Is the wheat we eat now the same as we used to eat?

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I have just come back from a conference in Boston, held by the Poliquin Group.  One of the speakers was William Davies, MD, who has written an excellent book about wheat called Wheat Belly.  I think that one of the most notable things Dr Davis talks about is how wheat has changed dramatically over the past fifty years.

Incidentally, Dr Davis is a preventative cardiologist.  Would that such a profession existed in the UK, along with such awake doctors.

For many years now, it has been entirely apparent to me as a trainer that wheat eating upsets everybody’s guts, making it hard for them to engage their inner unit, the fabled ‘core’.  In my experience, in 100% of cases, after giving up wheat, people can now work their abs well, engaging them as appropriate to the exercise.  Oh, and they always lose weight too –  and their brain is clearer.  Hearing Dr Davis speak reminded me of why this is so.

Man has eaten wheat for about 10,000 years.  This is a very long time, and many would have it that we have adapted to eating wheat.  However, the wheat that we ate 10,000 years ago is extremely different to the stuff eaten everyday in 2013.

The first wheat we ate grew wild and is called einkorn, which has 14 chromosomes.  (Incidentally, we humans have 46.) In those days, we gathered the grains, pulverised them by hand then ate them as a kind of porridge.  Yeast leavened bread would not make its appearance for thousands of years yet.

Wheat is a grass, and grasses are notoriously promiscuous.  Shortly after we started eating einkorn, einkorn mated with goatgrass and produced emmer wheat.  Grasses are a funny family, called polyploid, and when they mate the result carries the genes of both parents, so emmer wheat has 28 chromosomes.  Emmer was eaten widely during Biblical times.

In due course, emmer wheat mated with another grass, triticum tauschii, and formed the first modern wheat, the 42 chromosome triticum aestivum, varieties of which we still eat today.

From this we developed the modern triticum durum, used in pasta and triticum compactum, used in cakes.  And many other sub-species, as we are about to see.

These forms of wheat we ate for hundreds of years – we ate them until about fifty years ago, at which point the scientists got busy and started hybridising wheats, mating them with their parents, other strains of wheat and even other grasses.  Their aim was to increase yield, improve large scale consistency and lower production costs.   At this they were extremely succesful.  But this success came at a significant price to human health.  So far, wheat has not been subject to genetic modification, GM, as practised with other plants, like soy.  No.  But the hybridisation programme has wreaked un-challenged changes to its genetic structure.  The new forms of wheat have never been tested for its effects upon us or the animals that have to eat it.

A modern wheat

A modern wheat

What is certain is that the new forms of wheat can no longer survive in the wild; they are completely dependant upon us to give them fertiliser and pesticides – or they die.  So the poor African farmers now have a wheat that yields more per acre, but necessitates them buying fertilisers and pesticides in order to have a harvestable crop.    Add to that, many strains are infertile, so they have to buy fresh grain every year.  Kerching all round, I suppose.

We still eat triticum aestivum – at least 95% of its genes are the same.  However 5% are completely unique and it is this 5% that is causing us so much trouble.  Wheat gluten proteins undergo considerable structural change with hybridisation

when compared to century-old strains of wheat, modern strains of triticum aestivum express a hgher quantity of genes for gluten proteins that are associated with celiac disease. 1

If we cook with an older form of triticum aestivum, spelt flour, bread does not rise as would a loaf made with a modern flour.  Dr Davis, himself wheat intolerant, tried an experiment that all doubters would do well to try: he ground einkorn wheat and made some bread.  He then ground a modern wholewheat and made another loaf.  The einkorn dough was less stretchy, less pliable and stickier than the wholewheat dough.  One day he ate the einkorn loaf and felt fine.  The next, the wholewheat loaf and felt utterly dreadful for the next 36 hours: stomach cramps, inability to concentrate, his sleep full of vivid dreams.  Gluten – the word derived from the latin word for glue – gives dough its elasticity and pliability.  Modern wheat strains have more gluten in them, so bread rises well and will have a better texture.  But gluten plays havoc with our guts.

Over the past 10,000 years, our genes have not changed.  The wheat that we have eaten during that period has changed dramatically, especially over the past 50 years.  If we really want to continue eating wheat, then we need a period wheat free and afterwards, we need to source the older wheats, einkorn or emmer.  Then we may be able to enjoy a BLT for lunch without falling asleep over a bulging gut afterwards.

Einkorn wheat.

Einkorn wheat.

  1. Wheat Belly.  William Davis, MD. []

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