The grain debate: the deal with today’s wheat

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Before Elizabeth Hasselbeck talked about her struggles with Celiac disease on a 2007 episode of The View, few Americans knew what “gluten” was or what “gluten free” meant.

Today, products free of gluten are everywhere. More and more of us are starting to pay attention to what’s going on with our bodies and making food choices that don’t cause problems that we once ignored or wrote off as “what normally happens” when we eat a particular food.

Migraines, fatigue, gas and bloating, rashes and itchy skin, the list goes on. Your body’s inability to tolerate gluten can lead to severe ailments from infertility to cancer.

“None of us digests gluten very well. We didn’t evolve to eat wheat, actually,” says Dr. Peter Green.

The result of our inability to digest gluten can result in gluten intolerance, or more severely, the autoimmune disease Celiac disease.

So, have we changed, or is it the grains that are different than they were many years ago? Perhaps, both. Wheat and its gluten proteins are found in almost everything we eat, even when we don’t think it is, so we should understand how to navigate in a world full of wheat.

What’s up with today’s wheat?

The answer has various branches: “the way we grow it, the way we process it, and the way we eat it,” says to grainstorm.com. Wheat has been around for thousands of years, and in many ways have been a staple in the American diet. “In the 1870’s, the invention of the modern steel roller mill revolutionized grain milling.”

We used to use millstones to ground our wheat, but the steel roller gave us a lot more control over how fine and varied we could get the wheat kernel. This, of course, made flour easier to create and readily accessible.

Seems pretty innocent, and even healthy, right? But again, why is it that today so many of us literally can’t stomach wheat?

With it being so easy, it was also cheaper for consumers, and therefore, popular. Despite the fact that virtually all of the vital nutrients normally found in wheat were gone, pre-ground flour became the go-to product for all-purpose use. “Wheat milling methods to produce white flour eliminate those portions of the wheat kernel (brangerm, shorts, and red dog mill streams) that are richest in proteins, vitamins, lipids and minerals.”

The other big issue is the farming of wheat today. In order to increase production, wheat was hybridized in the 1960’s to make smaller wheat plants. “Shorter wheat means more of the plant’s energy is put into seed production, increasing yields,” explains underwoodgardens.com. “Unfortunately, the issue of digestibility was never examined.”

The consequences of hybridized seeds helped with hunger around the world, but nutrition suffered greatly. Cases of gluten intolerance and Celiac disease have greatly increased since the ‘70’s, and are still on the rise today.

More people suffer from chronic ailments brought about by wheat because what we’re eating isn’t even wheat!

Wheat is a type of grain—a small, hard, dry seeds, harvested as a food source. “The two main types of commercial grain crops are cereals (wheatrye) and legumes (beanssoybeans).” Above all other crops, cereal grains are grown more and are the largest food source in the world.

Gluten is a natural protein found in cereal grains: wheat, barley, rye, and oat. We generally get our grains from the store after they’ve already been ground into flour or prepared as a bread or type of commercial cereal.

Grains—as in natural whole grains, not refined grains—should have a number of benefits, all in the various parts of the seed: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. The bran is the outer-most layer, which is full of fiber, B vitamins, iron, zinc, copper, magnesium, antioxidants, and phytochemicals.

The germ is located in the core of seed, which is where the growth takes place. The germ is rich in healthy fats, vitamin E, and B vitamins. The endosperm is the interior layer with the carbohydrates and protein.

You don’t get the bran or the germ in a refined grain.

So, what is Celiac disease?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease in which people are sensitive to gluten, which is a protein in wheat. “An autoimmune condition is a condition in which your immune system gets confused and, instead of fighting off foreign invaders, it begins to attack you,” according to SDCLifestyle.com.

The gluten causes inflammation in the intestine, which causes atrophy of villi—the little tentacles on your intestine that allow you to absorb nutrients from the food you eat. With Celiac disease, the intestinal surface is flat, which means all of the villi are lost.

“Celiac disease causes damage to the small intestine, which leads to systemic inflammation, nutrient malabsorption and many other significant health issues.”

People tend to think that gluten sensitivity and Celiac disease are the same, but actually they’re not. Gluten sensitivity may cause Celiac, but the two terms shouldn’t be used interchangeably.

So, how do you know if wheat is causing you harm? The best way is to talk to your doctor about getting a blood test. But in the meantime, glutenfreesociety.org website has a checklist where you can determine the symptoms you might have that coincide with gluten sensitivity.

Eating on a gluten free diet

Just like “vegan” doesn’t automatically mean healthy, neither does “gluten free.” Because so many of us suffer as a result of eating gluten, the production of gluten free products has skyrockets recently. Unfortunately, most of the packaged gluten free foods are junk. Just read the paragraph on the label of your gluten free bread and see if you pronounce some of that stuff.

Eating gluten free isn’t difficult, but it does take adjustment, especially if bread and cereal products are a staple in your current diet. Stick to whole foods with known ingredients. Potatoes, beans, and rice are still safe if you like to fill up on carbs. Quinoa is also another great choice if rice isn’t your thing.

All fresh fruit is naturally gluten free, and so are real meats; however, be careful of processed meats which may include fillers and other added ingredients that could include gluten.

Fresh herbs and spices are safe, but check the label when buying seasoning mixtures, especially if they include ingredients with which you are unfamiliar. Many of these seasonings contain gluten, often in the form of flour as a filler. For instance, soy sauce does contain wheat, so opt for Tamari soy sauce, which is gluten free.

This means, you should be very careful when eating out at restaurants. Don’t just assume that since you’re ordering something that should be gluten free that it is. That grilled chicken or steak could be tossed in wheat for flavor, so ask your waiter or request a gluten free menu.

For vegans/vegetarians, avoid seitan if you are avoiding gluten since it’s a gluten product as a protein source.

Lastly (and most unfortunately), beer contains gluten. It’s made of malted barley or malted wheat. So, you want to pick another beverage like wine. For what’s worth, there is gluten free beer.

So, even if you aren’t gluten intolerant, should you go on a gluten free diet? Well, that’s completely up to you. There are studies for and against a grain free diet for non-Celiacs, but you should do your own research and make diet choices based on what’s best for you.

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