Wheat has nourished people around the globe for centuries, but recent news has called wheat nutrition into question. Find answers to your concerns regarding wheat breeding, wheat nutrition and wheat flavor here — plus discover which types of wheat are best for the home grower.
Wheat breads, from whole-wheat to ryes, tempt us.
The great diversity we see today in wheat is the result of millions of years of evolution capped by 100 centuries of breeding by humans. Varieties originating throughout that history — modern types, heirloom varieties from past decades or centuries, and even wheat varieties we can date back to 9,000 B.C. — are still available today. Sorting through the types of wheat and flour to find the most nutritious or flavorful — or the best to use for a specific purpose — requires wading into a deep gene pool. Doing so, however, will give you better breads, more tender cakes and biscuits, and sturdier pastas.
There are no “standard” types of wheat. The term “wheat” encompasses a sprawling family tree of species, and myriad varieties within those species (see "Wheat’s Family Tree" later in this article), and no two varieties produce grain that’s exactly the same.
Common wheat (Triticum aestivum), sometimes called “bread wheat,” is the most widely grown species, and yields the flour we buy by the bag. This wheat is the chief ingredient in commercial foods, such as loaf and raised breads, tortillas, doughnuts and cakes, and East Asian noodles.
Durum wheat (Triticum turgidum ssp. durum) is used in most dried pasta and couscous, for raised and flat breads in parts of Europe and the Middle East, and, less often, in the United States for raised breads. Although pasta can be made from common wheat as well, durum pasta predominates and is generally considered higher-quality.
Ancient wheat varieties are currently grown on smaller acreages in the United States than common and durum wheats. Whereas the kernels of the latter two are released from their hulls by threshing, those of ancient wheats remain enclosed in inedible hulls after threshing. Each ancient species occupies a different branch of wheat’s family tree: Spelt (Triticum. aestivum var. spelta) is an older form of common wheat, emmer (farro) (T. turgidum ssp. dicoccoides) is the direct ancestor of durum wheat, and einkorn (Triticum monococcum) is closely related to a wild grass species that played a part in the ancestry of all wheats (see Wheat's Family Tree). These early wheat varieties are now mechanically dehulled, and lend themselves to a variety of products. Some strains of einkorn can make raised bread or pasta. Spelt, too, can create good bread.
Whole-wheat products are richer in fiber, minerals, B vitamins and antioxidants than those made from white flour — which, stripped of its nutrient- and fiber-rich germ and bran, provides mostly empty calories (see Whole-Wheat Flour vs. Unenriched White Flour Chart). An extra-nutrient-rich wheat variety processed into white flour will be less nutritious than whole-wheat flour from any run-of-the-mill variety. The long-running Framingham Heart Study in Massachusetts, begun in 1948 and still continuing, found that subjects who ate at least five servings of grains per day, with whole-wheat products prominent, lost more belly fat than those who ate less than five servings of grains.
But if you consume the whole kernel, can you obtain better nutrition from some classes of wheat than from others? Possibly. Each wheat variety has a different profile, higher in some nutrients but lower in others.
Early wheat varieties are usually higher in protein than common wheat. An evaluation of 176 wheat varieties showed that dietary fiber was highest in common wheat, while einkorn and emmer had the lowest amount. (Remember: Everything’s relative; all whole-wheat varieties in that study would still be good sources of fiber.) Plus, although some published research finds that einkorn, emmer and spelt typically have more iron, zinc, copper and other essential minerals than do common wheats, other researchers have found no differences.
Throughout the past century, wheat breeders’ efforts have converged with changes in farming practices — most prominently, chemical soil fertilization — to increase wheat yields per acre. Millers, bakers, nutritionists and wheat breeders themselves have wondered whether these higher yields have been achieved at the cost of lower nutrition, a theory that has sparked growing interest in ancient varieties and heirloom wheat varieties (strains that were developed by farmers before the age of the university plant breeder).
Recently, researchers in Europe and North America have been studying whether wheat nutrition has indeed declined. The majority have examined old and new wheats grown under the same environmental conditions, often focusing on protein, which is the dominant factor in bread and pasta quality. Most field trials have revealed that early wheat varieties have protein levels that are, on average, equal to or greater than those of modern wheats. In contrast, no strong differences have been found in the few retrospective studies of fiber or antioxidants. Wheat classes rank in protein content from highest to lowest in this order: Hard red spring wheats, hard red winter wheats, and then both red and white soft winter wheats (see “Wheat Terminology, Demystified” later in this article).
Recent trials by North Dakota State University found that the hard red spring wheat varieties ‘Alsen,’ ‘Elgin’ and ‘Glenn’ showed the highest amount of protein of the 18 varieties tested. Among hard red winter wheats, the older varieties ‘Karl’ and ‘Plainsman V’ remain among the highest in protein content.
Zinc tends to be lower in newer European and U.S. wheat varieties than in those developed 50 to 100 years ago. Iron has seen a less steep, less consistent decline, while other essential minerals have remained stable for the most part.
White spring wheat — a class grown primarily in the Pacific Northwest — is generally lower in protein than red wheats. Whole-wheat products made from these white wheats may be less bitter than those made from whole red wheat. Commercial millers like white spring wheat because they can mill “closer to the bran” and extract more flour per ton of wheat. Most wheat exported from the West Coast to East Asia is white, because noodles made from red wheat tend to be gray.
Older white spring varieties have distinctly higher levels of copper, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, selenium and zinc than do modern varieties. Wheat researcher Stephen Jones and his colleagues at Washington State University have surmised that breeders of white wheats have inadvertently driven down mineral content by selecting varieties with higher yields and lighter flour color.
Taking into account all nutrients, wheat from heirloom and ancient varieties could raise your intake of some nutrients while not affecting your intake of others. Wide variation exists, however, among individual wheats in their ability to pack protein, antioxidants and minerals into the kernel. Furthermore, soil and climate can trump genetic influences on nutritional quality. Thus, regardless of species or class, wheat varieties raised with optimal growing conditions will produce nutrient-dense grain.
Concerns about maximum nutrition and quality mustn’t overlook the effects of processing flour on the final food product. Flour improves with age; its gluten strength increases and its color lightens if it is exposed to the air for several days or weeks before baking. Commercial millers often use tricks to shorten the time from grain to bread. They add chemical oxidizing agents to simulate this aging and allow flour to be used soon after milling. Potassium bromate, once the most common such “bleaching” agent, is a potential carcinogen that has been outlawed in many countries, and the Food and Drug Administration discourages its use. One widely used chemical, azodicarbonamide, is not harmful itself, but one of the byproducts of its breakdown in the body is semicarbazide, also a potential carcinogen. Buy unbleached flour and read product labels to avoid such chemicals.
Texture and flavor in breads and other products rely on many factors. Unlike single-malt Scotch whiskys, prized for their single-source origins, flour milled from only one wheat variety is rarely optimal for baking; blends predominate. Consider an experiment in France, says Julie Dawson, a plant scientist at the University of Wisconsin. Trained panelists tasted sourdough breads made from 12 flours milled from French heirloom wheat varieties, such as ‘Blé de la Réole,’ ‘Bladette de Puylaurens’ and ‘Souris.’ The highest average score went to a bread made with a blend of flours from several heirloom varieties — a mixture created by a farmer and baker who worked together over several years.
Recent taste research by Maria Jesus Callejo Gonzalez of the Technical University of Madrid compared spelt and common wheat varieties. She found that “one of the spelt breads was more complex with respect to flavor attributes.” Available winter spelt varieties include ‘Champ,’ ‘Comet,’ ‘Maverick,’ ‘Oberkulmer,’ ‘Sammy,’ ‘Sindelar,’ ‘Sungold,’ ‘Tiber’ and ‘Tora.’ ‘Bavaria,’ a spring spelt, is also sold. There have not yet been any controlled quality evaluations for flavor on specific spelt varieties.
Randy Metz, a Pennsylvania grower, says a good spelt for baking is ‘Sungold,’ but it’s new, expensive, and hard to find. He also likes ‘Maverick,’ which dehulls easily — about 40 percent clean in the combine, he says, and he recommends it for homestead growers. But dehulled spelt won’t grow, Metz says, so to grow your own, plant unprocessed kernels with hulls intact.
Other early wheat varieties also stand out from the crowd, Dawson says. “We found that einkorn and emmer wheats have their own distinct flavors, and there is diversity among varieties.” Today, einkorn is widely sought-after for its unique taste, which Dawson describes as sweet and nutty. Einkorn flour, despite being powdery and having low gluten strength, can still make excellent-tasting pasta.
North American heirloom wheats are treasured for good flavor. In northern climates, the red spring wheat variety ‘Red Fife’ is one such favorite. Among hard winter wheats of the central Plains states, ‘Turkey Red’ is a true heirloom variety that started as a blend of genetic types. Quickly adopted by Mennonite immigrants to Kansas in the 1870s, by 1920 ‘Turkey Red’ constituted a staggering 99 percent of the Great Plains’ wheat production. It is the genetic foundation on which today’s higher-yielding hard winter wheats were built. Working with Heartland Mill in Marienthal, Kan., artisanal baker Thom Leonard has helped foster the cultivation of ‘Turkey Red’ for use by other bakers and himself. He says the old variety has a complexity and flavor that, he speculates, may have resulted in part from its diverse genetic makeup.
Flavor is of crucial importance in durum wheat, too. At the Italian national Agricultural Research Council (CRA) in Rome, Dr. Norberto Pogna and his colleagues routinely put durum wheat to the pasta test. Spaghetti is evaluated by a panel of professional tasters, and any flour that creates spaghetti without excellent texture and taste will go no further. Pogna’s panels find few differences between older and newer durum varieties in these samplings.
As a home miller or baker, you can craft noodles, bread and baked delicacies from a diverse set of wheat varieties or blends simply by adjusting ingredients and methods. This allows experimentation with wheats, whether ancient species, heirloom strains or recently bred varieties. Most will work well, with no chemical additives.
Wheat’s evolution goes back about 4 million years to southwest Asia, where two wild grasses, Triticum boeoticum and a species in the genus Aegilops, cross-pollinated to produce a hybrid species, T. dicoccoides. Between 8,000 and 11,000 years ago, a close relative of T. boeoticum was domesticated, creating einkorn (T. monococcum); at about that same time, emmer (T. turgidum ssp. dicoccoides) arose from the domestication of T. dicoccoides. Between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago, the wild grass A. tauschii pollinated emmer and produced spelt (T. aestivum var. spelta). Further domestication of spelt led to the development of common wheat (T. aestivum).
Varieties of wheat are classified as either “spring” or “winter” types. Those terms refer to differences in the plant’s response to cold weather.
Winter wheats flower only after several weeks of cold weather, so winter wheats are sown in autumn and harvested the following spring or summer in regions that have cold winters. Spring wheats have no such temperature requirement in order to flower. They are sown in spring where winters are cold enough to kill winter wheat, and they can be sown in autumn in regions that are relatively warm year-round. The most commonly grown durum wheat varieties are spring wheats; einkorn, emmer and spelt wheats can be either.
Wheats are also classified as “red” or “white” and as “hard” or “soft” (based on kernel characteristics). In North America, breads and rolls usually use higher-protein hard-wheat flour (which has more gluten, creating the spongy texture of yeast breads), while lower-protein soft-wheat flour goes into cakes, cookies, crackers and pastries.
Flours labeled “bread flour” at the supermarket are made from blends of hard wheats, with a protein content of 12 to 14 percent. Products labeled “cake flour” or “pastry flour” are from soft wheats with a protein content of 8 to 10 percent, and “all-purpose flour” is either medium-protein hard-wheat flour or a blend of hard- and soft-wheat flours with a protein content of 10 to 12 percent.
Recent books such as Dr. William Davis’ Wheat Belly and David Perlmutter’s Grain Brain revile wheat, blaming it for everything from “destroying more brains in this country than all the strokes, car accidents and head trauma combined” (Davis) to depression, schizophrenia and infertility (Perlmutter).
Seizing on these sensational claims, food manufacturers have flooded the market with “gluten-free” products — many of which are just sugar-laden junk food. Thousands of people have come to believe that contemporary wheat causes gluten intolerance and they’re convinced that they suffer from the ailment.
Nutrition researchers can point to mountains of scientific data demonstrating the health benefits of whole-wheat foods. But that doesn't mean wheat is good for everyone.
Just under one percent of people in the United States suffer from an autoimmune condition called celiac disease, in which certain peptides — protein fragments produced during digestion of wheat's gluten proteins — severely damage the walls of the intestines.
People who have celiac disease must not eat foods containing wheat of any type, including spelt, emmer, and einkorn.
Today, another estimated 5 to 10 percent of people not suffering from celiac disease are nevertheless avoiding wheat because they either have or believe they may have a digestive intolerance of gluten proteins.
Many people think genetic modification of wheat is behind the apparent rise in gluten sensitivity. They are mistaken.
No transgenic wheats — often called “genetically modified” or “GM” — are currently available to wheat growers. Nor are wheats “hybrids” in the modern meaning of the term.
In Wheat Belly, Davis, a cardiologist, makes the extreme argument that no one should eat wheat. He blames wheat consumption for a host of medical problems: gastrointestinal disruption, obesity, diabetes, autism, hyperactivity disorders, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, dementia, coronary artery disease and even erectile dysfunction.
Some say that food processing and additives are more likely to blame. Because much processed food pairs refined white flour with sugar and industrial fats, some people may feel better when they eliminate wheat — because they’re eliminating excess starch, sugar and fats, too.
In point-by-point reviews of Davis's claims published recently by the Journal of Cereal Science and the American Association of Cereal Chemists International's journal Cereal Foods World, very little of Wheat Belly stood up to scientific scrutiny; these and other thorough examinations of published research have turned up nothing that supports the notion that wheat is a top culprit in modern health problems as Davis and Perlmutter suggest.
Davis charges that the forms of gluten proteins found in modern wheat varieties are toxic to everyone's digestive system — not just those of celiac patients — and that one class of such proteins, called gliadins, have the effect of an addictive drug, compelling us to overeat.
Davis claims that gliadins are a product of 20th-century wheat breeding; he is mistaken. Wheat has contained gliadins for as long as there has been wheat.
According to Robert Graybosch, a wheat geneticist with the U.S Department of Agriculture in Lincoln, Neb., “It probably is not speculation to say we could actually be consuming less gliadin than great-grandpa did.” Research by Graybosch and others shows that all types of wheat new and old, including durum, spelt, emmer and einkorn, contain gliadins and the other major class of gluten proteins, called glutenins, in a vast array of forms. The specific forms of glutenins and gliadins in today's varieties can be found in varieties and species throughout wheat's family tree.
Davis's alarming claim that gliadin proteins are addictive is based on a 1979 study finding that certain wheat-derived peptides bind to the same receptor sites in the brain as do opium-derived drugs. Davis claims that these peptides, known as opioids, are unique to wheat, but the 1979 study also found that opioids from rice, spinach and milk bind to those same receptors. Those results were obtained by treating cell cultures and rat organs directly with purified opioids; there is no research showing that when wheat foods are consumed and digested, that opiods are produced or absorbed or that they move through the bloodstream unaltered to the brain receptors in doses large enough to have an addictive effect or stimulate any other behavior.
While the way wheat is bred may result in nutritional effects, claims that wheat or gluten itself is the source of various health issues remain unproven.
(See William Davis, Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health (Rodale Books, 2011.) For detailed analyses of the points made in the book, see Fred J.P. H. Brouns and others, “Does wheat make us fat and sick?” Journal of Cereal Science (2013) 10.1016/j.jcs.2013.06.002 and Julie Jones, “Wheat Belly — an analysis of selected statements and basic theses from the book,” Cereal Foods World 78 (2012), 177-189.)
The MOTHER EARTH NEWS Whole Grains Guide: Recipes and information for whole-grain foods.
Homegrown Whole Grains by Sara Pitzer
The Organic Grain Grower by Jack Lazor
Small-Scale Grain Raising by Gene Logsdon
Uprisings: A Hands-On Guide to the Community Grain Revolution by Sarah Simpson and Heather McLeod
Stan Cox is a sustainable-living activist and plant breeder at The Land Institute in Salina, Kan. He has worked as a USDA wheat geneticist and his most recent book is Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing.
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