Wheat, a plant that changed the world
Posted on 22nd October 2014 at 07:30
Wheat has formed an essential part of the human diet for thousands of years. It’s something we all take for granted but how much do we really know about it?
If you love bizarre facts – or pub quizzes (!) – this blog post is definitely for you! So here goes.
The wheat we know today can be traced back to the interbreeding of three different grass species about 12,000 years ago. This so called “domestication of wheat” is said to mark a great step forward in our evolution. Allowing a move away from a nomadic lifestyle, where food was obtained by foraging and hunting; to a more settled one, with food produced by farming crops and herding animals.
Fast forward a few thousand years to the time of the Pharaohs and you’ll see bread similar to that produced by today’s artisan bakers.
The Romans developed the process further, using sieves to produce finer flour and improved ovens for baking bread. No longer was wheat was ground by hand – a laborious process producing only small amounts of flour – but by mills powered by animals, then water and finally the iconic windmills.
By the Middle Ages, wheat – and bread – production was big business. The Agricultural Revolution allowed farming to occur on a much larger scale but, more importantly, allowed the number of people living in towns to rapidly increase as food became more plentiful. This growth was hastened on further by the Industrial Revolution; with inventions such as the mechanical seed drill, making farming more productive and less labour intensive.
And so on to the 20th Century where everything changed yet again, bringing us the wheat – and bread – we know today.
Research into genetics, started by Mendel and his experiments with pea plants – remember them from biology lessons at school?!? – led to wheat being selectively bred with certain desired characteristics. The latest chapter in this story brings us genetically modified wheat. More about this in a minute.
As the population grew, and bread was no longer made locally, changes were needed to make flour last longer. While removing the outer bran and wheat germ helped prevent flour spoiling – and so last longer – they also contained most of wheat’s nutrients too. It’s estimated that over 50% of the nutritional content of wheat is lost during processing, which includes vitamins B1, B2, B3, E and Folic Acid; as well as Calcium, Phosphorus, Zinc, Copper and Iron.
Added to this, flour was bleached to make it more pleasing to the eye. It could be argued that the effects of these two changes alone meant that flour is no longer a natural food, but a processed one.
Methods of breading baking have changed too, leading to the lighter texture bread we’re all familiar with today.
How different is today’s wheat from that our ancestors knew?
If you go back only a few decades to the time of our grandparents, wheat looked very much the same as it always had. A tall grass – over 4 feet tall – with a long slender ear of grain. Over the last few decades this has all changed, as selective breeding has resulted in a much shorter and stockier plant – less than 2 feet high – with a large ear of grain.
Not only is modern wheat much easier to harvest, but less likely to be damaged by wind and rain.
It’s now resistant to common pests but, more worryingly, also to the various insecticides and herbicides sprayed on modern crops. This means that wheat can be produced more easily by farmers, as it’s not affected by the increasing amounts of chemicals used on it during its lifetime.
What many people don’t realise is that this process starts well before the wheat is planted. Grains are treated with chemicals to help prevent them rotting in the ground – or being eaten by pests – prior to germination. They may also have been irradiated, so giving a longer storage life.
While it’s been repeatedly said by the chemical companies that they don’t have an adverse effect on the wheat produced – or the environment – it’s becoming clear that this just isn’t the case.
While it’s too soon to know the long term effects of this increasing industrialisation of agriculture, we can already see worrying signs of things to come. The well publicised falls in bee – and insect – numbers are one such example.
Added to this are concerns about the wheat itself.
Over the years, selective breeding has focussed on raising gluten levels in wheat, resulting in the lighter texture bread we all know. While this may make a lighter textured bread, gluten isn’t easily digestible by our bodies. Sticky in consistency, it can block the absorption of nutrients from the digestive tract into the bloodstream.
It’s thought that gluten is the main culprit in many wheat based sensitivities / allergies and also plays a part in other conditions such as IBS, Coeliac and Crohns Disease.
As an aside, we should also say that yeast – needed for bread to rise, prior to baking – is another common culprit in many food based sensitivities, although less well known.
Wheat also contains a little known substance, Wheat Germ Agglutinin (WGA), which is thought to play a part in many other health conditions including Arthritis and Diabetes.
Are we saying that you must avoid wheat completely?
Of course not, the choice is always yours! What we would recommend is that you move away from wheat being a staple part of your diet to more of an occasional treat.
However if you’re in any doubt as to the effect wheat – or gluten – has on you; try excluding it from your diet for a month. See if you notice any changes in your health – and energy levels – before deciding whether you wish to gradually re introduce it.
What are the alternatives to wheat?
The good news is that there are plenty of alternatives out there BUT many of them will still contain gluten, although in much smaller amounts. These include:
Cereal grains such as barley, spelt, millet, oats, rice and rye. Those with a gluten allergy should avoid barley, oats, rye and spelt as they all contain small amounts of gluten.
Non cereal grains such as amaranth, quinoa and buckwheat. Despite its name, buckwheat isn’t related to wheat.
Nut meal such as almonds, hazelnuts or walnuts make a rich flour which can be used for cookies and cakes. As they all have a short shelf life, it’s recommended that you grind them in a food processor just before used. Chestnuts have a lower fat content than other nuts and also a longer shelf life, so can usually be found online.
Bean flours such as pinto and chickpeas can be used. A word of warning though. They tend to have a strong flavour and are not easy to digest.
Other substitutes, particularly as thickeners for sauces and gravy, include potato starch, arrowroot powder and tapioca.
It’s interesting how the things we think we know about – and take for granted – are often so different when we start to dig a little deeper. Wheat is a great example of this, so now you know a little more it’s over to you.
As always, the choice is yours.
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