by Sue Becker
With wheat, as well as other grains and gluten, receiving such bad press in the health food world and beyond, I will try, over the next few months, to address some of the arguments coming against the most nutrient dense food group God has given us. Since the facts are inexhaustible and I am continuously learning, I thought it best to present information in short segments instead of one long treatise. I know you may think I am biased, and perhaps I am, but for a reason. I assure you, I will tirelessly research the subject, as I have for more than 20 years, to get to the truth.
First Things First – An Understanding of Gluten
When the steel rolling mills came on the scene in the early 1900’s, they quickly replaced all other large scale milling methods. Today, commercially milled flour, whether whole grain, whole wheat or white, is all milled the same way. Massive volumes of long lasting white flour are easily produced by removing the oils and sifting the bran and germ away from the endosperm. To “make” whole wheat flour, some of these components are simply recombined. There are no legal standards for the term “whole wheat”, and products labeled “whole wheat” may actually contain only some of the bran and germ originally found in the wheat berry. Usually the oil is completely removed from the flour for shelf stability and “whole wheat bread” may be nothing more than white flour with brown coloring added for the appearance of whole grain.
In the past 10 years or so, with the increasing demand for a return to whole grain flour a legal standard was developed for products labeled “whole grain”. “Whole grain” therefore is a legal term and must meet a legal standard of fiber to flour ratio. Commercially milled whole grain flour, however, is “produced” by recombining the bran and germ with the white flour according to this legal standard. This is not necessarily the product you would get if you simply ground the grain and used the flour in its entirety with out any separating and recombining.
The “white flour” portion of the wheat kernel, known as the endosperm, is basically protein and starch and has very little vitamin and mineral content. The protein portion of white flour is known as gluten. Gluten is nothing more than a long strand of amino acids, the building blocks of protein, known mostly for giving good rising ability to bread dough. Nevertheless gluten has nutritional value as the protein component of whole grains, just as any other protein source in other foods. Protein is a vital nutrient to good health.
Gluten is not the bad guy it is being made out to be. As stated, it is the naturally occurring amino acid structure (protein component) found in most grains, particularly wheat. This naturally occurring protein is actually the predominate dietary source of important amino acids, such as glutamic acid and glutamine. Both are critical nutrients for supporting good brain function. Glutamic acid picks up ammonia throughout the body to then be excreted by the kidneys, thus protecting the brain from excessive ammonia. Glutamine has been known to improve intelligence and raise the I.Q. of the mentally retarded. It is presently being used in the treatment of alcoholism as a corrective nutrient to diminish the desire and craving for alcohol.
But herein lays the problem. Gluten can be separated from the starchy portion of the endosperm and is used abundantly in commercial food production, even in “non bread” processed foods such as soy sauce and taco seasonings. Even though gluten is a component of white flour, this extracted form is not considered flour at all. Gluten can therefore be added, often liberally, to commercially prepared baked goods. Even those legally labeled 100% “whole grain” will often have gluten as the 3rd or 4th ingredient. This addition significantly alters the fiber to flour ratio of the original “whole grain” flour.
What we must now realize is that these “whole grain” products found on the grocery shelves are not much better than their white flour counterparts and that one will not experience significant health benefits from consuming these supposedly “healthier” whole grain options. So it is easy to understand the many disclaimers concerning the health benefits of these “whole grain” products.
But here is where the confusion must end. It is our over consumption of gluten, separated from the other vital components of the whole grain, and our inability to digest gluten, that indeed has a serious health implication. White bread and white flour (which is nothing more than gluten and starch) and the isolated gluten used in abundance in many processed foods is the problem. Many gut related issues and celiac symptoms (villi destruction) are now being experience by many. But we must remember that it is one’s inability to digest gluten that is the problem and not the gluten itself. Often this poor digestion can be corrected with proper nutrition and support, unless of course you are born with these inabilities, as in the case of celiac.
I am in no way implying that gluten related health issues are not real. I am also not trying to oversimplify a serious health concern. But to vilify gluten, a naturally occurring protein structure, is about as ridiculous as vilifying milk or eggs because someone can not digest them. I can not reiterate this fact enough, that it is the inability to digest gluten that is the problem.
The answer is not, necessarily, the elimination of all grains or gluten (unless of course you are a true celiac) but to return to real whole grains, eaten the way God created them. True whole grains, eaten in their whole form or freshly ground into flour, with nothing added and absolutely nothing removed, is very different nutritionally from the commercially produced “whole grain” products. True whole grains will reduce cholesterol, stabilize blood sugar and prevent obesity by satisfying one’s appetite.
One must also take steps to heal the gut and clean up the undigested protein with the addition of good cultured foods and probiotics. It is interesting to note that glutamine, an amino acid found in gluten, is known for its gut healing properties. Perhaps one may also want to consume more of the ancient grains, such as spelt, kamut, barley and oats, instead of wheat, as they are somewhat easier to digest. (See our new cookbook Ancient Grains for Modern Meals by Maria Speck – who, by the way, is not fat at all and has absolutely no “wheat belly”)
I will continue this discussion in the next newsletter, but for now, I will say that indefinitely eliminating grains or even gluten from one’s diet could be a dangerous mistake, except in the case of a true celiac or for a limited time for healing. In times of famine, whole grains have historically been a most reliable food. Grains are nutrient dense and completely storable. In these difficult times we face as a nation, with more and more concern about economic disaster, I will have to say that the anti-grain propaganda being spread by many is very concerning. Use great caution before jumping on these bandwagons – you cannot argue with common sense, the test of time, and Biblical wisdom.
To be continued…