second part of the story – refined flour is a mere shadow of its whole grain super power. It has little or none of the nutritional value that you find in whole grain flour. The germ contains essential fatty acids (omega 3), and linoleic acid. It has all of the seed’s Vitamin E and the bulk of the Thiamin and Folic Acid. The bran contains 70% of the seed’s Vitamin B6, 85% Niacin B3, and more than 70% of its Phosphorus, Potassium, Zinc, Magnesium, Thiamin and Manganese. As well as the majority of its B5, Copper, Calcium and let’s not forget about FIBER! B vitamins improve appetite, vision, skin health, digestion, cognitive and nerve functions and protein efficiency.
So how does that tie into how we feel when we eat refined white flour? The part of the kernel that remains after the bran and germ is sifted out is the carbohydrate rich endosperm. It provides quick but short duration energy. Enzymes in our saliva break down white flour all at once while whole wheat is broken down in measured amounts. This results in rapid absorption of glucose into the bloodstream. White flour plays a key role in elevating blood sugar and can be linked to obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
THE WAY WE EAT IT
The industrialization of our food system ushered in the era where convenience is queen. Bags of white flour were now available at your supermarket rather than from your local miller – and from this shelf stable flour came processed “food” – quick breads, pastries – produced in large factories, many months and miles from the point of consumption. The key to unlocking all the nutrients in whole grains – long slow fermentation - was sacrificed for speed and volume.
Sprouting and fermenting grains leads to many beneficial effects. It increases the amino acid lysine, reduces anti-nutrients (like phytic acid and lectins), disables enzyme inhibitors and makes nutrients more accessible. Phytase is an enzyme that releases bound minerals during germination – long fermentation (8+hours) allows enzymatic activity to unlock phosphorus as it loosens the bond and makes its contents bioavailable. It penetrates the phytic acid bond - seeds store phosphorus in the form of phytic acid as an energy source for the sprouting and germinating plant. It is considered an anti-nutrient because it binds minerals such as iron and zinc and inhibits their absorption.
More importantly, microbes produced by long sourdough fermentation break down and neutralize gluten molecules thus reducing reactivity to gluten. It’s not necessarily gluten that is the problem but the way that the food we have been eating is processed.
This is where you too can become a grain changer – by challenging your assumptions – and the marketing giants – about grains. It’s time to take back our right to full nutrition and flavor that technological advances have robbed us of in the name of improved efficiency and volume. My motto is Gluten: Don’t Fight It, Ferment It! You too can make the change and set up your own whole grain pantry . Choose whole grains over refined, and long slow fermentation over quick highly processed foods. Get to know your local farmers and bakers and begin the conversation. Grains are the final frontier in the local farm to table movement. Start to write your own history –
“Legacy. What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” Hamilton