Thursday, May 15, 2014

Our Daily Bread: The 411 on Wheat

How many people do you know are gluten-free? It's uber-trendy these days. However, a lot of people don't know what it is, at least, not these poor benighted souls from the streets of LA. Watch this (it's funny):
Lest you find yourself in a similar position (with a mic in your face), here's a little info on gluten.

What is it?
Like Jimmy said, gluten is a family of proteins found in some grains, notably wheat. It's also found in rye, barley and some oats (you can find gluten-free oats, FYI.) Contrary to what the woman in the video said, gluten is not found in rice, and it does not necessarily 'make you fat.'

People suffering from celiac disease and some other auto-immune disorders cannot tolerate gluten. Their bodies interpret gluten as a foreign invader, and consequently mount an attack, resulting in all kinds of horribleness. It is critical for celiac sufferers to avoid gluten entirely, which is hard because gluten is in a lot of things. Happily for them, the trendiness of the 'gluten-free lifestyle' means there are a lot more choices in markets and restaurants, and the presence of gluten is more likely to be clearly marked than it was in years past.

Still, lots of people are shunning gluten, even those who do not have celiac or other severe gluten sensitivities. After giving up gluten, some people find relief from allergies, niggling digestive issues and report greater mental clarity. And they feel cool and trendy. I can dig it.

Years ago, this was unheard of. Of course, wheat has been consumed by humans for a very, very long time. It's in the Bible! So is this just another health food fad? Or is there something to it?

The Problem with Modern Wheat
I'll admit, I've typically rolled my eyes at stuff like this. Really? Wheat?? People have been eating wheat for ages! Five loaves and two fishes! Now all of a sudden we're all allergic to it? Clearly there has to be more to the story, so I did some of my world-famous exhaustive internet

It turns out, the wheat we're consuming today is very different from the kind our grandparents ate.

Ancient wheat varieties were harvested from tall, thin-stalked plants that were vulnerable to weather conditions and crop loss.

Agronomist Norman Borlaug from the University of Minnesota pioneered the development of high-yield semi-dwarf wheat. This plant had shorter, thicker stalks and a larger seed-head. As a result, farmers were able to produce significantly more wheat on less acreage.
Borlaug holding semi-dwarf wheat stalks

This high-yield, semi-dwarf wheat was a particular boon to poor countries like India, Pakistan and China and greatly increased the world's food supply. Borlaug won international praise for his experiments on wheat, including the Noble Peace Prize, and is credited with saving billions of people from starvation. Which is awesome. Truly. (It's worth noting that Wonder Bread, however lamentable it may be, will, in fact, save you from imminent starvation.) 

This high-yield dwarf wheat now makes up nearly all the wheat that is cultivated throughout the entire world. If you were born after 1960, chances are you have never eaten anything but this variety. 

This tinkering with wheat, however, is not without consequences. Modern wheat is much less nutritious than the ancient wheat varieties. Our wheat now contains 19-28% less zinc, copper, iron and magnesium, as well as lower amounts of other minerals. 

Modern wheat has also shown adverse effects on cholesterol levels and more inflammatory markers, and the gluten content is different from ancient wheat varieties. A gluten peptide called glia-α9 is prevalent in modern wheat, and is a major trigger for celiac reaction. This peptide is not common in ancient wheat varieties. This may explain why gluten sensitivity is on the rise.

What does this mean?
The Darling Husband came home from work last night and and I regaled him with all the horrors of modern wheat. He said, "So, does this mean we're going wheat-free AND sugar-free?" I responded, "not yet." 

There are a lot of negative health conditions associated with wheat, but I can't bring myself to give it up entirely. I like bread. But we eat Ezekiel bread, which is made from sprouted grains. 

Another problem with bread these days is the way it's made. Years ago, the grains were soaked, sprouted and fermented, and made with slow-rise yeast. The sprouting process improves the nutrient content of the bread and makes those nutrients more accessible and the bread more easily digestible. In short, you get a lot more from sprouted-grain bread than the commercial breads you find in the supermarket.

Ezekiel bread is not gluten-free, and it's expensive. A loaf is twice the price of supermarket sandwich breads, and it never seems to go on sale. There are no coupons to be found in the Sunday paper and no buy-one-get-one-free deals. Bummer. But I've actually grown to like it, especially the English muffins. AND--it has no added sugar. And there's a Bible verse on it, which is always nice.

Give it Up?
I actually gave up gluten for a couple of weeks back in January 2011. I felt fine once I started eating it again, but I have been told you really need to give it up for at least 30 days to get it out of your system. So maybe I'll try it again one of these days and see how it goes. 

If you decide to give up gluten (or anything else, for that matter), here are a few tips:
  1. Know why you're doing it. Gluten (and sugar) is in a lot of things and understanding what you're doing will help you stay the course. It's going to be much harder to pass up a chocolate croissant in a weak moment if all you have behind you is a Russian friend who read a book about gluten. Just sayin'.
  2. Don't expect substitutes to taste like the real thing. Gluten-free bread doesn't taste like the bread you're used to. (Neither does Ezekiel bread.) Soy bacon doesn't taste like real bacon. You just might find yourself frustrated and disappointed.
  3. Treat it as an adventure! I actually really enjoyed my gluten-free fortnight. I tried all sorts of new recipes and different things I'd never had before. That's when I fell in love with quinoa, a protein-rich seed which is now a staple in our home.
  4. After about a month, reintroduce gluten-containing foods and see how you feel. It's worth mentioning that plenty of people can tolerate gluten just fine. If you turn out to be one of those people, yay! Now you can have your (preferably sprouted) wheat and eat it, too! And you've hopefully added a few more recipes to your regular rotation. It's win-win.
Even if you're not prepared to give up wheat entirely, it's not a bad idea to consider limiting consumption. There are so many exciting foods to be tried! Variety is the spice of life.

So that's all I have to say about gluten and wheat, for now anyway. Before I go, however, I would like to say one more thing--if you like the blog, please share it! Follow me on Twitter (@stephaniehsiang) and Instagram (@momsatthebarre)! Then maybe someday I'll get a book deal and I'll be able to afford Ezekiel bread.


  1. Two things I'd add to your tips--instead of relying on substitutes, seek out other things to eat. I had to give up dairy for a while and never really found any good substitutes. I did drink soy and almond milk, but mostly avoided other dairy and just cooked things that didn't require it. I broadened my horizons! Tried lots of new recipes and found so many things I could eat.

    And, as seen in the video, actually figure out what gluten is! I've encountered so many people recently who think they've given up gluten when all they're actually doing is buying substitutes for bread products. Gluten is in a lot of things other than bread.

    1. Absolutely! Agree on all counts. That's kind of what I was getting at, re: substitutes.

      Another thing I should have mentioned is beware the glut of packaged/processed gluten-free foods. Anything processed is probably not good for you, even if it's labeled as such. There's really nothing inherently wrong with gluten (from what I can tell), it's just that it's problematic for some people.