WheatyIndiscretions: What Happens to Wheat From Seed to Storage
ByJen Allbritton, Certified Nutritionist
Wheat--America's grain of choice. Its hardy, glutenousconsistency makes it practical for a variety of foodstuffs--cakes,breads, pastas, cookies, bagels, pretzels and cereals thathave been puffed, shredded and shaped. This ancient graincan actually be very nutritious when it is grown and preparedin the appropriate manner. Unfortunately, the indiscretionsinflicted by our modern farming techniques and milling practiceshave dramatically reduced the quality of the commercial wheatberry and the flour it makes. You might think, "Wheatis wheat--what can they do that makes commercial varietiesso bad?" Listen up, because you are in for a surprise!
It was the cultivation of grains--members of the grass family--thatmade civilization possible.1 Since wheat is one of the oldestknown grains, its cultivation is as old as civilization itself.Some accounts suggest that mankind has used this wholesomefood since 10,000 to 15,000 years BC.2 Upon opening Egyptiantombs archeologists discovered large earthenware jars fullof wheat to "sustain" the Pharaohs in the afterlife.Hippocrates, the father of medicine, was said to recommendstone-ground flour for its beneficial effects on the digestivetract. Once humans figured out how to grind wheat, they discoveredthat when water is added it can be naturally fermented andturned into beer and expandable dough.2
Botonists have identified almost 30,000 varieties of wheat,which are assigned to one of several classifications accordingto their planting schedule and nutrient composition3--hardred winter, hard red spring, soft red winter, durum, hardwhite and soft white. Spring wheat is planted in the spring,and winter wheat is planted in the fall and shoots up thenext spring to mature that summer. Soft, hard, and durum (evenharder) wheats are classified according to the strength oftheir kernel. This strength is a function of the protein-to-starchratio in the endosperm (the starchy middle layer of the seed).Hard wheats contain less starch, leaving a stronger proteinmatrix.3
With the advent of modern farming, the number of varietiesof wheat in common use has been drastically reduced. Today,just a few varieties account for 90 percent of the wheat grownin the world.1
When grown in well-nourished, fertile soil, whole wheat isrich in vitamin E and B complex, many minerals, includingcalcium and iron, as well as omega-3 fatty acids. Proper growingand milling methods are necessary to preserve these nutrientsand prevent rancidity. Unfortunately, due to the indiscretionsinflicted by contemporary farming and processing on modernwheat, many people have become intolerant or even allergicto this nourishing grain. These indiscretions include depletionof the soil through the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticidesand other chemicals, high-heat milling, refining and improperpreparation, such as extrusion.1
Rather than focus on soil fertility and careful selectionof seed to produce varieties tailored to a particular micro-climate,modern farming practices use high-tech methods to deal withpests and disease, leading to overdependence on chemicalsand other substances.
It Starts with the Seed
Even before they are planted in the ground, wheat seeds receivean application of fungicides and insecticides. Fungicidesare used to control diseases of seeds and seedlings; insecticidesare used to control insect pests, killing them as they feedon the seed or emerging seedling.7 Seed companies often usemixtures of different seed-treatment fungicides or insecticidesto control a broader spectrum of seed pests.8
Pesticides and Fertilizers
Some of the main chemicals (insecticides, herbicides andfungicides) used on commercial wheat crops are disulfoton(Di-syston), methyl parathion, chlorpyrifos, dimethoate, diambaand glyphosate.9
Although all these chemicals are approved for use and consideredsafe, consumers are wise to reduce their exposure as muchas possible. Besides contributing to the overall toxic loadin our bodies, these chemicals increase our susceptibilityto neurotoxic diseases as well as to conditions like cancer.10
Many of these pesticides function as xenoestrogens, foreignestrogen that can reap havoc with our hormone balance andmay be a contributing factor to a number of health conditions.For example, researchers speculate these estrogen-mimickingchemicals are one of the contributing factors to boys andgirls entering puberty at earlier and earlier ages. They havealso been linked to abnormalities and hormone-related cancersincluding fibrocystic breast disease, breast cancer and endometriosis.13
Hormones on Wheat?
Sounds strange, but farmers apply hormone-like substancesor "plant growth regulators" that affect wheat characteristics,such as time of germination and strength of stalk.11 Thesehormones are either "natural," that is, extractedfrom other plants, or synthetic. Cycocel is a synthetic hormonethat is commonly applied to wheat.
Moreover, research is being conducted on how to manipulatethe naturally occurring hormones in wheat and other grainsto achieve "desirable" changes, such as regulatedgermination and an increased ability to survive in cold weather.12
No studies exist that isolate the health risks of eatinghormone-manipulated wheat or varieties that have been exposedto hormone application. However, there is substantial evidenceabout the dangers of increasing our intake of hormone-likesubstances.
Chemicals Used in Storage
Chemical offenses don't stop after the growing process.The long storage of grains makes them vulnerable to a numberof critters. Before commercial grain is even stored, the collectionbins are sprayed with insecticide, inside and out. More chemicalsare added while the bin is filled. These so-called "protectants"are then added to the upper surface of the grain as well asfour inches deep into the grain to protect against damagefrom moths and other insects entering from the top of thebin. The list of various chemicals used includes chlorpyrifos-methyl,diatomaceous earth, bacillus thuringiensis, cy-fluthrin, malathionand pyrethrins.14
Then there is the threshold test. If there is one live insectper quart of sample, fumigation is initiated. The goal offumigation is to "maintain a toxic concentration of gaslong enough to kill the target pest population." Thetoxic chemicals penetrate the entire storage facility as wellas the grains being treated. Two of the fumigants used includemethyl bromide and phosphine-producing materials, such asmagnesium phosphide or aluminum phosphide.14
Heat damage is a serious problem that results from the artificialdrying of damp grain at high temperatures. Overheating causesdenaturing of the protein26 and can also partially cook theprotein, ruining the flour's baking properties and nutritionalvalue. According to Ed Lysenko, who tests grain by bakingit into bread for the Canadian Grain Commission's grainresearch laboratory, wheat can be dried without damage byusing re-circulating batch dryers, which keep the wheat movingduring drying. He suggests an optimal drying temperature of60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit).27 Unfortunately,grain processors do not always take these precautions.
The damage inflicted on wheat does not end with cultivationand storage, but continues into milling and processing. Agrain kernel is comprised of three layers: the bran, the germand the endosperm. The bran is the outside layer where mostof the fiber exists. The germ is the inside layer where manynutrients and essential fatty acids are found. The endospermis the starchy middle layer. The high nutrient density associatedwith grains exists only when these three are intact. The termwhole grain refers to the grain before it has been milledinto flour. It was not until the late nineteenth century thatwhite bread, biscuits, and cakes made from white flour andsugars became mainstays in the diets of industrialized nations,and these products were only made possible with the inventionof high-speed milling machines.28 Dr. Price observed the unmistakableconsequences of these dietary changes during his travels anddocumented their corresponding health effects. These changesnot only resulted in tooth decay, but problems with fertility,mental health and disease progression.30
Flour was originally produced by grinding grains betweenlarge stones. The final product, 100 percent stone-groundwhole-wheat flour, contained everything that was in the grain,including the germ, fiber, starch and a wide variety of vitaminsand minerals. Without refrigeration or chemical preservatives,fresh stone-ground flour spoils quickly. After wheat has beenground, natural wheat-germ oil becomes rancid at about thesame rate that milk becomes sour, so refrigeration of wholegrain breads and flours is necessary. Technology's answerto these issues has been to apply faster, hotter and moreaggressive processing.28
Since grinding stones are not fast enough for mass-production,the industry uses high-speed, steel roller mills that ejectthe germ and the bran. Much of this "waste product"--themost nutritious part of the grain--is sold as "byproducts"for animals. The resulting white flour contains only a fractionof the nutrients of the original grain. Even whole wheat flouris compromised during the modern milling process. High-speedmills reach 400 degrees Fahrenheit, and this heat destroysvital nutrients and creates rancidity in the bran and thegerm. Vitamin E in the germ is destroyed--a real tragedy becausewhole wheat used to be our most readily available source ofvitamin E.
Literally dozens of dough conditioners and preservativesgo into modern bread, as well as toxic ingredients like partiallyhydrogenated vegetable oils and soy flour. Soy flour--loadedwith antinutrients--is added to virtually all brand-name breadstoday to improve rise and prevent sticking. The extrusionprocess, used to make cold breakfast cereals and puffed grains,adds insult to injury with high temperatures and high pressuresthat create additional toxic components and further destroynutrients--even the synthetic vitamins that are added to replacethe ones destroyed by refinement and milling.
People have become accustomed to the mass-produced, gooey,devitalized, and nutritionally deficient breads and bakedgoods and have little recollection of how real bread shouldtaste. Chemical preservatives allow bread to be shipped longdistances and to remain on the shelf for many days withoutspoiling and without refrigeration.
Healthy Whole Wheat Products
Ideally, one should buy whole wheat berries and grind themfresh to make homemade breads and other baked goods. Buy wholewheat berries that are grown organically or biodynamically--biodynamicfarming involves higher standards than organic.34 Since theseforms of farming do not allow synthetic, carcinogenic chemicalsand fertilizers, purchasing organic or biodynamic wheat assuresthat you are getting the cleanest, most nutritious food possible.It also automatically eliminates the possibility of irradiation31and genetically engineered seed. The second best option isto buy organic 100 percent stone-ground whole-wheat flourat a natural food store. Slow-speed, steel hammer-mills areoften used instead of stones, and flours made in this waycan list "stone-ground" on the label. This methodis equivalent to the stone-ground process and produces a productthat is equally nutritious. Any process that renders the entiregrain into usable flour without exposing it to high heat isacceptable.
If you do not make your own bread, there are ready-made alternativesavailable. Look for organic sourdough or sprouted breads freshlybaked or in the freezer compartment of your market or healthfood store. If bread is made entirely with l00 percent stone-groundwhole grains, it will state so on the label. When bread isstone ground and then baked, the internal temperature doesnot usually exceed 170 degrees, so most of the nutrients arepreserved.28 As they contain no preservatives, both wholewheat flour and its products should be kept in the refrigeratoror freezer. Stone-ground flour will keep for several monthsfrozen.28
Sprouting, soaking and genuine sourdough leavening "pre-digests"grains, allowing the nutrients to be more easily assimilatedand metabolized. This is an age-old approach practiced inmost traditional cultures. Sprouting begins germination, whichincreases the enzymatic activity in foods and inactivatessubstances called enzyme inhibitors.1 These enzyme inhibitorsprevent the activation of the enzymes present in the foodand, therefore, may hinder optimal digestion and absorption.Soaking neutralizes phytic acid, a component of plant fiberfound in the bran and hulls of grains, legumes, nuts, andseeds that reduces mineral absorption.32 All of these benefitsmay explain why sprouted foods are less likely to produceallergic reactions in those who are sensitive.1
Sprouting also causes a beneficial modification of variousnutritional elements. According to research undertaken atthe University of Minnesota, sprouting increases the totalnutrient density of a food. For example, sprouted whole wheatwas found to have 28 percent more thiamine (B1), 315 percentmore riboflavin (B2), 66 percent more niacin (B3), 65 percentmore pantothenic acid (B5), 111 percent more biotin, 278 percentmore folic acid, and 300 percent more vitamin C than non-sproutedwhole wheat. This phenomenon is not restricted to wheat. Allgrains undergo this type of quantitative and qualitative transformation.These studies also confirmed a significant increase in enzymes,which means the nutrients are easier to digest and absorb.33
You have several options for preparing your wheat. You canuse a sour leavening method by mixing whey, buttermilk oryogurt with freshly ground wheat or quality pre-ground wheatfrom the store. Or, soak your berries whole for 8 to 22 hours,then drain and rinse. There are some recipes that use thewhole berries while they are wet, such as cracker dough groundright in the food processor. Another option is to dry sproutedwheat berries in a low-temperature oven or dehydrator, andthen grind them in your grain mill and then use the flourin a variety or recipes.
Although our modern wheat suffers from a great number ofindiscretions, there are steps we can take to find the qualitychoices that will nourish us today and for the long haul.Go out and make a difference for you and yours and turn yourwheaty indiscretions into wheaty indulgences.
This is a wonderful description of the range of processingand chemical exposure that occurs from the planting of wheatas a seed to its final processing as a grain from storage.Most people are not aware that even before they are plantedin the ground, wheat seeds receive an application of fungicidesand insecticides.
The article also expands on how sprouting wheat can predigestthe wheat and improve its digestibility. I believe this istrue and would actually categorize wheat sprouts and wheatgrass as a vegetable.
However, the danger is that many people believe sproutedwheat bread is OK. Nothing could be further from the truth.Commercial sprouted wheat breads seem to cause the same problemsas regular wheat such as celiacdisease, rheumatoidarthritis, miscarriagesand headachesto name a few.
Intolerance to wheat is farmore common than doctors typically recognize. I find veryfew people who do well on wheat, and it seems those of Irishand Scottish descent do particularly poor.
As I expound in my recent book,avoiding grains is typically wise for over 75 percent of theU.S. population.
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- Oregon State University Extension Service Master Gardener Handbook. Found at http://extension.oregonstate.edu/mg/botany/hormones.html on February 2, 2003.
- Barry, Kathryn. ARS. Abscisic Acid -- The plant Stress Hormone. Agricultural Research. January 2001. Found at http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/jan01/acid0101.pdf on February 4, 2003.
- Foster, John. MD. Natural Production from Estrogen Overload. Crucifers and Cancer. Found at http://www.westonaprice.org/women/natural_protection.html on February 2, 2003.
- G.F. Chappell II, Extension Agent, ANR, Crop and Soil Science. Stored-Grain Insect Pest Management. Field Crops 2002.
- IFT. 1998. Radiation preservation of foods. A scientific status summary by the Institute of Food Technologists’ Expert Panel on Food Safety and Nutrition. J Food Tech. Vol 37 (2): 55-60.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Found at http://vm.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/a2z-i.html on January 21, 2003.
- Encyclopedia Britannica. Found at http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=120847&hook=502397#502397.hook on January 29, 2003.
- Bhaskaram, C. et al. 1975. Effects of feeding irradiated wheat to malnourished children. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 28: February 1975, pp.130-135
- Bender, M.A. 1971. Use of chromosome analysis in the diagnosis of radiation injury. IAEA Technical Report Series No. 123, p. 277.
- Vijayalaxmi. 1978. Cytogenetic studies in monkeys fed irradiated wheat. Toxicology 9:181-184.
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- Vijayalaxmi 1976. Genetic effects of feeding irradiated wheat to mice. Can. J. Genet. Cytol. 18: 231-238.
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- Blyth, Judy. Nuking Our Food. Anti-Nuclear Alliance of Western Australia. Found at http://www.anawa.org.au/chain/nukingfood.html on January 21, 2003.
- Cropchoice News. North Dakota, Montana consider moratoriums on Roundup Ready wheat. Found at http://www.thecampaign.org/newsupdates/feb01h.htm#North on January 17, 2003.
- Wang, D., Dowell, F.E., and Chung, D.S. Assessment of Heat-Damaged Wheat Kernels Using Near-Infrared Spectroscopy. Cereal Chem. 78(5):625-628.
- Morrison, Karen. Improper grain drying can hurt wheat quality. The Western Producer. Found at www.producer.com on January 18, 2003.
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- See http://www.biodynamics.com for more information on this approach.