Rather, we aim to reveal what’s tantamount to a lost and forgotten history. There are two principle elements to it. First, it does not serve industry or institutions well to shed any light on how things used to be regarding wheat (and other grain) growing, harvesting, milling and food preparation practices—and especially, how they were observed to promote rather than compromise health, back then. Second, some good narratives—The Paleo Diet and derivatives being most prominent—have over simplified and conflated things.
So enjoy the rich history of wheat as a one-time acknowledged superfood—one now rendered a liability and misrepresented in the whole by means and memes of good sounding—but easy to understand “evolutionary” narratives. Narratives that, nonetheless, appear on close critical examination, to be false.
In the second episode of the Netflix Documentary Series Chef’s Table, Dan Barber, winner of the James Beard Award for excellence in cuisine, culinary writing, and culinary education in the United States, says:
When we think of Western civilization, you start to realize it was built from wheat. Grains represent 65% of our agriculture. Vegetables and fruits are about 6%. We eat more wheat than just about anything. The problem is that we don’t eat true whole wheat. We eat wheat that’s dead and denuded, so it will last—it’s shelf stable. Part of the reason that it has absolutely no flavor is because agribusiness is looking for crops that last a long time and can travel, or last a long time in the refrigerator and they’re not looking for flavor or not looking for nutrition. The real disaster in all of this is that we lost the taste of wheat and we lost all the health benefits. And for something that we eat so much of it’s really a true disaster…If we’re going to change the food system, we have to change how we grow and consume wheat.
In a previous article, we took Barber’s statement a step further and showed that the countries that fortify their wheat with iron appear to have significantly more chronic health issues. We also suggested that it’s probably not a coincidence that low carb diets and gluten avoidance are more popular in iron-fortified countries. Now we’re digging a bit deeper. Did pre-modern civilizations thrive on regular whole wheat or did they just tolerate it?
If what Barber is saying is true, then it should be relatively easy to find evidence that regular whole wheat was, in fact, nourishing for pre-modern cultures. After all, unlike our Paleolithic ancestors, our more recent ancestors wrote about their foods and what effects they had on their health. From Hippocrates to Aristotle, and Avicenna to Paracelsus, all were preoccupied with the digestive processes. Secondly, we figured that we should be able to find evidence of Barber’s hypothesis as we transitioned to modern milling practices.
The first bread appeared about 30,000 years ago. It’s not difficult to find proof of the high regard for wheat in the Ancient world. The word cereal comes from the name for the ancient Roman goddess, Ceres—the goddess of grains and agriculture. Ceres was said to have discovered wheat, and given the gift of agriculture to humankind. According to the mythology, before agriculture, man had subsisted on acorns and wandered without settlement or laws. Indeed, our ancient ancestors worshiped their wheat and believed that it was responsible for the rise of civilization. Perhaps this isn’t surprising; never before was there a food that could grow human populations exponentially.
Emmer was the dominant wheat through the Neolithic while barley was a new companion cereal. Einkhorn wheat was a weedy cultivar—a minor admixture, adopted much later—and was said to make a miserable bread. It was usually consumed as a porridge. Then came common bread wheat, which the Romans adopted after having long relied on Emmer. The origin of spelt wheat is unknown but appears to have entered much later as a naturally occurring hybrid of early wheat. Rye was a wild minor admixture that later became cultivated in its own right.
So, how did cultures regard wheat and whole grains before the industrial revolution? According to the historical literature, wheat was not some sub-par caloric filler or cheap energy. Every culture had its superfood and wheat was hands down, the superfood of Western civilization. Whole wheat is not just calories and nutrients. It contains all sorts of phenolics, carotenoids, sterols, β-glucan, resistant starch, inulin, oligosaccharides, lignans, and other phytonutrients (see Table III, here). Much of the health benefits of wheat are believed to come from these phytonutrients.
Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, not only recommended bread as a health-promoting staple, but he was keenly interested in experimenting with different preparations of wheat. Hippocrates wrote:
I know, too, that the body is affected differently by bread according to the manner in which it is prepared. It differs according as it is made from pure flour or meal with bran, whether it is prepared from winnowed or unwinnowed wheat, whether it is mixed with much water or little, whether well mixed or poorly mixed, over-baked or under-baked, and countless other points besides. The same is true of the preparation of barley meal. The influence of each process is considerable and each is a totally different effect from another. How can anyone who has not considered such matters and come to understand them possibly know anything of the diseases that afflict mankind? Each one of the substances of a man’s diet acts upon his body and changes it in some way and upon these changes his whole life depends.
If wheat were so deleterious, you’d think that Hippocrates would have noticed it and warned against its consumption instead of recommending it for the prevention of disease.
Hippocrates was not alone. Avicenna recommended bread as an essential staple of the diet. Paracelsus believed that wheat had mystical properties, and Aristotle thought foods made from wheat suits our bodies best. And, what we see over and over again in the historical literature is that wheat was once considered to be the most nutritious and most important edible plant in the entire vegetable kingdom. Bread was the Staff of life—it was the de facto superfood for agriculturalists.
Over 250 years ago, Swedish biologist Carl von Linné, the father of modern taxonomy and modern ecology, wrote two texts—Ceres noverca arctoum and De pane diaetetico—wholly devoted to bread and bread-making. Citing his observations as well as those of the greatest medical authorities of antiquity, he wrote:
From: De pane diaetetico, by Carl von Linné (1757)
Of all foods bread is in truth the most noble. It is a food that is so necessary that we usually describe a true pauper with the words “he has not even a crumb of bread”. It is served on the tables of both the rich and the poor, is beneficial in all diseases and suitable for all temperaments and it imparts a pleasant taste to food that is of itself tasteless. Therefore, since bread is so widespread and strengthens us and pleases our taste, I beg you distinguished reader, to not feel disturbed by paying attention to a dietetic investigation of bread.
Von Linné also provided examples of how bread could prevent or cure specific diseases. Although rye was popular in his home country of Sweden, von Linné considered wheat bread to be “the most excellent of all.” We can see that even during the 18th century when tubers and a vast array of vegetables were available as staples, bread was still considered to be the most important article of food.
In 1782, the Finnish botanist, Carl Niclas Hellenius, wrote in his dissertation:
From: Om finska allmogens nödbröd, by Carl Niclas Hellenius (1782)
Of the many ways humankind has invented to make use of the rich resources of the vegetable kingdom, that of preparing wholesome and tasty bread is without doubt the most profitable. Bread contains in the smallest volume the greatest mass of the nourishing elements obtainable from plants; in all seasons and at all occasions it gives equally good and useful food; it can be stored for long periods without any loss; it heightens the taste of many of our dishes, and even more, it often changes a food which is inedible due to its kind or condition, into one which people can consume without any risk and with benefit. Therefore, it is not to be wondered if its consumption has become so common that hardly anyone, except the most savage Nations, can get along without it. Since ancient times the so-called Cerelia have been considered as the most noble plants which generous Nature has us provided.
In the 19th century, Thomas Hodgkin, the prominent English physician and first to observe Hodgkin’s disease, wrote:
The means of promoting and preserving health. Lecture II, on the Articles of food, solid and fluid, by Thomas Hodgkin (1841)
The farinaceous seeds are unquestionably the most important of [alimentary vegetable substances]. Their introduction has been marked amongst the earliest steps in the progress of civilization, and may be noticed amongst the first historical traditions of the most ancient nations of the Eastern and Western hemispheres. Thus the Greeks paid divine honours to Ceres, as the introducer and cultivator of wheat and other grains; and the ancient Peruvians paid similar honours to Manco Capae, who gave them maize or Indian-corn, and taught them how to cultivate and use it.
Of Wheat.—This appears to be the oldest and most valuable grain with which we are acquainted; but we know not the country to which we are indebted for it. It contains a large quantity of starch; a highly nutritive principle; and a larger quantity of gluten, the most nutritious of all the vegetable principles, than any other grain.(1) It likewise contains sugar; and a small portion of phosphate of lime, the essential constituent of bones, on which their firmness depends. It is far superior to every other kind of grain, for the formation of bread, which is emphatically termed the “staff of life” and, in all civilized countries, forms so large and considerable a part of our diet, that the word “bread” is become almost equivalent with that of “food.”
Seeing, then, that wheat, in the form of bread, is of so great importance as an article of diet, it will be worth while for us to dwell a little upon the varieties of bread, and on some points connected with its use…
It may be surprising to us that gluten was once believed to be the most nutritious vegetable compound. And if that doesn’t surprise you, there was even a time when “gluten bread” became popular for diabetics.
So, how did we go from a time when wheat was the most important “vegetable,” with nary anything but praise heaped upon it, to when it promoted chronic disease? Here’s where the history books, along with a little understanding of the gut, helps explain what led to dyspepsia.
Dyspepsia was a condition that arose as America entered the industrial revolution, and is what amounted to a national stomach ache and chronic constipation. Today we call it Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). At the time, people knew that regular whole wheat could not have been responsible for dyspepsia since people were quite healthy eating mainly wheat before the dyspepsia epidemic even began. Furthermore, people knew that avoiding white flour, while eating more brown bread and fibrous foods helped to cure dyspepsia. Even the short term “potato diet” cured dyspepsia.
As much as we’d like to think that we only recently figured out the links between the gut, probiotics, dietary fiber and gut issues, the dietetic gurus of the 19th and early 20th centuries had already figured out the links between refined foods, the microbiota, and dyspepsia. Of course, they also promoted some very bizarre theories. The dyspepsia epidemic is chronicled in the fascinating book, Inner Hygiene: Constipation and the Pursuit of Health in Modern Society, by James C. Whorton.
In the early 19th century, Sylvester Graham invented Graham bread, which was high in fibers and free of toxic additives such alum and chlorine, commonly added to flours during the Industrial Revolution. These additives were used to make bread whiter in color and more appealing. Refined bread was a status symbol of the middle class because of its purity in color. Grahamites believed that avoiding those additives and favoring foods that scratched or rasped the inner lining of the alimentary canal helped keep the gut regular and healthy. Graham died at the age of 57, leaving many unsure about the validity of his theories.
In the late 19th century, Elie Metchnikoff developed a theory that toxic bacteria in the gut cause aging and lactic acid could prolong life. He surmised this by observing exceptionally old age in Bulgarians who drank sour milk. Based on this theory, he drank sour milk every day, and he espoused the potential life-lengthening properties of lactic acid bacteria and discovered Lactobacillus bulgaricus (named after the Bulgarians). Unfortunately, he died in 1916 at the age of 71, of heart failure.
John Harvey Kellogg believed that while Metchnikoff had made some good points, a key to gut health was to replace the fiber that had become lost due to modern milling practices. Among other things, Kellogg promoted the isolated bran fraction into food products. And the practice became the inspiration for the Kellogg Company, eventually popularized by his brother, Will Keith Kellogg.
In 1892, Erastus Wiman wrote an open letter advocating old-fashioned, whole wheat to solve the growing dyspepsia and health problems.
The Flour of the Future, by Erastus Wiman (1892)
In civilized Germany, the man who should venture to adulterate or even dilute beer goes to prison, followed by disgrace and the imprecations of his fellow citizens. The man who should take it into his head to adulterate bread might do so with impunity, as long as he avoids introducing poisonous substances.
The demand has been made for white bread; fashion calls for it; the millers have complied. Mechanical skill has come to their assistance, and every part of the wheat which would tend to darken the flour is being removed with a precision and thoroughness which are simply wonderful. But does this tend to make the bread better? Does it give the workingman a greater return for his hard-earned loaf? Does this refined milling process give to the convalescing invalid, to the growing child, more strength and nutriment than did the old-fashioned dark bread? The answer to the fore going questions is decidedly in the negative. Indeed, on the other hand, it is impossible to estimate the injury done by the elimination of the most valuable constituents of the grain. A prominent English physician, when discussing this question, has recently said:
“Wheat and water contain all the elements necessary for man, and for the hard working man, too. Where is the man that can exist on our present white bread and water? There is an old joke about doctors being in league with undertakers; it would rather appear as if the millers and bakers were in the doctors’ pay, as if, were it not for them, and for the white bread they are so zealous in producing, the doctors would have less to do. Separating the bran from the flour became fashionable at the beginning of the present century. This fashion created the dental profession, which, with its large manufacturing industries, has grown up within the last two generations. It has reached its present magnitude only because our food is systematically deprived of lime, of salts and phosphoric acid, the creators of nerve bone, and tissue, which especially are so signally absent from our modern white bread.“
What we need is a reversal of the opinion which demands a white, starchy flour…
A recent episode of 99% Invisible explored how the preference for white flour was often fueled by racist ideologies. White bread was known as a “chaste loaf” and whole wheat as the “defiled loaf.” Wiman was even ridiculed by the very food reformists that were promoting flours that were free of “natural impurities.”
A perusal of milling publications at the time show them filled with a plethora of milling innovations. Everything from quick-rise yeasts, fast roller mills, new ovens, equipment to sift white flours to have fewer “impurities.” As more people consumed highly “purified” flours, the dyspepsia epidemic only got worse.
It’s interesting that Wiman noted that dental issues worsened with the refinement of flour. Decades later, Dr. Weston A. Price—a dentist—had noticed this as well. In Chapter 3 of his book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, Price noted that the isolated Swiss villages he visited had excellent dental health eating mainly whole rye bread, dairy and only one serving of meat per week. It’s also interesting to note that dental attrition—due to the wearing down of teeth from grit and sand debris left by early millstones—was the primary cause of tooth decay in Ancient Egypt.
In 1931, Sir Robert McCarrison gave a series of lectures, at the Royal College of Surgeons, where he reported his observations on the Hunza people after having been their physician for seven years. He remarked:
In conformity with the constitution of their dietaries they are the finest races of India, so far as physique is concerned, and amongst the finest races of mankind. Familiar as I am with the [wheat]-fed races of northern India, I have little patience with those who would have us believe that ‘white flour’ is as good an article of diet as ‘whole wheat flour’.
McCarrison also performed a series of experiments on rats comparing the effects of refined versus whole flours, which confirmed the health-promoting effects of whole wheat as well as the degenerative effects of white flour. McCarrison’s findings are summarized in the excellent 1938 book, The Wheel of Health, by Guy Wrench.
As seems obvious by now, the major aspects of nutrition and gut health—including some primitive understanding of the microbiome—have been known for well over a century. People knew that the wheat our ancestors once thrived on had become denuded and purified to the point that it had become a liability. New additives became standard, including various bleaches and toxic bromides. Metabolic issues were seen in the poor eating white flour during the Great Depression, and so it was with the discovery and isolation of individual micronutrients that the government set out to replace a few of those micronutrients lost to flour refinement with artificial fortification. Never mind that there is a long list of beneficial micronutrients, phytonutrients, and phenolics found in whole grains. The government picked out a few micronutrients that could easily be isolated and mandated their addition to all white flour.
By 1953, Newfoundland had enacted mandatory fortification of white flour. By 1954, Canada and some US states had adopted the Newfoundland Law. Southern states, in particular, were eager to enact the law, to reduce pellagra, that had become prevalent during the Great Depression. These states typically mandated fortification of flour, bread, pasta, rice and corn grits.
In 1983, the FDA significantly increased the mandated fortification levels—coinciding with the beginning of the obesity epidemic. 1994 was the first year that obesity and diabetes statistics were available for all 50 states. Notice a pattern?
Fortifying flour may have ended the deficiencies of the Great Depression, but it appears to have significantly worsened chronic diseases.
Furthermore, wheat flour fortification may explain the popularity of non-celiac gluten sensitivity we see today in fortified countries (it was exceedingly rare before fortification). As it turns out, iron fortificants have been shown to promote significant gastric distress, even at small doses and pathogenic gut profiles in developing countries. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is virtually unheard of in unfortified countries, like France, which consumes 40% more wheat than Americans.
In his book, Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health, Dr. William Davis claimed that modern hybrids of wheat are to blame for all modern health issues. However, this is not supported by the scientific literature—nor is it backed by France’s lower levels of chronic diseases despite considerably higher wheat intakes. Nor does Dr. David Perlmutter’s book, Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar–Your Brain’s Silent Killers, explain how humanity enjoyed its highest levels of intellectual achievement while primarily eating wheat and other grains as staple foods—enjoying unprecedented population growth and longevity as well. In a recent lecture, Dan Barber more reasonably explains that the biggest problem with modern wheat hybrids is that they lack taste and have less nutrition, particularly due to poor industrial growing practices.
So, when did wheat go from being the most important vegetable to the cause of all modern diseases? The historical evidence clearly suggests that it first started when wheat became “purified,” i.e., tainted, during the early 19th century—well before wheat was hybridized by Norman Borlaug in the 1960s. Put simply, the more we departed from whole foods and whole wheat, the worse dyspepsia and chronic disease became.
With this in mind, we are now able to explain how Sir Robert McCarrison and Dr. Weston A. Price once observed extraordinarily healthy cultures, free of chronic disease, thriving on traditionally milled grains. Finally, we can make sense of these seemingly confounding observations and leave behind the cognitive dissonance that comes with certain incomplete narratives, such as The Paleo Diet.
Industrial flours are not whole foods. Rather, they are highly processed, far beyond simple grinding, and are often adulterated with additives, many of them nefarious. Slowly, things are starting to change. Organic flours are available without fortification, and some historical grist mills have been revived across the country. Some bakeries are demanding real flour and some, like Berlin Natural Bakery, grind their flour daily, as was once the common old world tradition. It’s also encouraging to note that high-end bakers, like France’s Eric Kayser and Austria’s Josef Weghaupt, have found tremendous success by reinventing ancestral baking traditions.
According to some sources, 95% of the flour consumed in the United States is fortified white flour—making it little more than a source of empty calories and unbalanced micronutrients for most people. Our superfood has become a liability. Dan Barber argues that part of the problem is that the modern hybrid of whole wheat lacks flavor and nutrition—we’ve lost the taste for wheat and refined away all of the benefits to make it more “appealing.” However, Barber doesn’t believe the solution is to rely on ancient wheat varieties. He’s been working with wheat breeder Steve Jones to cross-pollinate a better tasting and more nutritious whole wheat. In 2013, Barber remarked, “If we could talk to the people a hundred years ago who bred the heirloom tomato varieties we love, they’d wonder, ‘Why all the effort to preserve these? Why not keep going, keep breeding new varieties?'”
So where do you go from here? Well, hopefully not out to your local supermarket for a plastic-wrapped loaf of “whole wheat bread.” And, it must be added that all of the preceding is not intended to make the consumption of even artisanal, freshly ground, real whole grain—even sprouted and/or fermented—any sort of imperative for anyone. We’re now fortunate to live in circumstances where vast variety in diets is possible because, with just a little care, most people can easily source adequate nutrition through any number of dietary paradigms, from vegetarian to high-fat low-carb.
We just wish to give those of you who may enjoy whole grains in their various forms—in terms of taste, texture and convenience—good reasons to see if they can enhance your well being.
You can look around and find increasingly more sources of careful whole grain bread making, even places that grind their grain fresh, daily. You can even do it yourself by purchasing a grain mill. That’s a very top-of-the-line one, and beautiful to boot, but there are many options—though you might stay away from anything that uses iron to do the milling, or high-speed blades that impart too much heat. And then, you could have fun experimenting with different grains and blends, sprouting, fermenting, etc.
We do not think that any fear is called for. They may enhance your well-being in various ways, they may not, but in either case, you’ll be free to move forward on either path; but hopefully, on one that’s free from any sort of dietary dogma—where it’s more important what narrative you believe than how you feel and how you enjoy your life.
Update: Tom Naughton has up a fair rebuttal.