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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wheat and wheat flour were some of the first foods the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved for irradiation.15 A 1963 ruling applied to imported grains. In 1968, the FDA approved irradiation for US wheat berries and flour to control insects.16 Irradiation is the practice of using either high-speed electron beams or high-energy radiation to break chemical bonds and ionize molecules that lie in their path.17 According to proponents of this technology, irradiation can provide more food security for the world by eradicating storage pests in grain, killing fruit flies in fruit, preventing mold growth, delaying ripening, preventing the sprouting of potatoes, onions and garlic, and extending the shelf life of meat, fish and shellfish – all without health consequences. However, research tells us something quite different.
One particularly interesting study on the dangers of irradiation was published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition18 in 1975. Ten children were divided into two groups of five. Before the trial started, blood samples were taken and examined for each child. The diets given to each group were identical except the wheat for the experimental group had been irradiated two or three days earlier with a dose recommended for grain disinfestation. After four weeks, the examination of blood samples showed abnormal cell formation in four of the five children given irradiated wheat. No signs of abnormal cell development appeared in the control group.
One particularly disturbing cell type found in the experimental group was polyploid lymph. Lymph is a vital component of the immune system, and these abnormal varieties occur routinely in patients undergoing radiation treatment. In fact, the level of these abnormal lymph cells is often used as a measure of radiation exposure for people accidentally exposed to radiation.19 After six weeks, blood samples were taken again and a sharp increase of polyploid lymph cells was seen when compared to the level at four weeks. Because of concern for the children’s health, the study was terminated.
It was argued that the main culprit in the increase of cell abnormalities was the fact the wheat was “freshly irradiated.” Therefore, a subsequent study looked at the effects of feeding wheat that had been irradiated and then stored for 12 weeks. The polyploid cells took a little longer to show up—six weeks instead of four. After the irradiated wheat had been withdrawn, it took 24 weeks before the blood of the test children reverted to normal.
To verify their results, the researchers continued with experimental animals and found the same results in both monkeys and rats—a progressive increase of polyploid lymph cells and a gradual disappearance of these cells after withdrawal of the irradiated wheat.20 ,21 ,22 ,23 Thus, the dangers of irradiated foods are evident, whether the food has been freshly irradiated or stored for a period of time. Other long-term health implications from eating irradiated foods include lowered immune resistance, decreased fertility, damage to kidneys, depressed growth rates, as well as a reduction in vitamins A, B complex, C, E and K.24
NUTRIENT LOSS FROM REFINING OF WHEAT29
Thiamine (B1) 77%
Riboflavin (B2) 80%
Pyridoxine (B6) 72%
Pantothenic acid 50%
Vitamin E 86%
GENETICALLY ENGINEERED WHEAT
Genetic Engineering (GE) is the process of altering or disrupting the genetic blueprints of living organisms—plants, trees, fish, animals and microorganisms. Genes are spliced to incorporate a new characteristic or function into an organism. For example, scientists can mix a gene from a cold-water fish into a strawberry plant’s DNA so it can withstand colder temperatures. So far, the most widely used GE foods are soy, cotton and corn. Monsanto hopes to commercialize Roundup Ready Wheat sometime between 2003 and 2005. This crop will join the company of a number of crops engineered to resist the Roundup herbicide.
Proponents of GE claim that this “technology” will make agriculture sustainable, eliminate world hunger, cure disease and improve public health—but have they factored in the enormous risks? When surveyed, most consumers do not want to eat genetically modified foods, and even commercial farmers are wary. Wheat farmers are scared of the Starlink corn fiasco. Iowa farmers planted one percent of their 2000 corn crop as Starlink, a genetically engineered corn approved only for animal consumption. By harvest time, almost 50 percent of the Iowa crop tested positive for Starlink. Product recalls, consumer outcry and export difficulties have ensued. This mistake resulted in the recall of hundreds of millions of dollars of food products and seeds. In regards to exporting, our overseas consumers say they will not accept any wheat that has been genetically engineered. For this reason, Monsanto has put the development of GE wheat on temporary hold.
USING WHEAT IN BAKING
When deciding which wheat berries to use for baking, the main categories to consider are hard and soft. Hard wheat is higher in protein, particularly gluten, making it more elastic and the best choice for making breads. Gluten traps carbon dioxide during the leavening process, allowing the dough to rise. Durum wheats, used mostly for pasta, are even harder. Soft wheats are lower in protein and are more appropriate for cookies, crackers, soda breads and other baked goods.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2003
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34. See http://www.biodynamics.com for more information on this approach.