The last few decades have given rise to some of the most ridiculous movements regarding human nutrition. According to NYU Langone, one-third of Americans try to avoid gluten in their diet although the great majority of people are neither allergic nor suffer from gluten sensitivity.
Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, spelt, rye, and barley. It is what makes doughs elastic and gives them the ability to entrap air bubbles to bake bread. Without gluten, there would be no bread in this world. Neither would there be noodles, pancakes, or pizza.
Nevertheless, people manipulated by health gurus and the gluten-free industry constantly make an effort to avoid wheat, the most widely grown crop in this world. Wheat provides 20 % of the daily protein and food calories for 4.5 billion people worldwide. It is the most important food crop in the industrialized world and the second most important food crop, after rice, in the developing world.
The Harvard Medical school lists five reasons why gluten-free fad diets are so increasingly popular:
- Intuition (“That sounds like a good idea.”)
- Logic (“If gluten harms people with celiac disease, maybe it will harm me too.”)
- Celebrity endorsement (“If that famous person is eliminating gluten maybe I should do it too.”)
- Anecdote (“Going gluten-free has changed the life of my husband.”)
- Marketing (“Gluten-free flours in the supermarket are healthier than wheat flour.”)
All of these reasons violate a scientific approach. A lot of what seems plausible and logical for us is not true. That is not how science works. Just because you have some anecdotical evidence and your theory sounds reasonable that doesn’t mean it is true.
Why we should never be blind consumers
Unfortunately, we live in the age of “fake news”, “alternative facts”, and “pseudoscience”. Everyone can put out information on the internet and claim it to be the truth. And a lot of people won’t even bother doing a fact check or the research themselves.
But the only way to really get informed is to do all the hard work yourself. Even if you are reading my articles, the only thing you will learn about is my point of view. I at least give you some of my resources at the end of every article so that you can inform yourself about the topic free from my judgments.
Even if you’re getting your info from a so-called “reputable resource”, like a nationwide newspaper, you still shouldn’t blindly believe what they write. I have worked with German newspapers and online publishers and sold articles to them. These have very strict regulations in place on what the article should convey, who the audience is, and what the opinion of the publisher on the topic is.
The author usually doesn’t conduct any open-minded research. The newspaper might want an article called: “Why wheat is slowly killing us.”. That is because of Google rankings and that these articles attract a lot of visitors. So the only thing the author does is to find arguments why gluten might be bad.
From the title, there is no possibility that the conclusion of the article might be that gluten isn’t harmful at all. Instead, the article serves the purpose to confirm the opinion of a specific target group that thinks that wheat is an evil plant.
A brief history of wheat cultivation
Before I want to outline to you why wheat is an important part of a healthy diet, I want to take look at the history of this magnificent crop. Wheat was one of the first domesticated food crops and has been a basic staple food of Europe, West Asia, and North Africa for more than 10 000 years.
Its origin can be traced back to southeast Turkey. The primal form of wheat was called Einkorn (Triticum monococcum). However, there was also a second variety of wheat called Emmer (Triticum dicoccum) whose domestication started at a similar time as Einkorn.
Over generations, farmers practiced selective breeding to give the wheat crop more favorable traits such as ease of harvest and high yield. Out of these breeding experiments, two new types of wheat started to dominate: common bread wheat (Triticum aestivum) and spelt (Triticum aestivum subsp. spelta).
Yes, spelt is basically the brother of regular bread wheat. Spelt has nourished the Swabia region of Germany, where I am from, for thousands of years. There are two uniquely Swabian spelt varieties, the Bauländer Spelz and Schwabenkorn, which are domesticated in Southern Germany until today. The significance of spelt for Southern Germans becomes apparent in the fact that there are two towns on the Swabian-Bavarian border named after this magnificent crop: Dinkelsbühl and Dinkelscherben.
Spelt grains can also be eaten whole
Spelt is not only used in the form of flour. It can also be harvested unripe while it is still green. In this form, dried spelt grains are called farro. The grains are eaten whole as part of porridge, soup, or salad. The reason for the invention of farro was that farmers needed a year-round supply of nourishing food so that they harvested the unripe grains. If the spelt is harvested ripe and not milled, it is called spelt rice.
Hildegard von Bingen, the founder of scientific natural history in Germany, claimed spelt to be the healthiest of all crops in her book Physica that was published in the year 1160. Many people with wheat intolerance can tolerate spelt . The reason for that is a mystery as spelt flour is very similar in composition to wheat flour. There is no scientific evidence that spelt is healthier than wheat but it is still popular wisdom in Germany.
Besides spelt and bread wheat, there is a third wheat crop with major economic significance: durum wheat (Triticum durum). It’s the wheat used for the production of Italian pasta. It has a characteristic yellow hue and a higher protein content than bread wheat. Semolina is a direct descendant of the primal wheat Emmer whereas bread wheat is a hybridization of Emmer and Tausch’s goatgrass (Aegilops tauschii).
Wheat domestication lead to the invention of leavened bread
The domestication of wheat is closely tied to the invention of leavened bread. Unleavened flatbreads, made from barley and other wild grains, had existed for a long time before the domestication of wheat. However, it was the Egyptians who baked the first loaves of yeast-risen bread about 9000 years ago. Commercial yeast production, in the form of sourdough, dates back to bread bakers of Ancient Egypt around 300 B.C.
Of course, the bread of the ancient Egyptians was very dark and rustic because the grains had been ground by hand with rocks. The Mesopotamians were the first ones to invent a stone mill which enabled them to create smooth, finely milled flour around 800 years B.C.
It took a very long time until a new revolutionary invention would change the world of bread baking forever. It was the invention of the steel roller mill in Switzerland in the year 1834. Instead of crushing the grain, the steel roller mill breaks it open so that it becomes very easy to separate the endosperm, germ, and bran. White flour became affordable for anyone.
Until today, most consumers prefer white bread over wholemeal bread. Not to mention noodles and pancakes. I guess almost no-one prefers whole wheat noodles over the white stuff. A once expensive commodity of the rich has become a cheap staple food worldwide.
We should be thankful for that every day. Nowadays, we live in an age of abundance. There are only very few foods left that are too expensive for the average Western consumer.
The reasons why wheat has become the major diet component of many civilizations are:
- Wheat can adapt to a wide range of soil and environmental conditions.
- Wheat grains are easy to store.
- It’s very easy to convert the wheat grains into flour to prepare nourishing food.
Nowadays, wheat is grown on more land area than any other commercial crop like rice, maize, or potatoes. The world trade of wheat is greater than that for all other crops in this world combined. Wheat is the superior cereal in this world as it provides more nourishment to humans than any other food source available.
Why wheat is such an essential part of our diet
Wheat flour is rich in carbohydrates that are very easy to digest. The same is true for most of the wheat proteins. Besides that, wheat contains minerals, vitamins, lipids, and dietary fiber. If you combine wheat-based foods with a small amount of legume or animal protein your body’s nutritional needs are completely fulfilled.
Isn’t that great news? Ever since the domestication of wheat, people in Europe didn’t have to worry much about micronutrient deficiencies. Even if there was a shortage of vegetables in the winter, people could meet all their nutritional needs by eating wheat, legumes, and meat.
Health studies in the UK have shown that cereals and bread were the main sources of energy for all age groups, contributing 31 % of the daily energy intake. 45 % of the daily carbohydrate intake in the UK came from wheat along with 23 % of the daily protein intake. Yes, wheat is a major protein source.
Even more impressive is the fact that 40 % of the daily intake in dietary fiber comes from wheat alone. I’ve already outlined in my article about the status of public health in the Western world that a diet too low in dietary fiber leads to millions of diet-related diseases worldwide.
Wheat is also a major source of minerals and vitamins. It is rich in iron, Vitamin B1, folates, calcium, magnesium, and many other essential nutrients.
Is the claim that wheat is harmful to our health justified?
Now, let’s take a look at the false claims which state that wheat is harmful to our health. These can be broken down into two major concerns:
- Wheat products are disproportionally responsible for increases in obesity and type 2 diabetes.
- Wheat gluten proteins cause a range of adverse reactions, including allergies, coeliac disease, and gluten sensitivity.
The statement that wheat causes obesity and type 2 diabetes was promoted in the best-selling book: Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health by William Davis. The book is full of scientific flaws and there have been many papers published in the scientific community disproving the false statements in this book.
If you are interested in a detailed write-up covering the flaws of Davis’s book, I recommend you to read: Wheat Belly – An Analysis of Selected Statements and Basic Theses from the Book by Julie Jones. It’s a 13-page discussion disproving Davis’s theories and explaining the flaws in his argumentation. I just want to outline some of the points Jones highlights in her discussion.
False statements of Davis debunked
Davis has many examples in his book on how obese people got cured of diabetes by the removal of wheat from their diet. However, it is more likely that a reduction in calories led to an improvement in their health. It doesn’t matter which component you remove from a person’s diet. As long as overweight people lose weight by obtaining a calorie deficit it will have a positive effect on diabetes.
Davis also claims that the starch in wheat is different from that found in other carbohydrate-rich foods and gets more easily converted to glucose. This is not true. In fact, high-amylose wheat even gets digested more slowly because it contains a large number of resistant starch which our body cannot digest. Cooked potato is converted just as easily to glucose as wheat.
According to Davis, wheat opioids are addictive and cause people to be unable to control their eating. There is no scientific evidence that certain foods such as carbohydrates, sugars, or fats are addictive. Wheat also doesn’t cause uncontrolled eating. In fact, the proteins and dietary fiber in wheat might even make you feel full and satiated for longer.
It’s a very fascinating discussion but it’s far too much to cover all the statements Davis makes in this blog post. If you’re interested in the science, please check out the pdf-file that I have linked you above.
Wheat allergies and sensitivities are rare
The second claim, that gluten proteins cause a range of adverse reactions, appears much more plausible than Davis’s statements about obesity and diabetes. Some people indeed suffer from a gluten allergy or sensitivity.
Wheat allergy has been researched extensively, however, the prevalence of wheat allergy is below 1 % of the population. There is no evidence that the prevalence is increasing disproportionally compared with other food allergies or that the prevalence is related to the types of wheat or wheat products that are consumed.
An additional 1 % of the population suffers from coeliac disease, a form of gluten sensitivity. The prevalence has slightly increased over the last century, however, it is estimated that this is due to greater public awareness and improved diagnosis.
Many people who eliminate wheat or gluten from their diet do not reap any health benefits. Often the opposite is happening. As wheat is an important source of B vitamins and minerals, people who avoid it have an increased risk for micronutrient deficiencies.
Wheat has been conquering the developing world over the last few centuries. However, there is no evidence that African populations are experiencing any form of an increase in adverse reactions to wheat.
In some parts of India and China, wheat makes up for 50-70 % of the daily total food intake. People living there are thankful to be nourished by this marvelous grain. These places don’t experience any kind of obesity or diabetes epidemic. Neither do they experience increased gluten sensitivity.
We should all be thankful for the existence of wheat
The Western world should embrace wheat for what it is: A nourishing grain that has ensured the survival of our population for 10 000 years. Of course, when wheat was scarce during food droughts, the potato had nourished the Western world just as well.
However, having grown up in Southern Germany, it’s obvious that I have a bias toward wheat. It’s an indigenous crop rather than a South American import. People in Southern Germany have been eating wheat, spelt, and rye bread long before the potato was first introduced in the year 1630.
While the Northern Germans have turned into potato heads, the potato still isn’t a daily staple food in Southern Germany. It’s treated like a vegetable rather than a starchy filler ingredient. It’s seldom to encounter plain boiled potatoes in Southern Germany and it’s an offense here to serve roast meat with potatoes if you can have spaetzle or noodles instead.
Southern Germans embrace wheat for what it is. And so should you!