What Happened To Grains + Why I Don't Believe A Gluten Free Diet Is For Everyone
Going grain free is a pretty popular diet trend these days between gluten-free diets, paleo diets, ketogenic diets, etc. grains (and carbs) have somehow turned into the enemy that everyone wants to avoid. And while there are certain people who I absolutely think this may be good for (specifically those with celiac disease, or those with certain gut issues) generally speaking I really don’t believe that grains are out to harm us.
Here is why...virtually every single major civilization was built on grain. Asia was built on rice, Central America on Corn, North America on Wheat...you get the picture. For centuries humans have been cultivating, fermenting, and baking grains for consumption, yet somewhere in the last few generations something started to change. But what exactly was the cause of this change?
While we could go with the theory that our bodies were never meant to process grains, that doesn't really make sense now does it based on 10,000 years of food tradition and historical evidence.
So what other cause could we come up with to explain why so many people in recent decades now seem to have food allergies, intolerances, gut issues, and clinical auto-immune conditions that are triggered by the consumption of grains?
The question I really think we should be asking ourselves is what happened to our grains.
One thing is clear, modern wheat is making people sick, and all you have to do is talk to an ancient, heritage grain farmer, or an artisan baker to hear just how poorly they will speak of mass-produced modern-day wheat, and how far it really is from the beautiful and nutrient dense ancient-grain varieties they work with every day.
There are literally hundreds of thousands of varieties of these ancient, heritage grains and yet most people only ever consume three-five common grain types...but how did this happen?
Why Modern-Day Wheat Is A Far Cry From Its Ancient Ancestors
So what happened to wheat? Well a conventional food system happened that prioritized processing and shelf life over nutrition, taste, and variety. Today modern day milling methods required to produce white flour eliminate the portions of the wheat kernel that are the richest in protein, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and fiber...including those which help in the break down of gluten.
So What Changed?
To put it simply, everything. Absolutely everything about the way we grow, process, and eat wheat and other grains has changed over the past few generations since the industrialization and mass production of the most commonly consumed grains began.
Back in the 1870's the invention of the modern mill revolutionized the way that grains were processed, from being stone ground to finely milled into a fine "white flour" that was easy to store and ship. Within one decade this kind of industrialized milling replaced virtually all stone-ground mills, and started what we now know to be our processed, industrial food system.
From there the demand for easy to control and process wheat flour led to changes, which we now see in modern day agriculture. Farmers adopted the mono-crop system to keep up with the demand for these processed grains, and the genetic modification of grains began.
These mono-crop farms eliminated the thousands of varieties of grains we once farmed and consumed, and replaced them with single clone varieties, which to no-ones surprise are highly susceptible to disease, as are all clone-crops.
But What Is The Big Deal With Mono-Crops?
Think of mono-crops this way. If you had a neighborhood filled with houses, all with the same lock to keep them protected, how much easier would it be for a robber to rob all of your homes? The robber would only need one key right? Not the best model for defense.
The same is true for mono-crops, they become incredibly susceptible to disease and harmful pathogens because they are all the exact same plant. Not to mention that because mono-crops are grown for efficiency, they do not use any of the traditional crop-rotation farming techniques that have been proven to help keep the soil (and therefore the plants) healthy.
This means that not only are our modern day grains easy to "rob" meaning they require more pesticides to keep them healthy. They also are growing from nutrient depleted, lifeless soil, which only further makes the plant void of nutrition and overall unhealthy.
So Who Does This System Benefit?
So now you can probably see how the way we grow, cultivate, and mill our current modern-day grains has changed. While many would argue that these advancements are for the better, the question we really should be asking ourselves is...better for whom?
For the giant-super farms? For the pesticide and mass-produced seed company Monsanto? For the commercialized/processed food system? For the people? No, not for the people.
We have created a food system that does not serve the health of the people or the planet first, and that is what movements like the Regenerative Agriculture Movement and the Slow Food Movement are trying to change.
Why We Need To Change The Way We Grow, Eat, and Talk About Grains
Most likely if you are reading this you are at least somewhat interested in sustainability. You may be focusing on buying local food, and organic whenever possible, but have you thought about your grains?
Hopefully after this article you are, but for most people we don't really think about our ingredients such as flour, bread, corn, oats etc. the same way we think about our fruits and vegetables. Yet here in the USA over 65% of all our nations agriculture is dedicated to the production of grains, while only 6% is dedicated to fruits/vegetables. If we want to change our food system to better support our health, if we want to support the health of our environment, our soil, and our water supplies...we have to start talking about grains.
Why A Gluten Free Diet Isn't For Everyone
Now coming from someone with celiac disease, you may think that I would be all for the elimination of grains, and gluten-free diets for the masses, but that honestly couldn't be further from the truth. You see, there is a common misconception that gluten-free diets are in fact healthier when there really is no evidence to prove this is the case for people that do not suffer from celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
What I find is that most of the time people may just be overdoing it with the amount of processed, gluten-containing foods they are consuming, which is why when they go gluten free they feel better. The same person could also simply switch to consuming higher quality bread products made with ancient-heritage grains and may feel the same positive health effects.
Additionally, the traditional process that goes into making our bread products has been found to be incredibly helpful in making grains easier to digest, even for people with sensitivities.
When bread is fermented and made in the way it was traditionally meant to be, the fermentation process partially digests the gluten in the bread, which decreases the overall glycemic index of the bread and allows for the nutrients to become more bioavailable. This process also breaks down lectins, which are commonly referenced to cause GI distress, making the bread more easy to digest.
However, today this long fermentation process very rarely takes place in our commercialized bread industry as it simply just takes too long, and is not really capable of being done in giant large scale batches.
Lastly, I do not recommend a gluten-free diet for those who do not have celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or a specific GI condition/auto-immune condition because generally speaking gluten-free products are going to be just as refined and processed and their non-gluten free alternatives.
I would much rather the general public switch to consuming more heritage grains, and artisan bread products, before I would ever recommend they switch to another processed (yet gluten-free) bread. Gluten free may be healthier for some people given their specific medical conditions, but there is no evidence to show that it is necessary for the general health of the public.
So What Should You Do Now?
Well it now should be clear that I don’t believe for one second that humans weren’t meant to process grains. As I mentioned before, we as humans have been consuming grains for thousands of thousands of years. What I do believe is that our current processed grains and the means by which we are producing them needs to change.
So maybe it’s not the grains at all, maybe it’s what we did to them and now it’s time to fix it. My advice...rather than going grain free (unless you medically are required to such as with avoiding wheat with celiac disease), try and incorporate a variety of REAL whole grains in your diet. Start getting creative and practice making bread with high-quality flours at home. Or find a local artisan baker who uses a variety of whole grain, heritage-flours and introduce yourself. Ask them questions, and start to learn more about the ingredients they use and how they make their products. I promise that they will be thrilled to talk to you, as they are just as passionate about changing the way Americans consume bread as the small-farmers they are sourcing their heritage-grain ingredients from.