Grains and modern wheat are one of the most condemned food sources in this recent decade. Yet as far back as the Stone Age, we see cave paintings of the wheat harvest, and in Egyptian tombs dedication to the food of the gods; let’s face it — wheat has been part of our ancestral diet and is as Paleo as it gets. So how did something we have eaten and idolized for thousands of years get such a bad reputation?
Scientist and researchers blame the phenomenon on the modern farming of wheat. Such as the hybridization of the grain, resulting in a GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) based crop along with the high amounts of modern pesticides now interlaced within the plant itself. So, is gluten harming us or is it the toxins on and in the grain? Others point towards the processing of the grain that bypasses how humans once soaked, sprouted, and milled then fermented the grain before producing food-products like breads, crackers and cakes. You can see the up rise in popularity of sourdough breads for this very reason.
There is no anthropological denying that wheat and grains are such a powerhouse of food for humans that we have put a lot of focus on planting, growing, and processing it into food products. We have even created ways to make it higher in the gluten protein so we can create breads faster and quicker. Modern wheat is the icon of food science, thus the antithesis of anything ancient, old or traditional.
The popularity of ancient grains has skyrocketed among health fanatics including farm-to-kitchen restaurants and bloggers. It is possible the popularity surrounding the grains is simply because the ancient stories that surround them thus placing them into opposition of modern or refined, further glorifying the eating traditions of our ancestors? In other words, the revolt against processed and fast foods.
While there may be many reasons for the spike in interest, the true question is whether the health claims surrounding these grains are accurate. Do they hold more nutrients? Are they easier to digest? Is there less likely for gluten intolerance when eating ancient grains? And are they truly better for the earth?
Many of our common grains like modern wheat, oats and corn have nutrients; however, they may be imbalanced by our sensitivities to them because of the high content of pesticides or over breeding of the grains that increase gliadin contents and making them harder for us to digest. In contrast, do ancient grains hold up to the nutrient content once touted by the Whole Grains Council?
Let’s start by looking at a common few: Polenta for example has more protein than a large egg, 10% of our daily vitamin c and it can be an excellent alternative to bread or pasta. Bulgur is a powerhouse of fiber and 26% of our daily niacin and over 15% of our iron and b6 needs, plus it is fast to cook making for a quick addition to salads. Amaranth, one of the oldest grains, doesn’t hold the gluten protein and is still high in protein and brain boosting amino acids with a whopping 42% of our daily iron! Farro and spelt are both some of our more ancient lineages of wheat being what we most likely see in old drawings and paintings and the bases of “living breads” and Biblical matzo. These grains were most likely leavened with ancient fermentation processes which increased the bio-availability of the manganese, protein and b vitamins found in this plant. Millet, kamut, and teff are other examples of the long list of ancient grains that also hold a large variety of our needed nutrients, and, ironically, many of the nutrients modern humans are deficient in.
An example of an ancient wheat that is also superior in nutrients and easier to digest is einkorn. Why do we find that these grains do not create the gut issues of modern wheat? It is in their genetics. While they maintain high nutrients, they maintain not just lower amounts of gluten but different strains of the protein. Therefore, einkorn is being studied as a potential help to the gluten crisis.
One of the most important foundations of reviving ancient grains lies in the removal of monocropping. Modern wheat and modern farming was an experiment originally in good intentions – ways to increase production and reduce costs, to ultimately help feed the world. But this substantive hybridization, mutated the grain in a way that was hard for us to digest but also didn’t create bio diversity to our fields or our soils. The estimation of lost grain is over 80,000 breeds and variety, yet 90% of what we consume comes from one type of plant. Farmers who grow and revive ancient grain crops start them literally from seeds that have been around for millennia making sure they are free of hybridization and manipulation. In many counties there are currently seed saver banks and farmers focused on only growing these ancient grains. Some farmers simply use the mantra to fuel their mission “they are as nature designed them”. One of the most exciting aspects of the ancient grain revival is the promise of more to come. The increase in ancient grains will allow our earth as well as our diet to be given much needed nutrient diversity as well as help reduce our over consumption of modern wheat.
And you will see me happily enjoying my long fermented non-enriched, non-gmo, traditional sourdough baguette at breakfast for all these reasons and even more so for the amazing taste!