Earlier this year I got over a digestive problem that had bothered me for more than a decade. The solution was quite simple: I stopped eating wheat flour. Soon after changing my diet, the cramps, indigestion, and other unsavory problems disappeared. There have been other benefits as well. I can now do a good deal of physical work without waking up sore and achy. I am losing weight, eating bigger meals (but without wheat products) without stomach complaints, and hardly get discouraged like I used to. I feel a lot better.
For some time, I refused to imagine that my complaints might have been caused by Celiac disease. Of course, they seemed to fit the symptoms. But I resisted this possibility because of a single verse in The Word of Wisdom (in The Doctrine and Covenants) that states quite clearly that we are supposed to eat wheat: “Nevertheless, wheat for man…”
Then by chance (and my good fortune) I happened on a study showing the significant changes that wheat has gone through since the time the Word of Wisdom was given. It was this realization that motivated me to try living without modern wheat.
The story of how we got modern wheat involves a long history of genetic twists and turns. By the beginning of the 19th Century, wheat had already been hybridized and manipulated for millennia. It would be quite misleading to claim that the wheat of Joseph Smith’s time was a pure and unadulterated grass. It wasn’t.
It was, however, a very different thing than what we eat today. And when I say “it” I really mean “they” because there are a handful of “wheat” species and a boat load of “wheat” varieties that find their way into the mills of people around the world.
The food that we eat today is primarily a product of the green revolution that has magically transformed the world’s diets within the last century. The plants that had fed us for so long were crossed with varieties that would have been confusing and counter-intuitive to earlier generations. Many of these crosses have produced very useful crops. We depend on them to survive. Others, however, can cause us a good amount of grief. Sadly we haven’t paid close enough attention to the potential harm of genetic manipulation. This negligence is coming back to haunt many of us today.
Glutens (and related gliadins) are often large proteins found in the endosperm of wheat grains that do not dissolve easily in our bodies after being consumed. Our modern wheat varieties have many times more of these proteins than did earlier forms. This gluten accumulation was not really intentional. The proteins were compounded primarily when the chromosome number of wheat varieties doubled and then tripled in the course of hybridization events spanning decades.
Through this process, the leavening of bread was improved. The gluten proteins helped make the bread flour sticky, enabling it to keep air bubbles (created in the process of fermenting yeast) from escaping – allowing for the bread dough to rise. Glutens essentially allowed us to move beyond unleavened bread.
The oldest form of wheat (and presumably the first wheat eaten by our ancestors) is einkorn wheat. It has the typical compliment of genes found in living things (a pair of each chromosome – referred to as a diploid condition). It has a fairly hard grain and doesn’t produce enough seeds per plant to make it economically appealing. It is believed to have been used in soups and stews. It is a rarely used today.
Another group includes wheat species that have come about by hybridizing varieties so that a doubling of the chromosomes occurs (tetraploid wheats). Durum wheat and emmer wheat are tetraploid examples. They still have fairly hard grains but have more gluten proteins – not enough, however, to allow for the fine flours that modern bakeries generally demand.
Then there are softer wheat grains found among the species with a tripling of the typical genetic content (hexaploids). As expected, these have quite a bit more glutens. These softer wheat varieties comprise the bulk of the wheat used today. And it is the flour of these varieties that are particularly troublesome to people like me.
Earlier this year I decided to try baking a loaf of einkorn wheat bread. I wanted to know if eating a diploid wheat (with fewer glutens) would upset my stomach. I found a source online, ordered a small bag, and made a loaf after it arrived. The loaf was a bit dense but savory and, when eaten warm, was a real treat. I made a peanut butter and jam sandwich that tasted wonderful.
Then I waited for the grief that I have come to expect after eating wheat products. But nothing happened. I ate another piece of bread and still felt fine. Then I decided I needed to try a tetraploid wheat – the kind that would have been used by our ancestors of previous generations.
Some of these species include emmer and durum wheat. They are a bit easier to find than einkorn wheat but are still specialty products and are quite a bit more expensive than your typical wheat. That said, I found a source of emmer wheat grains and ground the kernels myself in our small hand mill.
My loaf of emmer wheat bread came out of our bread-maker smelling very nice and grainy. I ate a piece and again waited for the trouble to begin. It didn’t. I was again pleased to know that I could eat this older wheat without difficulty. I was also pleased to know that I could enjoy the wheat known to the world at the time the Word of Wisdom was given.
I’m not sure if I will continue baking emmer wheat bread or try using a less-expensive gluten-free alternative. Time will tell. In the meantime, I have learned a lesson: dietary wisdom needs to be a dynamic pursuit. We should know this already. Christians enjoy eating ham even though – as religious descendants of Judaism – it might have been forbidden.
As Latter-day Saints we eat a good deal more meat than one might expect we would – considering passages found in the Word of Wisdom. Is this because we have better ways to preserve meat today? I’m not sure. Maybe we should eat less meat.
And so it is, I’ve discovered, with wheat. I have no doubt that wheat was, for most of our human history, the proper mainstay of our diet. I’m also convinced that it should no longer be the case. I think our uninformed scientific recklessness has ruined it – at least for many of us.
Here are a few sentences from a group of wheat scientists describing the situation in straightforward (and unemotional) prose:
“During the last decades, a significant increase has been observed in the prevalence of CD [Celiac disease]. This may partly be attributed to an increase in awareness and to improved diagnostic techniques, but increased wheat and gluten consumption is also considered a major cause. Over 100 years ago, breeders started to systematically cross and select bread wheat for higher yields, adaption to climate changes, better bread-making characteristics, and improved disease resistance. Little information is available about the breeding history of landraces on these aspects”. (See the reference from Van den Broeck et al.)
So there it is. We have taken a food that once enjoyed the approval of Heaven and tried to improve it. And not only have we tried to improve it, we have done so without even worrying about the consequences. This should certainly be a cautionary tale. No wonder the Lord’s dispenses dietary advice as a “word of wisdom”. It is something we need to keep working on and thinking about with a good deal more humility than is our wont.
The reference to wheat in The Doctrine and Covenants is found in the Word of Wisdom (Section 89:17). Wheat Belly by William Davis was published in 2011 by Rodale. Jerold A. Bietz provides a useful hint on gluten accumulation in: Genetic and Biochemical Studies of Nonenzymatic Endosperm Proteins; in, Wheat and Wheat Improvement, Second Edition, Madison, Wisconsin, 1987. On the variability of wheat gluten genetics see Mapping of Gluten T-Cell Epitopes in the Bread Wheat Ancestors: Implications for Celiac Disease by Oyvind Molberg et al. Gastroeneterology 128 (2005): 393-401. Michael Pollen’s recently published book Cooked contains an interesting discussion on leavening. The significant article by Hetty C. Van den Broeck et al. (Presence of celiac disease epitopes in modern and old hexaploid wheat varieties: wheat breeding may have contributed to increased prevalence of celiac disease) was published in Theoretical and Applied Genetics (November, 2010), Volume 121 (8): 1527-1539.