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The Sad Truth about Grains in America

Let’s face it: grains are a staple for most Americans. However there are many people who choose to eliminate grain from their diets, claiming it is a “modern” addition to our plates. But actually, we as a species have been consuming grain for around 10,000 years. For many cultures, it is the main source of their nutrients. Of course, when we hear grain, we generally jump straight to wheat, especially in the US. But there are many varieties out there including barley, oats, rice, rye, corn, quinoa, bulgur, farro, and more. And for thousands of years, these grains did not seem to cause the strife they do now. What gives?

First, it’s important to note the difference between whole and refined grains. There are three different parts to a grain: the bran, the endosperm, and the germ. Most of the vitamins and nutrients are in the bran and the germ. Bran and fiber help slow starch breaking down into glucose in our bodies (preventing those blood sugar spikes we have talked about before in this blog), and phytochemicals and essential minerals (found in the germ) are protecting us from disease.

Then there’s the refined version, introduced during the Industrial Revolution. During this period, we created roller mills to process grain – as opposed to stone grinding. Roller mills strip the grain of the bran and germ, leaving behind only the endosperm. That means many of the beneficial components (fiber, antioxidants, vitamin B &E, iron, copper, zinc, magnesium, healthy fats, phytochemicals) are lost. Phytochemicals come solely from plants. They are essential for fighting off things like viruses and bacteria in the plant, and they lend some of these immune boosting capabilities to us when we consume them.

At first, we only saw benefits to this industrialization. Without the bran, you get a fluffy flour, perfect for luscious loafs and delicate pastries, plus it’s easier to chew. Without the germ, the shelf-life is prolonged because of its fat content. Essentially, grain was processed faster, lasted longer, and became more easily accessible. But! We took away the nutritional parts. When grain is processed this way, you lose more than half of the vitamin B, about ninety percent of the vitamin E, and you virtually lose all of the fiber. Retroactively, some manufacturers have attempted fortifying their grain with added nutrients to make up for this lack with synthetic additives like folic acid. Unfortunately, this does not mirror the real thing, and phytochemicals cannot be replaced.

Now let’s take a closer look at modern wheat, and how it differs from the wheat consumed by our ancestors. Because what we currently buy at the store and cook up at our homes does not equate the bread and flour used even just fifty years ago. By hybridizing the strains over the years to maximize production, the DNA is drastically different, and the gluten content is much higher. The new wheat is also high-yielding and resistant to disease. This lead to our grains today producing five times more yield than ancient grains like einkorn, a variant rediscovered in the 90’s.

Again, only benefits could be seen with this progression to dwarf wheat. But we have since learned that dwarf wheat is barely recognizable from its healthier predecessor, and while nutrients are lowered, the phytic acid is not. Phytic acid has been branded as an “antinutrient” due to the body’s inability to break it down. It will latch itself onto minerals like iron, zinc, and calcium, making them less able to absorb within the gut. So now concerns are rising that the focus on faster processing and yield increase has resulted in the loss of beneficial nutrients, and has in fact increased negative reactions when consuming wheat.

Worldwide, wheat has lost a fair amount of its nutrition. But some of us are noticing a larger intolerance for grain in America. Have you or a friend ever traveled outside the country, devoured grain, and noticed fewer or no adverse reactions in your gut? It’s a common enough story, and it’s because grains in America are not the same as elsewhere, especially wheat. This is thanks to pesticides, particularly glyphosate, one of the most common, which artificially dries up the plants before harvest and is sprayed directly on the plants. Studies have linked glyphosate with increased cancer risk, liver and kidney damage, toxic effects on neurotransmission, and disruption of the gut microbiome.

This is why, when someone complains of a grain intolerance, it’s hard to pin down what might be the actual problem. For example, some people claim to be gluten free, but eat grains like spelt or einkorn, which have gluten, and are fine. Celiac only affects a small number of the population, so what most of us are perceiving as an intolerance for gluten is actually an intolerance to modern, processed wheat.

If you are struggling with your grain intake the way many of us are, going grain free or gluten free can be a great option. Ironically though, most gluten free options out there that replace wheat-based alternatives are basically junk food. Again, it’s always important to check labels. Many gluten free products will reveal a shocking array of terrible ingredients like highly refined industrial starches, gums and seed-oils to name just a few.  It’s important to know which brands are healthy and responsible, like we always strive to be here at Plantiful Kitchen.

Bottom line, it’s not easy to claim grain is either good or bad for you. Every person, and by extension every gut, is different. But we can say with certainty that finding healthy, whole grain or grain-alternatives in America is not easy. Out of my personal struggle with these issues Plantiful Kitchen was born in the hope to help ignite change in the food industry through educating consumers and offering better alternatives.