There is a lot of controversy with grains at the moment. Do we eat them? Do we not? It can be quite a challenge to understand what is actually the right choice. So, who is right? It turns out that both sides have valid points, but it’s not a simple, straight-forward answer. Personally, for me, I have opted to remove gluten-containing grains from my diet.
This started when my twin sister developed an intolerance to gluten (among other things). This ignited my passion and curiosity into researching about gut health, and along the way, I learnt that the grains we consume, particularly in Australia and America, are just not what they used to be…
So, What Exactly is a Grain?
Grains are simply the edible seeds of grass-like plants (like wheat, oats, rice, corn, etc.). Grains are one of the most consumed foods around the world, making up a large portion of the nutrition and energy sources of many people worldwide.
Grains have 3 main parts:
- Bran: The hard outer shell
- Germ: The core of the seed where nutrients are provided when it sprouts and grows.
- Endosperm: The food source for the seed that helps it to grow. It’s quite starchy.
Whole grains (as hinted by the name) contain the whole seed, every part of it. While refined grains usually have the bran or germ removed, leaving behind the starchy endosperm to be consumed. Nutrients that can be found in whole grains include B-vitamins, magnesium, and others, but in refined grains most of the beneficial, nutrient-dense parts are removed.
Processed grains may often be enriched with synthetic forms of nutrients by manufacturers to try and replace the nutrients lost during processing. Nutrients like iron, B-vitamins, and folic acid are some of the common synthetic forms added.
Why Grains Aren’t What They Used to Be (And Why They Should Be Avoided)
The grains produced today are very different from what they were a few hundred years ago (or for that matter, a few decades ago). What’s more, the grains we eat in Australia or America are very different from those eaten in other countries like Europe, particularly when it comes to wheat (have you ever been to Italy and eaten a whole pizza or bowl of pasta there and not felt bloated and sick? While eating pizza or pasta here in Aus or the U.S. made you feel unwell and super bloated? The difference is the quality and type of grains that are used).
Here are a few things that started the problems with grains:
1. New ways of processing.
Before the modern roller mill was invented in the 1870’s, grains were broken down and grounded into flour in whole form, often with stones, and still contained all the components of the whole grain.
With the dawn of the modern mill, manufacturers are able to separate the components of the grain and just use the starchy endosperm to make refined white flour (which has a longer shelf life but contains no nutrients). Because there is so little nutritional benefit from these new refined grains and flour, manufacturers began to add synthetic nutrients to wheat and other flours in the 1940s to compensate for the severe lack in nutritional value.
Due to this efficient system of refining, and the cost of producing flour declining, it became available to almost everyone and became a staple ingredient in most people’s home, which meant that more and more people were consuming this flour.
2. A new type of wheat was developed to increase yield.
This, combined with the new method of processing, plays a huge role in the problems we are seeing with wheat and other grains today. New cultivars of wheat were developed in the 1960s that we now use today. It’s a type of dwarf wheat developed to increase the amount of wheat produced per hectare. However, it’s come at a price as this wheat is less nutritious and has come with a list of problems.
Due to the “advancements” in food technology and production, the wheat we receive and eat nowadays is a distant relative of the wheat our mothers used to bake muffins and bread with only 40 years ago.
Mark Sisson explains in his article, “The Problems with Modern Wheat” that:
Between 1843 and the mid 1960s, the mineral content, including zinc, magnesium, iron, and copper, of harvested wheat grain in the experiment stayed constant. But after that point, zinc, magnesium, iron, and copper concentrations began to decrease – a shift that “coincided with the introduction of semi-dwarf, high-yielding cultivars” into the Broadbalk experiment. Another study found that the “ancient” wheats – emmer, spelt, and einkorn – had higher concentrations of selenium, an extremely important mineral, than modern wheats. Further compounding the mineral issue is the fact that phytic acid content remains unaffected in dwarf wheat. Thus, the phytate: mineral ratio is higher, which will make the already reduced levels of minerals in dwarf wheat even more unavailable to its consumers.
In simpler terms, yes these new varieties of wheat are easier and much quicker to grow, but they don’t contain nearly the same amounts of nutrients as ancient forms did, and yet still contain the same levels of phytic acid (a naturally occurring antinutrient found in grains), which creates an imbalance that can lead to nutrient deficiencies.
3. Our bodies struggle to digest grains without traditional methods of preparation like soaking, sprouting, etc.
On top of the fact that the processing methods are degrading the nutritional value of grains, and that due to producing an entirely new form of wheat that is far from the ones our great-grandparents used to eat, we also prepare them differently (or fail to prepare them) which also plays a part in the rising prominence of intolerances and allergies with grains (like that of gluten sensitivity and celiac disease) we see in society today.
It was traditionally taught by many cultures that grains needed to be prepared in certain ways before we were able to consume them, such as soaking, sprouting or fermenting (like in sourdough bread). The reason for doing these forms of preparations with grains is to enhance the body’s ability of absorbing the nutrients within these grains and to help deactivate antinutrients like phytates, lectins, gluten, and other harmful compounds that bind to minerals in the body and prevent them from being absorbed.
Because it is more “convenient” not to prepare these grains using traditional methods (as it does take up some time), most of us have stopped preparing grains these ways, which consequently reduces the amount of nutrients we will be able to obtain from these grains and flours, and may unfortunately increase the amount of phytic acid we end up consuming.
Are Grains and Wheat Harmful for Us?
In other countries, grains don’t seem to cause the same problems they do here in Aus and America. Why is that? Well, have you ever had the experience of travelling overseas and been able to eat whatever you liked without reacting to it like you do in Australia and America? Say you’ve had a gluten intolerance and have been able to eat pizza and pasta (like I mentioned earlier) without doubling over in pain. My twin sister was one of these people who, when we travelled over to Europe together, was able to eat as much pasta and pizza (and a heap of other delicious foods) as she liked and found her skin and gut issues actually improved while she was there! Who would have thought?
So, why is this? Gluten is found in both forms of wheat, but maybe gluten intolerance isn’t the main culprit behind this, and may not be entirely to blame.
It may actually be a topic less talked about, but has been changing over the past few decades: our methods of cultivation and spraying our crops.
The Real Reason Wheat is Toxic
It has been recommended by many (and I mean many!) health professionals that we reduce (or remove completely) grains, especially gluten-containing grains from our diets.
However, gluten is not entirely at fault here for the rising epidemic of wheat and gluten intolerances popping up in Australia and the U.S. It is believed that new pesticides (specifically Roundup and glyphosate) are predominantly to blame.
The grains manufactured in the 21st Century go through many processes such as irradiation, synthetic chemical insecticides, pesticides, and fertilisers, and a lack of crop rotation have huge consequences on human health. Many of the chemicals used in these fertilisers, insecticides and pesticides have not been tested to see what the effects are on humans, and the chemicals that have been tested show that they can cause severe hormonal imbalances, and are linked to hormone-dependent cancers.
It was said by the Healthy Home Economist in her article, “The Real Reason Wheat is Toxic (it’s not the gluten)” that:
Pre-harvest application of the herbicide Roundup or other herbicides containing the deadly active ingredient glyphosate to wheat and barley as a desiccant was suggested as early as 1980. It has since become routine over the past 15 years and is used as a drying agent 7-10 days before harvest within the conventional farming community. According to Dr. Stephanie Seneff of MIT who has studied the issue in depth and who I recently saw present on the subject at a nutritional Conference in Indianapolis, desiccating non-organic wheat crops with glyphosate just before harvest came into vogue late in the 1990’s with the result that most of the non-organic wheat in the United States is now contaminated with it. Seneff explains that when you expose wheat to a toxic chemical like glyphosate, it actually releases more seeds resulting in a slightly greater yield: “It ‘goes to seed’ as it dies. At its last gasp, it releases the seed” says Dr. Seneff.
Glysophate is actually banned in many parts of the world, which explains why many countries seem to handle digesting wheat and grains better.
Now we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that any of these factors alone are directly responsible for the rise in problems we are seeing with the increase in consumption of grains, but it has been shown that glyphosate may have a negative impact on gut bacteria, so it may indeed be a contributing factor to the problem.
The Bottom Line
There is no straight-forward answer about whether we should consume modern grains and wheat. There is a combination of factors to the effects we’re seeing with an increased consumption of grains, it’s not just the gluten, processing, or cultivation methods used. It really is a decision we make individually based on our gut health, the type of grain we choose to eat, how it’s been prepared, and how much and often we eat it.
My Views On Grains
I personally choose to follow a gluten-free diet, not because I have an intolerance to it, just because of what I have read about it and the impact it has on our guts. I feel so much better not consuming gluten-containing grains, and find I consume way more nutrient-rich foods like veggies without any of these grains in my diet.
However, I sometimes do on the odd occasion when I’m out with friends, treat myself to a meal that does contain gluten-filled grains. But if I do consume grains, nuts, or seeds at home, I make sure to properly prepare them to ensure my body is able to absorb as many nutrients as it can from these foods.
What I Do:
- I often bake with gluten-free and grain-free flours like coconut flour and almond flour, which are higher in protein and fibre. There are hundreds of online recipes using these flours.
- I soak and sprout nuts and seeds and grind them into flour. Nuts and seeds contain antinutrients that affect our body’s ability to absorb vitamins and minerals in the grains. By preparing them using these traditional methods, it deactivates these antinutrients which helps the body to absorb more of the beneficial nutrients found in these foods.
As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor before trying or using any new products.
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What is your experience of grains? Do you soak and sprout the grains you eat?
Wells, Katie. (January 23, 2019). The Real Problem with Grains. Wellness Mama. Retrieved from https://wellnessmama.com/575/problem-with-grains/
Sisson, Mark. (November 5, 2009). Why Grains Are Unhealthy. Marks Daily Apple. Retrieved from https://www.marksdailyapple.com/why-grains-are-unhealthy/
Sisson, Mark. (October 18, 2012). The Problems with Modern Wheat. Mark’s Daily Apple. Retrieved from https://www.marksdailyapple.com/the-problems-with-modern-wheat/
What is Wrong with Grains. Paleo Leap. Retrieved from https://paleoleap.com/what-is-wrong-with-grains/
Pope, Sarah MGA. The Real Reason Wheat is Toxic (it’s not the gluten). The Healthy Home Economist. Retrieved from https://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/real-reason-for-toxic-wheat-its-not-gluten/