Grist for Your Mill: Heirloom Wheat

Growing and grinding your own grain may be the best thing since sliced bread.

Author Charlie Tennessen cut and bundled this heirloom wheat with a cradle scythe, and then stacked it to dry in the sun. 
Photo by Charlie Tennessen

Wheat is the most widely cultivated crop in the world. Easy to grow, this grain is sown from the tropics to the Arctic Circle, and has been an important human food source for at least 10,000 years.

Historically, wheat fields often contained multiple varieties. Farmers would save and trade seeds (also called “wheat berries”), or grow out a wheat plant that caught their attention, hoping to develop a new type. A group of wheat varieties propagated with traditional seed saving in a region over many years is called a “landrace.” Today, landrace wheats are practically extinct.

Wheat changed significantly in the 20th century. The plant was bred to be shorter, so the seed heads could grow larger without causing the stalks to fall over. Short wheat can tolerate generous quantities of chemical fertilizers, which bumped up winter wheat yields in the Midwest region of the U.S. from 20 to 30 bushels per acre in the 19th century, to 90 to 110 bushels per acre today. Modern wheat has a greater starch content than heirloom wheat, and the gluten strength has increased by a factor of three. These modifications have had tremendous benefits for industrial milling and baking: Modern flour can be processed quickly, and a bread-baking facility can make many loaves per day.

But both anecdotal and scientific evidence suggests that modern wheat has left us with a crop that’s productive in the field but unhealthy for human consumption. The incidence of celiac disease has increased significantly over the past 50 years. Celiac disease is triggered by gluten, which is made of proteins found in wheat and some other cereal grains. Additionally, more people than ever before suffer from wheat sensitivity. Why would a grain that’s been eaten successfully for thousands of years suddenly be suspected of causing health problems?

Researchers grapple with the sheer complexity of wheat, which has six sets of chromosomes and a whopping 95,000 genes. No smoking gun exists that indicates a specific harmful compound in modern wheat. However, scientific studies have shown that the protein content in modern industrial wheats is nearly always lower than in heirloom wheats, and has been replaced by starches.



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