Wheat has been an important food for humans for thousands of years. Along with corn and rice, it’s a global staple that makes up a huge part of the diet for billions of people. So why has wheat fallen out of favour in recent years? This once nutritious food seems to be creating a growing incidence of intolerances, gut dysbiosis and life-threatening allergies. Is it possible to eat wheat in a way that can be well-digested and nutritious?
The Evolution Of Wheat
What used to be a tough, wild grass began to be gathered and cultivated by humans over 10,000 years ago in the ‘fertile crescent’ – the area now known as the Middle East and Turkey. Varieties of wheat, such as einkorn and emmer, have been shaped by human cultivation over thousands of years to become the high-starch, easy-to-thresh, short-statured plant we now call modern wheat Triticum aestivum.
The hybridisation of modern wheat by humans has sped up greatly in the last 50 years. The development of high-yield, semi-dwarf, disease-resistant wheat varieties – kickstarted during the ‘green revolution’ in the 1960s – has undoubtably saved millions from starvation and has provided food security for countries such as Mexico and India. To reach these high yields profitably, a combination of pesticides and herbicides (such as glyphosate) must be used on the soil, seeds and plant through the growing season. Modern wheat has also been bred for a higher gluten content to make it suitable for the mechanics of the modern bread factory.
A Return To Older Varieties And Farming Practices
In response to this, there has been a rise in farmers returning to the more traditional styles of growing and processing wheat. Woodstock Farm, a 2000-acre certified organic farm integrating cattle, sheep and cereal crops in Berrigan NSW is one such example. Ian and Courtney Congdon buy grain grown on Woodstock Farm, run by Ian’s parents, grind it onsite in a stone mill, then sell the fresh flour to bakeries and customers, locally and in Melbourne. They are experimenting with growing heritage varieties of wheat, such as spelt and khorasan, as well as modern varieties like spitfire and rosella.
In order to grow wheat successfully without the use of chemicals, Woodstock Farm uses a mixture of pasture and cropping in a rotational system. First, the paddock is grazed heavily by cattle or sheep to increase nutrient cycling and reduce weed pressure; then, the paddocks are tilled over summer. Tilling has a negative impact on soil structure, so cropping is limited to a few years in rotation. Paddocks are fertilised with composted chicken manure, wheat seeds are inoculated with biological fertilisers, and crops are fertilised with worm-juice sprays.
Older varieties of wheat, such as spelt, have a close-fitting hull that is hard to thresh. The higher costs of both threshing the grains and growing organically accounts for the higher price of these varieties at the wholefood store.
What are known as ancient grains – spelt, khorasan, emmer and einkorn, to name a few – are varieties of wheat, but they don’t have the same level of hybridisation as modern wheat. While these ancient grains do have gluten, their gluten has a different genetic structure, which can be less likely to stimulate an intolerance in people who eat it. This may explain why some people react to modern wheat, but can eat ancient wheat varieties.
It’s also worth noting that modern wheat has a glycaemic index close to sugar and is more likely to set off a bloodsugar roller-coaster than the ancient varieties, which, when properly prepared (i.e. made into sourdough bread), can be considered low GI. This may be why bread made with spelt or khorasan feels more satisfying to eat and leaves you fuller for longer.
Clockwise from top: Courtney Young and Ian Congdon from Woodstock Farm; Letting the sheep in to enjoy the stubble after the harvest at Woodstock Farm; Khorasan wheat hand stooked.
Industrial Bread – The Staff Of Life?
For thousands of years bread was made with just three ingredients; flour, water and salt. Today, if you read the label on a standard loaf of bread from the supermarket, you will find somewhere between fifteen and thirty ingredients listed. The reason for this is that industrial bread made in a factory needs so much more than just three ingredients for it to be made quickly and profitably.
In the industrial breadmaking process, wheat is milled at a high speed, temperature and pressure, which breaks apart the starches so the enzymes and improvers can work on the flour. Hydrogenated plant oils and high amounts of yeast are then added and the dough is mixed at a very high speed and rises in about one hour. (Compare this to the eight to sixteen hours required for sourdough bread!) The high speed and temperature used greatly reduces the vitamin content of the flour, therefore regulation requires the addition of synthetic vitamins to make the bread ‘nutritious’ again.
Sourdough & Soaking Grain
There is a reason the sourdough method of breadmaking has made a comeback in recent years. This age-old food tradition has its roots in traditional knowledge that grain was not easy to digest unless properly prepared. Cultures all over the world knew that to soak, leaven, sprout or somehow ‘pre-digest’ their grains was the only way that they would be healthy and nutritious. In Scotland, oats were soaked overnight before they were cooked into porridge. In Mexico, corn cakes are fermented for several days to two weeks in banana leaves.
Bruce Pascoe has recently shown that here in Australia Aboriginal people were growing, harvesting, soaking and grinding grains such as native millet and oats as far back as 30,000 years ago, and baking bread with it. Aboriginal people used techniques, such as placing grains in a leaching basket to soak in a running stream for many days, to remove antinutrients and make their grains more digestible.
Why Soak Your Grains
The main reason for this process is due to the phytic acid inherent in all grains. Nature is smart, and phytic acid is a chemical mechanism in the seed that stops it from sprouting until the conditions are right. The right conditions include moisture, warmth, slight acidity and time.
Give the grain these conditions and the phytic acid will be neutralised and the seed will be ready to sprout, thereby becoming very digestible. When the phytic acid is left in the grain (in the industrial breadmaking process 90% remains), it inhibits the enzymes we need to digest our food, and combines with minerals such as calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and zinc in the intestinal tract to block their absorption.
How Sourdough Bread Works
To make sourdough bread and obtain the full nutrition from your wheat, you will need to make or obtain a starter culture. This is made with flour, water and time (see recipe below). The lacto-bacteria in the grain will ‘capture’ wild yeast from the air and become bubbly and active. When ready, your starter is combined with bread flour, water and salt, mixed into a dough and left to rise for many hours in a long fermentation process.
Through this slow-food process your grain has the four optimum conditions to neutralise the phytic acid; moisture (a wet dough), warmth (bread is left to rise on the bench in a warm kitchen), acidity (the starter culture harnesses lacticacid– loving bacteria) and time (allowed to rise for at least eight hours, and up to sixteen for a really well-digested loaf).
Grinding Your Wheat
Grinding wheat between two stones is a slower, cooler process than modern milling, and will retain more of the nutrition in the grain. You can buy flour that has been stone-milled (may be labelled stone-ground) or you can purchase a grain mill and grind your own fresh flour at home. Home grain mills come in different types from hand-crank to electric pushbutton mills. You can also add a grain-grinding attachment to some kitchen appliances, or you can buy second hand. There are even stores popping up at farmers’ markets and online where you can buy small batches of freshly stone-milled flour from a variety of grains.
Eating Wheat – Where To Start
Unfortunately, soaking your wheat and making sourdough will not render wheat tolerable for those with severe gluten intolerance, including coeliac disease. And those with serious gut dysbiosis may need many months of healing before they can start to reintroduce wheat into their diet. But those who can eat wheat have choices as to how the wheat is grown, what varieties are used, how it is ground into a flour, and how it is prepared, in order to ensure a nutritious and delicious form of wheat in our diets.
Sourdough Starter Recipe
Day 1 Place a few tablespoons of rye flour in a jar and mix with a few tablespoons of water. Leave on the bench, covered with a cloth, for twenty-four hours.
Day 2 Empty out half the starter from the jar, but don’t clean it. Add a few tablespoons of rye flour to the jar and a few tablespoons of water. Mix. Leave on the bench for 24 hours. You can compost the starter you emptied out.
Day 3 Repeat as Day 2.
Day 4 By now the starter should be showing signs of life with bubbles forming in the mix. Repeat the same step.
Day 5 The starter should now be active and bubbly. If it is, it’s ready to use for breadmaking. If not, repeat the same step of emptying and adding more flour/water for one more day.
No-Knead Sourdough Bread Recipe
This simple sourdough recipe is easy to start with. The texture and flavour of your bread will vary greatly according to the flour you choose and how much hydration your loaf has (how much water you add). You can experiment over time and find a flour and recipe that suits you.
• 2 cups of active starter
• 2 tsp of salt
• 2.5 cups of water (approximate)
• 5 to 6 cups of stone-ground whole spelt flour
Mix starter, water and salt in a large bowl until combined. Add flour and mix well. Pour dough into a large lined baking tin. Cover with a damp tea towel and set in a warm part of your kitchen to rise for eight to twelve hours. When the dough has doubled in size, bake in a hot oven (230°C) for approximately one hour or until you hear a firm hollow sound when you knock on the base of the loaf.