Wheaty Indiscretions: What Happens to Wheat From Seed to Storage
By Jen Allbritton, Certified Nutritionist
Wheat--America's grain of choice. Its hardy, glutenous consistency makes it practical for a variety of foodstuffs--cakes, breads, pastas, cookies, bagels, pretzels and cereals that have been puffed, shredded and shaped. This ancient grain can actually be very nutritious when it is grown and prepared in the appropriate manner. Unfortunately, the indiscretions inflicted by our modern farming techniques and milling practices have dramatically reduced the quality of the commercial wheat berry and the flour it makes. You might think, "Wheat is wheat--what can they do that makes commercial varieties so bad?" Listen up, because you are in for a surprise!
It was the cultivation of grains--members of the grass family--that made civilization possible.1 Since wheat is one of the oldest known grains, its cultivation is as old as civilization itself. Some accounts suggest that mankind has used this wholesome food since 10,000 to 15,000 years BC.2 Upon opening Egyptian tombs archeologists discovered large earthenware jars full of wheat to "sustain" the Pharaohs in the afterlife. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, was said to recommend stone-ground flour for its beneficial effects on the digestive tract. Once humans figured out how to grind wheat, they discovered that when water is added it can be naturally fermented and turned into beer and expandable dough.2
Botonists have identified almost 30,000 varieties of wheat, which are assigned to one of several classifications according to their planting schedule and nutrient composition3--hard red winter, hard red spring, soft red winter, durum, hard white and soft white. Spring wheat is planted in the spring, and winter wheat is planted in the fall and shoots up the next spring to mature that summer. Soft, hard, and durum (even harder) wheats are classified according to the strength of their kernel. This strength is a function of the protein-to-starch ratio in the endosperm (the starchy middle layer of the seed). Hard wheats contain less starch, leaving a stronger protein matrix.3
With the advent of modern farming, the number of varieties of wheat in common use has been drastically reduced. Today, just a few varieties account for 90 percent of the wheat grown in the world.1
When grown in well-nourished, fertile soil, whole wheat is rich in vitamin E and B complex, many minerals, including calcium and iron, as well as omega-3 fatty acids. Proper growing and milling methods are necessary to preserve these nutrients and prevent rancidity. Unfortunately, due to the indiscretions inflicted by contemporary farming and processing on modern wheat, many people have become intolerant or even allergic to this nourishing grain. These indiscretions include depletion of the soil through the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals, high-heat milling, refining and improper preparation, such as extrusion.1
Rather than focus on soil fertility and careful selection of seed to produce varieties tailored to a particular micro-climate, modern farming practices use high-tech methods to deal with pests and disease, leading to overdependence on chemicals and other substances.
It Starts with the Seed
Even before they are planted in the ground, wheat seeds receive an application of fungicides and insecticides. Fungicides are used to control diseases of seeds and seedlings; insecticides are used to control insect pests, killing them as they feed on the seed or emerging seedling.7 Seed companies often use mixtures of different seed-treatment fungicides or insecticides to control a broader spectrum of seed pests.8
Pesticides and Fertilizers
Some of the main chemicals (insecticides, herbicides and fungicides) used on commercial wheat crops are disulfoton (Di-syston), methyl parathion, chlorpyrifos, dimethoate, diamba and glyphosate.9
Although all these chemicals are approved for use and considered safe, consumers are wise to reduce their exposure as much as possible. Besides contributing to the overall toxic load in our bodies, these chemicals increase our susceptibility to neurotoxic diseases as well as to conditions like cancer.10
Many of these pesticides function as xenoestrogens, foreign estrogen that can reap havoc with our hormone balance and may be a contributing factor to a number of health conditions. For example, researchers speculate these estrogen-mimicking chemicals are one of the contributing factors to boys and girls entering puberty at earlier and earlier ages. They have also been linked to abnormalities and hormone-related cancers including fibrocystic breast disease, breast cancer and endometriosis.13
Hormones on Wheat?
Sounds strange, but farmers apply hormone-like substances or "plant growth regulators" that affect wheat characteristics, such as time of germination and strength of stalk.11 These hormones are either "natural," that is, extracted from other plants, or synthetic. Cycocel is a synthetic hormone that is commonly applied to wheat.
Moreover, research is being conducted on how to manipulate the naturally occurring hormones in wheat and other grains to achieve "desirable" changes, such as regulated germination and an increased ability to survive in cold weather.12
No studies exist that isolate the health risks of eating hormone-manipulated wheat or varieties that have been exposed to hormone application. However, there is substantial evidence about the dangers of increasing our intake of hormone-like substances.
Chemicals Used in Storage
Chemical offenses don't stop after the growing process. The long storage of grains makes them vulnerable to a number of critters. Before commercial grain is even stored, the collection bins are sprayed with insecticide, inside and out. More chemicals are added while the bin is filled. These so-called "protectants" are then added to the upper surface of the grain as well as four inches deep into the grain to protect against damage from moths and other insects entering from the top of the bin. The list of various chemicals used includes chlorpyrifos-methyl, diatomaceous earth, bacillus thuringiensis, cy-fluthrin, malathion and pyrethrins.14
Then there is the threshold test. If there is one live insect per quart of sample, fumigation is initiated. The goal of fumigation is to "maintain a toxic concentration of gas long enough to kill the target pest population." The toxic chemicals penetrate the entire storage facility as well as the grains being treated. Two of the fumigants used include methyl bromide and phosphine-producing materials, such as magnesium phosphide or aluminum phosphide.14
Heat damage is a serious problem that results from the artificial drying of damp grain at high temperatures. Overheating causes denaturing of the protein26 and can also partially cook the protein, ruining the flour's baking properties and nutritional value. According to Ed Lysenko, who tests grain by baking it into bread for the Canadian Grain Commission's grain research laboratory, wheat can be dried without damage by using re-circulating batch dryers, which keep the wheat moving during drying. He suggests an optimal drying temperature of 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit).27 Unfortunately, grain processors do not always take these precautions.
The damage inflicted on wheat does not end with cultivation and storage, but continues into milling and processing. A grain kernel is comprised of three layers: the bran, the germ and the endosperm. The bran is the outside layer where most of the fiber exists. The germ is the inside layer where many nutrients and essential fatty acids are found. The endosperm is the starchy middle layer. The high nutrient density associated with grains exists only when these three are intact. The term whole grain refers to the grain before it has been milled into flour. It was not until the late nineteenth century that white bread, biscuits, and cakes made from white flour and sugars became mainstays in the diets of industrialized nations, and these products were only made possible with the invention of high-speed milling machines.28 Dr. Price observed the unmistakable consequences of these dietary changes during his travels and documented their corresponding health effects. These changes not only resulted in tooth decay, but problems with fertility, mental health and disease progression.30
Flour was originally produced by grinding grains between large stones. The final product, 100 percent stone-ground whole-wheat flour, contained everything that was in the grain, including the germ, fiber, starch and a wide variety of vitamins and minerals. Without refrigeration or chemical preservatives, fresh stone-ground flour spoils quickly. After wheat has been ground, natural wheat-germ oil becomes rancid at about the same rate that milk becomes sour, so refrigeration of whole grain breads and flours is necessary. Technology's answer to these issues has been to apply faster, hotter and more aggressive processing.28
Since grinding stones are not fast enough for mass-production, the industry uses high-speed, steel roller mills that eject the germ and the bran. Much of this "waste product"--the most nutritious part of the grain--is sold as "byproducts" for animals. The resulting white flour contains only a fraction of the nutrients of the original grain. Even whole wheat flour is compromised during the modern milling process. High-speed mills reach 400 degrees Fahrenheit, and this heat destroys vital nutrients and creates rancidity in the bran and the germ. Vitamin E in the germ is destroyed--a real tragedy because whole wheat used to be our most readily available source of vitamin E.
Literally dozens of dough conditioners and preservatives go into modern bread, as well as toxic ingredients like partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and soy flour. Soy flour--loaded with antinutrients--is added to virtually all brand-name breads today to improve rise and prevent sticking. The extrusion process, used to make cold breakfast cereals and puffed grains, adds insult to injury with high temperatures and high pressures that create additional toxic components and further destroy nutrients--even the synthetic vitamins that are added to replace the ones destroyed by refinement and milling.
People have become accustomed to the mass-produced, gooey, devitalized, and nutritionally deficient breads and baked goods and have little recollection of how real bread should taste. Chemical preservatives allow bread to be shipped long distances and to remain on the shelf for many days without spoiling and without refrigeration.
Healthy Whole Wheat Products
Ideally, one should buy whole wheat berries and grind them fresh to make homemade breads and other baked goods. Buy whole wheat berries that are grown organically or biodynamically--biodynamic farming involves higher standards than organic.34 Since these forms of farming do not allow synthetic, carcinogenic chemicals and fertilizers, purchasing organic or biodynamic wheat assures that you are getting the cleanest, most nutritious food possible. It also automatically eliminates the possibility of irradiation31 and genetically engineered seed. The second best option is to buy organic 100 percent stone-ground whole-wheat flour at a natural food store. Slow-speed, steel hammer-mills are often used instead of stones, and flours made in this way can list "stone-ground" on the label. This method is equivalent to the stone-ground process and produces a product that is equally nutritious. Any process that renders the entire grain into usable flour without exposing it to high heat is acceptable.
If you do not make your own bread, there are ready-made alternatives available. Look for organic sourdough or sprouted breads freshly baked or in the freezer compartment of your market or health food store. If bread is made entirely with l00 percent stone-ground whole grains, it will state so on the label. When bread is stone ground and then baked, the internal temperature does not usually exceed 170 degrees, so most of the nutrients are preserved.28 As they contain no preservatives, both whole wheat flour and its products should be kept in the refrigerator or freezer. Stone-ground flour will keep for several months frozen.28
Sprouting, soaking and genuine sourdough leavening "pre-digests" grains, allowing the nutrients to be more easily assimilated and metabolized. This is an age-old approach practiced in most traditional cultures. Sprouting begins germination, which increases the enzymatic activity in foods and inactivates substances called enzyme inhibitors.1 These enzyme inhibitors prevent the activation of the enzymes present in the food and, therefore, may hinder optimal digestion and absorption. Soaking neutralizes phytic acid, a component of plant fiber found in the bran and hulls of grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds that reduces mineral absorption.32 All of these benefits may explain why sprouted foods are less likely to produce allergic reactions in those who are sensitive.1
Sprouting also causes a beneficial modification of various nutritional elements. According to research undertaken at the University of Minnesota, sprouting increases the total nutrient density of a food. For example, sprouted whole wheat was found to have 28 percent more thiamine (B1), 315 percent more riboflavin (B2), 66 percent more niacin (B3), 65 percent more pantothenic acid (B5), 111 percent more biotin, 278 percent more folic acid, and 300 percent more vitamin C than non-sprouted whole wheat. This phenomenon is not restricted to wheat. All grains 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 can use a sour leavening method by mixing whey, buttermilk or yogurt with freshly ground wheat or quality pre-ground wheat from the store. Or, soak your berries whole for 8 to 22 hours, then drain and rinse. There are some recipes that use the whole berries while they are wet, such as cracker dough ground right in the food processor. Another option is to dry sprouted wheat berries in a low-temperature oven or dehydrator, and then grind them in your grain mill and then use the flour in a variety or recipes.
Although our modern wheat suffers from a great number of indiscretions, there are steps we can take to find the quality choices that will nourish us today and for the long haul. Go out and make a difference for you and yours and turn your wheaty indiscretions into wheaty indulgences.
This is a wonderful description of the range of processing and chemical exposure that occurs from the planting of wheat as a seed to its final processing as a grain from storage. Most people are not aware that even before they are planted in the ground, wheat seeds receive an application of fungicides and insecticides.
The article also expands on how sprouting wheat can predigest the wheat and improve its digestibility. I believe this is true and would actually categorize wheat sprouts and wheat grass as a vegetable.
However, the danger is that many people believe sprouted wheat bread is OK. Nothing could be further from the truth. Commercial sprouted wheat breads seem to cause the same problems as regular wheat such as celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis, miscarriages and headaches to name a few.
Intolerance to wheat is far more common than doctors typically recognize. I find very few people who do well on wheat, and it seems those of Irish and Scottish descent do particularly poor.
As I expound in my recent book, avoiding grains is typically wise for over 75 percent of the U.S. population.
- Fallon, Sally and Enig, Mary. Ph.D. Nourishing Traditions. NewTrends Publishing. 2000.
- From Wheat to Flour. Revised Edition, 1976, Washington DC, Library of Congress Catalogue Card No. 76-27767. Found at www.bogasariflour.com on January 17, 2003.
- MgGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking. The Science of Lore of the Kitchen. Simon and Schuster.1984.
- Ranhotra, G.S., J.A. Gelroth, B.K. Glaser, and K.J. Lorenz. 1995. Baking and nutritional qualities of a spelt wheat sample. Lebnsm. Wiss. Technol. 28:118-122.
- J.T. Hoagland. Spelt -- What is it? Purity Foods. 1998. Found at http://www.spelt.com/ on January 17, 2003.
- Stallkneckt, G.F., K.M. Gilbertson, and J.E. Romey. Alternative wheat cereals as good grains: Einkorn emmer, spelt, kamut, and triticale. In: J. Janick (ed). Progress in new corps. ASHS Press, Alexandria VA. Found at www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/proceedings1999/v4-182.html.
- McMullen, Marcia P. and Lamey, H. Arthur. Seed Treatment for Disease Control. Extension of Plant Pathologists. North Dakota State University. Found at http://www.ext.nodak.edu/extpubs/plantsci/crops/pp447w.htm. On Dec. 15th 2002.
- Seed Treatment for Agronomic Crops. The Ohio State University Extension. Bulletin 639-98. Found at http://ohioline.osu.edu/b639/b639_3.html on January 21, 2003.
- L.F. Jackson. UC IMP Pest Management Guidelines: Small Grains. University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. January 2002.
- Haas, Elson, M.D. The Staying Healthy Shopper’s Guide. CelestialArts. 1999.
- 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.
- Vijayalaxmi et al. 1975. Chromosome aberrations in rats fed irradiated wheat. Int. J. Radiat. Biol. 27 No.2: 135-142.
- Vijayalaxmi 1976. Genetic effects of feeding irradiated wheat to mice. Can. J. Genet. Cytol. 18: 231-238.
- Vijayalaxmi. 1978. Cytogenetic studies in monkeys fed irradiated wheat. Toxicology 9: 181-184
- 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.
- Cranton, Elmer. M.D. Modern Bread, The Broken Staff of Life. Found at www.drcranton.com/nutrition/bread.htm.
- Henry A. Schroeder, "Losses of Vitamins and Trace Minerals Resulting from Processing and Preservation of Foods," American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 1971
- Price, Weston. D.D.S. Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. Keats Publishing. 1997.
- Organic Consumers Association. Background and Status of Labeling of Irradiated Foods. Found at http://www.organicconsumers.org/Irrad/LabelingStatus.cfm on February 1, 2003.
- Morris ER. Phytate and dietary mineral bioavailability. In Phytic Acid Chemistry and Applications, Graf E (ed). Minneapolis: Pilatus Press, 1986, 57 -- 76 [review]
- Crisafi, Daniel, ND, MH, Ph.D. 1995. Alive Magazine 1995.
- See http://www.biodynamics.com for more information on this approach.