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A brief history of wheat and why it is making us sick

Posted on September 27th, 2010 by Alison Read 72 Comments - Add Your Own »

grandma98bdayMy grandmother just turned 98 years old. 98! She is amazing, still remembering intricate details about her life. She can still converse on any topic from the state of education to how many times Lance Armstrong has won the Tour de France. She’s also totally up on the whole gluten-free thing, and recently she told me a memory she had from when she was a little girl.

She was in the kitchen where her grandmother and her grandmother’s friends were gathered to bake and talk (my grandmother was raised by her Danish grandparents in South Dakota after her own parents died in the flu epidemic of 1918 when she was 6 years old — what that generation went through is incomprehensible). As they stood around chatting, my grandmother heard her grandmother say, “I like this new flour — it’s got more gluten in it.” Aha! Perhaps there is a history lesson here about why wheat is making people sick! (says the former history teacher)

People often ask me, “Why does it seem that suddenly everyone is intolerant to gluten?” After some research, I have concluded that the phenomenon of celiac disease and gluten intolerance has, in a way, come about rather suddenly. Why? Because gluten is far more prevalent in our society today than just 100 years ago (but a blip on the timeline of human existence). As the consumption of gluten has increased, the problems associated with gluten have too.

wheatgrainWheat today is different than it was 100 years ago. It’s got more gluten in it! Until the 1870s, almost all U.S. wheat production consisted of “soft wheat” varieties. A “hard spring wheat” variety (originally from Central Europe) with a higher protein content (aka gluten) was introduced in the U.S. in the mid-1800s. The flour made from the higher gluten wheat resulted in fluffier bread and flakier baked goods — this was amazing stuff!

The demand for the new flour grew, but it wasn’t so easy to get at first. Although some early types of wheat may have been grown as far back as 9000 B.C., people didn’t each much of it because it was difficult to eat in its raw form, and even when they figured out how to crack it open, to grind it, to sift it and to cook with it, these processes were laborious because they had only primitive tools. Whole grains also went rancid rather quickly because of the high oil content in the bran.

goldmedalflourIt was eventually discovered that milling the grains (stripping away the germ and the bran) made it so the grains could be kept for longer and also produced a soft, unadulterated white flour. By the early 1800s, many mills had equipment so that they could produce this refined flour. Demand for white flour grew as it became the desirable baking ingredient. Because it was more expensive than brown flour, it also became a status symbol.

It wasn’t until the late 19th century that wheat production and consumption grew dramatically. One reason, as mentioned before, was the use of the new, hardier strains of wheat. (Today, wheat can be grown every month of the year somewhere in the world.) Also at this time, great advancements were made in the technology used to grow, harvest, mill and transport wheat. Inventions such as the reaper, the steel plow, and high speed steel roller mills, helped produce huge quantities of finer, whiter flour. Railroads provided better transport of the flour, making it available to more people, and better ovens allowed them to bake with it even more. With all of these advances, the masses had access to the refined wheat flour that was once a luxury of the wealthy.

creamofwheat2They also found new ways to eat wheat. Though eating a big bowl of cereal for breakfast seems the norm today, it was only in the late 1890’s that breakfast cereal was invented as a health food to help people with digestive problems! Kellogg and Post were among the first to come up with processed cereals in the form of flakes, shredded wheat and Grape Nuts. It was around this time that Quaker introduced oatmeal and Cream of Wheat was born. The popularity of cereal continued to rise throughout the decades — the cereal of today is not quite the health food it was once thought to be!

creamofwheat3Though wheat consumption slowed a little bit from 1920 through the Great Depression and World War II, people were encouraged to find alternatives for meat and dairy due to war rationing. Thus, Kraft macaroni and cheese dinner, introduced in 1937, gained popularity during wartime and an entire pamphlet of recipes using Cream of Wheat instead of meat was published, with the slogan “Stretch Your Meat With Cream of Wheat.” The rise and fall in wheat consumption during World War II in five different countries correlated to the increase and decline in the number of schizophrenia patients admitted to hospitals in those countries, according to a 1966 study.

By the time the 1960s and 1970s rolled around, wheat consumption began to rise again. People became concerned with heart disease and cholesterol and whole wheat was viewed as a healthy alternative to combat these health problems. Wheat consumption in the U.S. saw another great increase with the huge rise in the fast food industry in the 70s and 80s. People on the go could now pick up sandwiches, hamburgers, chicken nuggets, pizza, and bagels just about anywhere.

Today, wheat is the single most cultivated crop worldwide. Most people in the United States eat wheat at almost every single meal, every single day, and for snacks and dessert too. Bakers are adding in “vital wheat gluten” or high gluten flour to make fluffier loaves of bread. Vegetarian and vegan meat substitutes are made from extracted gluten. Wheat is everywhere and then some! It’s no wonder we are not tolerating this food that has “suddenly” become our dominant food source.

The body is not built wrongly, but is being used wrongly” proposed T.L. Cleave, author of a 1974 book called The Saccharine Disease, which addressed health conditions that he believed to be caused by sugar and white flour. Rather than viewing people who are unable to tolerate gluten as defective, we need to recognize that it is the change in our environment — the increase in wheat consumption — that has led to our ill health. My grandmother’s memory serves as a reminder of these changes that have occurred in just a short time.

Thank you, Grandma, for inspiring this post. Here’s to 99!

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  1. Thank you for a very concise, comprehensive, well-written post. You have a lovely and helpful website! Thank you for all your hard work to bless and benefit others. 🙂

  2. My daughter is about to do her exit project on gluten sensitivity! She loves your article, can you send us a list of your sources, please! My computer stopped working lately, I intend to buy a new one! We are using my kindle! Thank you for your information, GOD BLESS you& yours!

  3. I would strongly encourage people to check out pinterest then type in einkorn flour, etc. The information is amazing and helpful for the learning curve in using einkorn.
    I was hesitant to venture into pinterest but love it totally now.

  4. As a former history teacher you should probably stay away from early Mediterranean Basin teaching… Despite what you may believe, we probably consume less wheat now than in antiquity. In large parts of Ancient Rome and Egypt, it accounted for by and large the majority of calories consumed. It was consumed as bread sure, but also as porridge and other methods. Porridge is easier because you don’t need to grind it into flour, just break open the grain and add milk or water, flavor if you got it, and eat.

    And that was just Wheat. Barley in Greece and Rye in Northern Europe. All gluten… all the time. Which is one of the reasons why celiac disease, or at least the symptoms of it, was known in history. One difference likely would be very few other than the wealthy elite could have afforded “gluten-free” lifestyles.

    Your problem is you look at history wrong… flat out. Meat wasn’t overly an option then. Preserving it was “possible” but less than desirable. Fresh fruit and veggies? Yea maybe directly after a harvest, but how about that whole in-between part? Grains are one of the few foodstuffs that are easily stored for long periods of time without decaying.

    Maybe you should examine historical literature in reference to historical diets? Think about what you eat today, and imagine grain for breakfast, grain for snacks, grain for nearly every meal. There are reasons Rome alone had to import over 400,000 tons of the stuff a year under Augustus. (BTW that works out to be about 500 pounds a person)

    Perhaps you should research your history before teaching it?

  5. I read that the quick rising yeast also adds to the problem. Slow rising methods allow for the gluten to break down before the dough is baked.

  6. The seeds can stay viable and not-rancid for hundreds of years, at least, typically, as I’ve understood from the information I’ve seen so far. It’s only if you smash or grind the grain up that it gets rancid within a year or months or weeks, depending on if and for how long the ground up grain is stored.

  7. This article is very misleading! I agree 100% with Reed Barnes’ comment. Nowadays, everyone online, offline, and even in schools are misappropriating valuable information. Its sad but truly wise individuals will know the thruth through traditional values and–sense that isn’t so ‘common.’

  8. Y’all, read “Wheat Belly” by William Davis,MD. It’s s well written commentary that corroborates the the info in this post. The book set me on an investigative journey that opened my eyes to a great many things about wheat, and gluten and their many deleterious effects. This article filled in the historic gap in the development of flour and cereals in the United States. I have insulin dependent type I diabetes of 56 year duration. I never knew that type I can be caused by gluten, wheat. I thought the etiology of my “disease” would remain a mystery forever. However, with this breakthrough, perhaps preventative measures such as a vaccine may now become s reality.
    The professor who dissed this article should stick to straight historical facts, research and study. Apparently he knows nothing about health or medicine. Nor does he know anything about the difficulties and angst suffered by those of us with long term chronic diseases. yours, MGM

  9. Great article!
    There is a way to offer criticism without being so rude.
    Maybe that is something you didn’t learn in your history lessons.

  10. Wheat wheat wheat What we eat today is an altered form of wheat then we ate through history so the wheat we eat today is a far cry from the wheat we ate in Roman times. This modern wheat has been modified from the original strain which our body tolerated better then the high gluten wheat of today. We live in a time and place that we need to feed the masses. Intern we need to develop a wheat that grows all the time and is resistant to disease and other factors.

    We have become a Global race we are no longer people of small tribes located over the globe we have intermingled our people and our foods. These changes have happened in a relatively short amount of time in comparison to the existence of the human race. In the past we ate foods to our region and we didn’t have technology to alter food. These changes have effected us in many ways that we as a people have not evolved fast enough to adjust.

    Modern wheat scientifically altered is one of the main factors in these changes. The altered wheat of today is the #1 grown prodcuts in the world. This altered wheat has grown in to so many parts of our lives. I understand the panic we endured trying to feed the global race. Well we thought we had a solution with modern wheat. The development of this modern wheat enabled us to grow this product in variable conditions and in high yield. This altered modern wheat has allowed us to reduce food cost around the world decreasing world hunger. Thou we have not eliminated world hunger by any means we have been able to relieve some of the stress of feeding all these people short term. This solution was not well though out. The modern wheat today is just not tolerated by almost 40% of the world population. This modern wheat will not kill us immediately like a gun shot or staving to death but the long term effect of this modern day wheat has altered our health drastically. Modern wheat is not the only problem we have today with feeding this global race but it is one of the main factors. We have added and changed many factor of food from high fructose corn syrup to artificial sweeteners, stripped down salts, rice etc. These changes in food have evolved over the past 100 years mostly in the last 60 years. These changes have come at a high cost to the worlds race. The increase of diabetes, asthma, skin disorders, intestinal problem, immune disorders, nerve disorders countless disorders and obesity. The increase in these disorders have drastically increase in the last 100 years mostly in the last 60 years. The foods that we have altered have not agreed with us and have caused our bodies to react. The solution to these disorders have been the development of pharmaceuticals to treat these reaction to these changes.

    Pharmaceuticals have given us some relief to these changing factors they are not the answer. One of the main factors in all of this is has become money. The large food companies and pharmaceuticals companies are making billions and billions of dollars from these changes. These companies don’t want it to change because that is their business. The cheaper these food companies can make food for world race the more money they can make. These companies have made certain foods more affordable for the world race but intern has scarified the worlds race health. The sacrifice to the world race’s health has benefited these large pharmaceutical companies.

    Modern wheat is a huge factor in this maze to feed the world race. We use modern wheat in so many foods we eat today not only do we eat this modern wheat we feed it to the animals we eat. Chickens that used to eat seeds, grubs, worms, mice etc now are feed a diet of many modern wheat and barley. So is the chicken we are eating today the same is chicken from 100 years ago. The changes in chickens happened when these feed mills started borrowing chicken farms money for the feed being paid back when the chickens sold. The whole industry changed and basically combined into one industry with wheat being a very inexpensive way to feed chickens and other animals. The negative effect is not fully understood yet but the rise in allergies to chicken eggs has to make you wonder. Most people that have allergies to chicken eggs but don’t have allergies to wild duck, quill and other wild bird eggs.

    Cattle are feed a large variety of foods many of them industrial waste from brewing, baking etc. Many of this being wheat by product. The products that we feed cattle is very disturbing one being food industrial food waste (used modern wheat). We maybe should look into this.

    Modern wheat is also used in many cosmetics and lotion etc. This modern wheat being rubbed all over our world race’s bodies is being absorbed though our pores. We are not only taking this modern wheat internally we are absorbing it externally. The world race would be amazed at how much wheat or wheat product we rub on externally.

    Pharmaceutical companies use wheat in many of the products they produce to make the pills they sell to treat the side effects from modern day wheat Disorders. Many of these disorders we have not figured out the cause officially yet but modern wheat is showing could be the underlying cause for many. So why not add modern wheat to the mix for the treatment.

    Modern wheat is such a huge factor in our everyday diet is mind boggling. We are supposed to trust our governments to protect us from bad things. Sometimes the best intention to feed the world race has not been well thought out. This modern wheat was developed quickly and was not really tested for its side effect on the world race long term. Modern wheat needs to be studied better and maybe altered back to what we used to eat in the olden days. Maybe our bread doesn’t taste as good but at least we can get back to a healthier world.

    Everyone’s opinions matter an opinion is one persons view of something. People choice to value that opinion is obviously up to that individual. Respect other people’s opinions and take from the what you will you have that option. I just wish we had an easy option or a simple solution for Modern wheat. It’s hard to illuminate from our daily lives. Especially when Opra Loves Bread.

    I am not a writer and have never claimed to be. I am a father, husband and part of the world race that is dealing with the effects of modern foods. My son suffering from extreme skin problems (eczema) , asthma. daughter skin problems (severe dry patch’s of skin, I personally have diabetes, skin problems, MS , high blood pressure and joint problems. We have changed to healthier choices in food an one of them has been to remove Modern day wheat from our diet. Since we have we all have seen positive changes in our health. My sons skin doesn’t itch and and rash that he has had for 9 years is going away he’s 11. Daughter’s dry skin patch’s are gone my blood sugars have been the best in years blood pressure down joint pain less MS Vitamin D levels have been the best in 12 years. There is really so much information out on the negative effects of modern wheat I think the world needs to really look at this and find out a solution to Modern wheat problems. 1st world’s problems becoming the whole world’s problems.

  11. I am in the same boat as the last poster. I have suffered from chronic auto-immune issues my whole life and have even endured a decade and a half eating disorder that only got better once I eschewed “modern medicine,” got off the antidepressants and other man-made drugs and started living a holistic life. Holistic to me means being aware of everything that goes into my body. As someone who has suffered with a restrictive eating disorder I am always questioning wether or not my “limitations” on foods are healthy and/or necessary. I absolutely believe that eliminating gluten from my diet along with Splenda, Bleached flour, meat that is fed antibiotics etc. is not restrictive if I am eating a complete and balanced (actually healthier than almost anyone else I encounter daily) diet in the place of what was once a mainly gluten-based diet filled with preservatives.

  12. Thank you for the discussion on wheat intolerance. Whether it is gluten or wheat in general causing problems is much up for debate. If you look at a graph showing modern pesticide use and increase in wheat intolerance you can clearly see that there is a correlation! I am going to cut out wheat products unless organic and even then I will be using wheat sparingly because our wheat has changed so much over years of hybridization. If we all changed our purchasing we would gain power over what is produced and how it is produced! Be selective and creative in your eating and what you feed your family. Look up glyphosate in your wheat. Keep learning.
    My grandmother lived to be a month short of her 104th birthday! She made homemade bread every week. Her two oldest daughters are in their 90s now! They were raised on wheat and are sharp as ever! They also ate food from home gardens and worked hard.
    Prepackaged gluten free foods offered everywhere now are often full of other questionable things that are not really “food”. Please eat real and enjoy your food and life!

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