bigger picture: wheat

vincent van gogh

vincent van gogh

Now that I’ve been gardening for a bit, and started growing a very small amount of the food that we eat (veggies), I’ve really started to think a bit more about what’s on our plates and where it comes from.

This “awareness” is not completely new to me. When i was about 15 I made the decision to become a vegetarian, and part of doing that *and* still eating food that other people prepare (which is pretty much what a teenager/college student does) is asking endless questions about ingredients and recipes. I grew up scouring ingredient lists and nutrition information- no animal products, but still high in protein were key.

But what about the non-animal products? I do a *bit* of that. A while back, I stopped eating pretty much anything with the words “partially hydrogenated” in it. And about ten years ago I started I switched to only eating whole grains.

The issue is that I never bothered to give the phrase “whole grains” too much thought.

That is… until I started gardening, and started realizing that every food that is grown has a lot of different variables to it. And wheat is something that is grown. (Yes, I know, duh… but if’s it’s not in the seed catalogs I receive or at the local gardens, I kinda forget that it can be- and is- grown.)

So what’s the deal with wheat? What kinds go into bread and whole grain pasta and a bunch of the vegetarian products I eat on a daily basis?

A while back I read a very interesting article in the (now defunct) magazine, “Whole Living”. It was about wheat.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Just outside the town of Mariager, on Denmark’s Jutland peninsula, a soft-spoken plant pathologist named Anders Borgen tends a two-acre organic farm that contains more than 2,000 kinds of wheat, none of which he can use commercially. “If I find a good variety, I am not allowed to sell it,” Borgensaid. The European Union strictly regulates its grain farmers, allowing them to grow only those varieties that have been certified for reliable high yields.

High-yield wheat varieties made their global debut in 1961, when the American agronomist Norman Borlaug created arugged new variety that benefited from heavy applications of fertilizers. It also produced a field uncommonly thick with wheat berries. (He later exported his discovery to help developing countries feed their growing populations and is frequently credited for having saved a billion lives.) Not surprisingly, Borlaug’s success inspired imitators, and high yield wheat was soon dominating grain fields from India to Iowa.

A bigger, hungrier world also required more industrialized methods of production.Farmers obliged by supplying commodities tough enough to endure handling by machinery and transcontinental shipping. Having survived drought and disease, wheat now had to withstand the beating that flour would get in industrial dough-mixers—and still emerge as the puffy loaves then beginning to adorn grocery-store shelves.

The primary answer to these demands was more plant muscle, which meant stronger glutens. As genetic variety in the world’s wheat fields slowly narrowed to fulfill these goals, we were left with yet another instance of monoculture—in this case, one that is literally gut-wrenching. “There is good evidence that ancient grains didn’t have anything like the toxicity that current wheat does,” says Columbia’s Dr. Green.

So far, the medical world has only been able to pinpoint what is toxic to celiacs—namely, some of the protein compounds in modern wheat’s gluten. But that’s been enough to get people theorizing that it may be something similar bothering nonceliacs. “A lot of people went in [to a Whole Grains Summit in May] wondering why all these folks were making such a big deal about gluten, and whether the whole gluten-free thing was a fad,” Cynthia Harriman, director of Food and Nutrition Strategies for the Whole Grains Council, told me. “By the end of the conference, there seemed to be a rising concern that something is going on that we’re contributing to through our methods of breeding.”

Since no one is certain what that something is, experts now are digging into every possible corner of the wheat story. The first is basic nutrition. Harriman told me that although wheat in North America goes through 50 different quality assessments—to analyze factors such as yield and baking performance—“none are related to nutrition.” And studies have found that as farmers further pump up growth with fertilizers, nutrients tend to decline. “When yield goes up, you see micronutrients like iron, zinc, and selenium go down,”Borgen told me. What grows in their place? “Starch and glutens,” he said.

A 2009 study out of Norway, published in the Journal of Agricultural Chemistry, identified similar changes under industrial agriculture. It found that many wheat proteins were significantly transformed by the nitrogen and sulfur in chemical fertilizers. (Modern wheat is built for chemical treatment and irrigation, but when it’s farmed under “unsupplemented,” organic conditions, itsperformance falls—roughly matching a few preindustrial varieties.)”

What really stood out to me is two things- that there are more than 2,000 varieties of wheat out there that we’re not really *allowed* to eat (unless we can grow it and transform it into food products ourselves), and that the government decides which wheat makes the cut based on everything *but* nutrition.

This bothered me. I don’t want glue-y, mechanized wheat. I want tender wheat that grew in the sunshine and not in a puddle of toxins. I want to *taste* better wheats, have the opportunity to make them part of my diet.

I know that growing food has been a business for a long time. There’s a lot of wacky stuff going on. But as someone interested in health, and gardening, I guess it took this article about bread to really make it sink in for me.

I’m not really wanting to trying to get into politics here. But it concerns me that the regulations were meant to be about health safety (at the purest intention) yet some of the healthiest foods in the world are unavailable simply because of those same regulations.

I mean, if I can go into 7-11 and get a Ring Pop (which I have no complaint with) and a Slurpee, I wish I could go to a local food market and buy a loaf of bread made from a healthy, heritage wheat grown on a local farm. That is something I would *truly* enjoy. I would love to sample different wheats and different locally made products from those wheats. That would be lovely.  It makes me wonder what else I’m only getting one super-hybrid variety of (besides corn- I’ve seen Food Inc.).  What else I’m not being able to experience, food wise. I bet for a vegetarian and a hyper-picky eater like me, there’s a lot out there that would change my culinary life.

And it also makes me wonder, health-wise, what we might be missing out on.

So, now I want to look into two things- bee hives (and if it’s remotely possible to have one here) and growing wehat. I realize neither may be feasible, but I want to know more.


Comments 2

  1. Misti wrote:

    I’ve been trying to reduce my wheat and sugar consumption. The sugar is so much easier than the wheat/grains.

    I planning on growing some amaranth and then trying quinoa when it gets cooler. Trying different things!

    Posted 19 Apr 2013 at 10:19 pm
  2. Donna wrote:

    I wish all stores carried better choices. My daughter in law is now gluten free for 3 months. And finding those products that are good is very hard. And also the vegetarian choices are not very good either.

    Posted 20 Apr 2013 at 12:28 pm

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