Are Grains Really Dangerous to Our Health?

By Brane Žilavec, May 2015

In the United States we can witness the emergence of a strong anti-grain movement amongst the nutritional researchers and health experts who are condemning grains – especially the gluten containing grains – as God’s scourge. They are calling them ‘dangerous’, ‘silent killers’, ‘destroyers of brain’, ‘one of the most toxic food’…

Here is a list of the books which have been selected as being very influential in exposing these new revelations about the 'true nature' of grains:

The health experts listed above do not agree about all aspects of their research – they even disagree about some of them; but what they all have in common is exclusion of gluten grains from the human nutrition. Now there are also websites that either promote or are exclusively dedicated to "educating doctors and patients about gluten sensitivity." In recent years this movement culminated in 'gluten-free health summits' where "some of the most influential doctors, health practitioners and experts in the world … (have presentations) on gluten sensitivity." [6]

These books, websites and conferences have had and still have powerful influence on many health-concerned consumers, especially in United States. Numerous people have been experiencing positive health changes after elimination of foods containing gluten from their diet and then spreading the good news. For example, "nearly twenty million people contend that they regularly experience distress after eating products that contain gluten, and a third of American adults say that they are trying to eliminate it from their diets." [7] This instigated growing demands for gluten-free food products to such extent that "sales of gluten-free products will exceed fifteen billion dollars by 2016, twice the amount of five years earlier." [7]

What are the arguments given by the representatives of these new 'revelations' about the real nature of (gluten) grains? The summary of their arguments can be formulated in three main points:

This, in a nutshell, is what they claim and what we will investigate in this report. We will survey to which degree their evidences can pass the test of critical objective evaluation. For the purpose of cutting through the complexities of this topic this investigation is divided into the following chapters:

  1. Are we genetically predetermined for a no-grain diet?
  2. Can grains serve as appropriate staple food for humanity?
  3. Is coeliac disease just the tip of a hidden gluten pandemic?
  4. Is consumption of grains at the root of the modern health crisis?
  5. Is the elimination of grains the solution for the present crisis?
  6. Is the quality of modern grains the decisive factor?
  7. Summary of the investigation of the main anti-grain claims
  8. The spiritual-scientific perspective on questions about grains

1. Are we Genetically Predetermined for A no-Grain Diet?

In the book Dangerous Grains – published in 2002 – there are set up many fundamental tenets of the members of the anti-grain movement. Among them is the following evolutionary genetic argument: "Research shows that agriculture and grain farming have ex­isted at most for ten to fifteen thousand years, and humanity has been on this planet for much longer than that. For over 2 million years, our remote hunter-gatherer ancestors ate absolutely no grains at all! Agriculture and grain-eating have been around for ½ percent or less of the history of humanity, and many of us still haven't adapted to grains, especially gluten-containing grains." [8]

In 2013 this argument is rephrased in the Grain Brain: "We have consumed a high-fat diet for the past two million years, and it is only since the advent of agriculture about ten thousand years ago that carbohydrates have become abundant in our food supply. We still have a hunter-gatherer genome." [4]

Dr Mercola is repeating this argument on his website: "For several million years, humans existed on a diet of animals and vegetation. It was only with the advent of agriculture a mere 10,000 years ago – a fraction of a second in evolutionary time – that humans began ingesting large amounts of sugar and starch in the form of grains (and potatoes) into their diets. Indeed, 99.99% of our genes were formed before the advent of agriculture; in biological terms, our bodies are still those of hunter-gatherers." [9]

One just wonders how they can be so sure that we know what people were eating for over 2 million years, for the archaeological evidence about eating habits of our ancestors depends on what has been found so far and this has its limit. There might still be things waiting to be excavated and there are many types of foods, traces of which cannot be found because they have perished in the meantime. However, there is one piece of scientific evidence which is much closer in time and – according to the authors – provides solid proof that this is not just a theory.

The Distribution of Genetic Markers for Gluten Sensitivity

"Archeologists and other researchers have found that gluten-grain eating originated in the Middle East (Mesopotamia) and spread westward to the Mediterranean basin and northward into Europe. Since gluten sensitivity can cause or contribute to infertility, recurrent spontaneous miscarriage, amenorrhea (no menstrual periods), and low birth weight, there should be less surviving individuals with the HLA-B8 genetic characteristic in the areas first (and therefore longest) exposed to gluten-gliadin grains. This is, in fact, the case: The highest percentage of individuals who still have HLA-B8 (and other gluten sensi­tivity) genetic markers is found in the areas of Europe furthest away from the original source of gluten grains." [8]

Now this argument has one serious drawback: the map of the distribution of genetic markers (see Appendix 2) does not support this story as one would expect from reliable scientific proof. Of course, one can find with little effort the evidence in the sequence of Jordan (3.8%), Tunisia (4.6%), Italy (5.3%), Spain (9.1%), Belgium (12.6%), and Ireland (18.2%). One could add a few more countries to this map of distribution, but all the rest doesn't fit into this story or is in stark contradiction to it.

For example, how can it be explained that Romania (7.3%) has more than a fourfold increase in the frequency of HLA-B8 in comparison with neighbouring Bulgaria (1.8%)? Or why people in Croatia (1.7%) have a lower frequency of this genetic marker than people in south Portugal (2%) which is further away from the Middle East? And why many countries very close to this place of origin of modern agriculture – such as Oman (11%), Morocco (8.7%), Iran (7.6%), and Saudi Arabia (7.1%) – have high occurrences of the HLA-B8, when they should be (according to the proponents of this theory) very low? In fact, the lowest occurrences of this genetic marker are in the countries far away from the Fertile Crescent, such as India (1%), Taiwan (1%), China (1.4%), and Argentina (1.7%). According to the authors of Dangerous Grains – from where the above quote about genetic markers is taken – "Asians, sub-Saharan Africans, Native Americans, Polynesians, and people of similar racial backgrounds … have had significantly less time to adapt to consumption of gluten." [1] For that reason they should have the highest frequencies of HLA-B8 marker. But if you look at the list (Appendix 2) you'll see that many of these populations have the lowest!

Because of all these anomalies the map of the distribution of genetic marker HLA-B8 cannot be taken as proof of the proposed evolutionary genetic theory. But even in the case that there were no such anomalies the explanation presented above is not the only way to explain the instances of increased distribution of HLA-B8 from original places of agriculture. One can explain it in the following way: In the first phase of adaptation to the consumption of gluten grains there were people who could adapt with ease and those who struggled with this change. These people acquired HLA-B8 genetic markers. But because those who adapted were in the great majority it was statistically more likely that those who had this genetic weakness married someone without and thus have strengthened their digestive abilities. In the course of centuries and millennia more and more these people have thus learned to adapt to consumption of grains. This means that in the beginning the percentage of people with this genetic marker was higher, and then has been slowly decreasing. But with the spread of the consumption of gluten grains into new territories this process of adaption starter later. Then it would be logical that one finds more people with HLA-B8 "in the areas of Europe furthest away from the original source of gluten grains." [8]

This is not an attempt to explain the origin of gluten sensitivity, but just to demonstrate how the same scientific evidence can be explained in two perfectly sensible ways, but with different, often completely contradictory conclusions.

Wheat versus Maize Sensitivity in the Modern Time

There is a very recent historical case of the introduction of wheat to Native Americans and maize to European peoples. It happened after the discovery of America by Columbus. If the evolutionary genetic argument were correct then people from European countries should be less adapted to consumption of maize than to consumption of wheat. And American indigenous populations should be suffering more from the consumption of wheat because people had only about 500 years in time to adapt to it. There should be a noticeable difference on the American continent in the levels of gluten intolerance between indigenous peoples and peoples of European origin.

Usually no information is given about the racial origins of people who are involved in medical studies and statistical data. But there are some good reasons for which we can assume that there is no significant difference or it might be even the case that gluten intolerance is more widespread among people of European ancestry. For example, what we are witnessing now in the UK and in the USA (both with the majority of people with white racial origins) is the prevalence of health problems related to wheat or gluten, and not so much with maize. And "according to a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of California … white Americans still make up the overwhelming majority of clinical trials. Non-white people represent fewer than five percent of overall participants." [10] Besides this we can find in the map of the distribution of genetic markers for gluten sensitivity (Appendix 2) two indigenous peoples from Mexico with very low frequency of HLA-B8: Zapotecs (3%), and Mestizos (2.4%). White people from USA and British are not included on the list, but if we look at the nearest to them, the Irish, the occurrence ranges from 16.2 to 18.2%. All this evidence clearly suggests that gluten intolerance is higher in people of European origins.

The anti-grain proponents might respond that the reason for the difference in the levels of adaption to wheat and maize is in gluten, the specific type of protein which is absent in maize. If they think this is so then they should stop talking about how human beings have not yet adapted from a hunter-gatherers' diet to consuming grains. The fact is that all grains contain proteins, and – if they persist with the argument of the supposed inability of humanity to adapt to a new diet of grains – then they should explain why Asiatic people have adapted to consumption of rice, or Native South American to consumption of maize, or European people to the consumption of maize in a few hundred years while they are still struggling with great difficulties to adapt to consumption of wheat, rye and barley, millennia after their introduction. Why should the problem be only with the gluten proteins and not with other proteins in other grains? Or maybe there are problems with the negative health effects of other proteins in maize, millet, rice and oats which have not yet been discovered?

Instead of recognising such incongruences the proponents of evolutionary theory go even further. "The truth is that we're living a life that's not suited to what we're genetically supposed to do. Period. The diseases we see nowadays are largely brought on by our lifestyle not being in harmony with our genetic predisposition. But we can change this and return our DNA back to its original programming" [4] by switching to various forms of the diet of primeval hunter-gatherers, such as paleo diet or no-grain diet – all low in carbohydrates and rich with proteins and fats of animal origins.

Genetic versus Epigenetic Influences in the Course of Evolution

The members of the anti-grain movement – with the aim to encourage people that they can switch from modern diets to the radically different diet of our primeval ancestors – use one argument provided by the new branch of genetics which demonstrate that we are not just the outcome of our genes. This branch is called epigenetics.

"No doubt our genetic heritage does play a role in determining our risk for various health conditions. But what leading-edge medical research now understands is that we have the power to change our genetic destiny… Our day-to-day lifestyle choices have a profound effect on the activity of our genes. And this is empower­ing. We now know that the food choices we make, the stress we experi­ence or avoid, the exercise we get or avoid, the quality of our sleep, and even the relationships we choose actually choreograph to a significant degree which of our genes are active and which remain suppressed. Here's what is most compelling: We can change the expression of more than 70 percent of the genes that have a direct bearing on our health and longevity." [4]

This knowledge of epigenetic influences is now used by the members of the anti-grain movement to promote reversion to the genetic pool of our remote ancestors. For what reasons? We do not live anymore in caves and hunt and fight with stone weapons. We live in different environments, especially if we live in the town or the city. We have – as all other species in the nature have – evolved through adaptation to the changes in our environment. And if we find that our modern environment and life-style are making us ill then we need to change our environment to the better and not try to reverse our human genome backwards to the time of Stone Age.

On top of this the argument that we can change our genetic destiny by our day-to-day lifestyle choices is in stark contrast with the argument that human beings could not adapt to consumption of grains in ten to fifteen thousand years since the introduction of farming, because "it takes forty to seventy thousand years [11] for any significant changes to take place in the genome that might allow us to adapt to such drastic change in our diet." [4]

Sayer Ji in one of his numerous articles explain very clearly that this is not true. "The concept – the meme – that hereditary determines one's biological destiny is archaic. After the first draft of the human genome project was completed in 2005, they only found 23,000 genes! That's not enough protein-coding genes to explain the existence of our body, which contains at least 100,000 different proteins. What this epic failure revealed is that it is not the genes themselves that determine health or disease, rather, what factors in our environment, lifestyle and nutrition that activate the expression of certain genes, and silence the expression of others." [12] There are some genes about which "we now know that silencing these genes from the 'outside in' results in the same result as being born with a defective gene from the 'inside out,' with the important difference that epigenetic – 'outside in' – gene silencing can actually be reversed or mitigated. Our genome results from millions of years of evolution, whereas our epigenome is influenced by day to day decisions, many of which depend on what we decide to eat or avoid eating, right now. Choice, therefore, becomes central to determining disease risk." [12]

So this means that "we have the power to change our genetic destiny," [3] even inside our current life span. Then all talk that we have not yet genetically adapted to consumption of grains since the emergence of agriculture is patently wrong. And the best argument for this conclusion has been provided by the members of anti-grain movement themselves!


Numerous old civilisations have come into existence by the introduction of agriculture and have existed for thousands of years with different grains as their staple food. For example, rice was and still is the most consumed grain in Asia. Maize was the staple food of many South and Central American indigenous cultures, such as Incas and Aztecs. And there is plenty of archaeological evidence about the important role of gluten grains in the civilisations of the Fertile Crescent region and its surrounding. It is an indisputable historical fact that three noteworthy civilisations – old Egyptian, old Greek, and Roman – were heavily dependent on the consumption of wheat and barley.

The Emmer and Barley as the Staple Food of Old Egypt

Some of the most outstanding achievements of old civilisations are the Egyptian pyramids. Even today we still wonder how they managed to build them without the help of modern technology. But pyramids are not the only examples of gigantic buildings in old Egypt. In many places we can still see the remnants of huge temples and sculptures of gods and pharaohs. It is hard to imagine how much human effort was needed for their construction. For example, the city of Amarna was built in four years as the new capital for Akhenaten, the pharaoh who had introduced the new religion of Sun worship. One can imagine the scope and intensity of the hard labour of workers in the harsh and hot desert environment when they were building this new city.

And what they were eating? One wall picture depicts "an Amarnan workman eating his basket lunch of bread, cucumber and onion." [13] In fact, the average "packed lunch of the Egyptian workmen consisted of bread, beer and onions." [13] This holds true also for the builders of the pyramids. This is not surprising if one knows that "the major part of Egypt's arable land was given over to cereals and flax… Cereal products were at the heart of Egyptian society forming the basis of the economy and the bulk of the national diet… Grain was a staple food and so important in the diet that it con­stituted a major item in the food rations paid as wages to royal workmen." [13]

What kinds of grains were used in old Egypt? "It is not certain whether wheat or barley was the most ancient cultivated grain in Egypt. In earliest times there was no distinction made between them, both being called simply 'grain' or 'seeds'. Barley (Hordeum vulgare) has been found at prehistoric sites like Merimda in the Delta, dating from before 4000 BC. The main variety of wheat grown in Egypt was emmer (Triticum dicoccum)… It is not clear in what proportions barley and wheat were grown. Both were used for bread and barley also for beer… Almost certainly, barley bread was more common in poorer households than that made from emmer." [13]

What about other foods? "From very ancient times beans, peas and lentils have been (used and) … a wide variety of fruit and vegetables was available… (They) formed a large and important part of the Egyptian diet, and together with bread, formed the basis of most meals. It is likely that most Egyptian peasants existed on a purely vegetarian diet, only dreaming of meat and relishing the occasional luxury of fish and wildfowl." [13] One can easily understand why in old Egypt, whose food production was strictly limited to the area of Nile flooding and a few oases, they simply couldn't afford to rely on meat as the main source of proteins. It is interesting that no any other grains are mentioned in the book about food and drink in ancient Egypt used as resource in this report. [13] It is very likely that non-gluten grains were not available in old Egypt. Maize was introduced to Egypt in the nineteenth century. Cultivation of rice was introduced in Egypt by the Arabs about 1400 years ago. And though teff and sorghum are native grains to African continent, there is no reference at all about their cultivation in the book.

But there was another interesting feature of the daily bread in that time. "Reliefs, models and paintings of all periods show that flour was milled daily in quantity in Egyptian households. First the grain was crushed in a limestone mortar set into the floor. Then it was milled on a sloping stone, known by its dished shape as a saddle quern, by means of a rubbing stone. The rotary quern was not introduced into Egypt until the Graeco-Roman period. Quern emplacements have been found at Kahun, the Twelfth Dynasty village of the pyramid-builders, and in the workmen's village at Amarna, serving the city built by Akhenaten in the Eighteenth Dynasty." [13]

This means that bread was baked from freshly milled wholemeal flour using the simple natural methods. For example, "flour was mixed with water and a little salt in a large con­tainer… Unleavened dough could be (then) shaped by hand and cooked directly on a flat stone placed over the fire, on the baking floor inside a clay oven, or … in the ashes of the fire." [13] Another method was the use of sourdough starter. "Bread has been leavened in this way in Egypt for thousands of years, but more sophisticated means of leavening were also available. Analyses of bread and beer samples have proved that the Egyptians were us­ing a pure form of yeast at least as early as 1500 BC." [13]

The State of Overall Health of Old Egyptians

So how it is possible that in old Egypt "a house without bread was a sad and mean place… like a shrine without its god," [13] while in modern America bread has became such sad and mean product that it makes sick those who are consuming it on the daily basis? For sure – as the example with old Egypt demonstrates – the gluten grains are capable to provide proper nourishment, for without them we would not have pyramids and other magnificent works of old Egyptian culture. If nowadays gluten grains became the source of great discomfort and even disease, then we cannot blame the grains, but we need to search for other possible reasons in what we have done to them and what has happened with the human beings in the meantime. When taking into account all the facts known about the life and results of old Egyptian culture (or old Greek or Roman culture) it is hard to agree with such arguments of members of the anti-grain movement as this: "It is doubtful that the earliest farmers ten thousand years ago were aware of the health implications of the shift to gluten grains as a dietary staple. Even with today's sophisticated medical laboratory technologies and protocols, the health hazards of gluten-containing grains are being recognized by only a handful of medical researchers. This is due to absent or nonspecific symptoms early in the disease process and human bias rooted in history and psychology, accompanied by a universal reluctance to embrace radically new information. Acceptance of new ideas is often coupled with recognition of having been fundamentally wrong all along – a difficult admission for anyone." [1]

Maybe the members of the anti-grain movement will have to admit that banning the grains from human nutrition is fundamentally wrong all along? For people in the past were much wiser with regard to food choices than we are willing to admit. People from the past would very probably regard our lack of healthy eating instincts and the number of diseases shocking. Even if there were examples of coeliac disease we cannot compare them with the present situation. For example, "the incidence of celiac disease has increased more than fourfold in the past sixty years." [7] In old cultures there might be also recorded cases of obesity, diabetes and cancer – as we are eagerly reminded by the anti-grain proponents – but this cannot be compared with the present extent of the health crisis. It should be more than obvious that with such rates of increase of these illnesses (all linked to consumption of grains by the anti-grain proponents) the old Egyptian civilisation would not have lasted several thousand years. Instead it would collapse in a few centuries. The very fact that old Egypt has lasted so long and achieved such splendid results, using emmer and barley as its staple food, rules out any possibility that eating gluten grains in old civilisations was dangerous for the population in such a degree as it is now.

The example of old Egyptian civilisation simply doesn't fit into the suggested picture that "societies where the transition from a primarily meat/vegetation diet (of hunter-gatherers) to one high in cereals show a reduced lifespan and stature, increases in infant mortality and infectious disease, and higher nutritional deficiencies." [9] Of course, there might be such examples, especially amongst the extremely poor or the very rich who over-indulged in food, but not in such large numbers as we are witnessing today. In the past people were dying mainly because of hard labour, war, lack of sanitation, and starvation and not because of the overeating, or simply just because of eating grains. Here we have an example of blaming the wrong factor for the occurrence of diseases and mortality rates in the ancient cultures. The historical evidence doesn't support such simplifications and opinions that "the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered." [14]

The undeniable fact is that we can trace the historical development of the present world-dominating Western culture back to Roman, old Greek and old Egyptian civilisations, all of them heavily dependent of gluten grains. Here we have solid historical evidence that gluten grains can serve as proper staple food for human beings. On the basis of this evidence – and because non-gluten grains are not regarded as bad as gluten grains – we can conclude that all grains which were used in various old cultures in various part of the world can serve as proper staple food for human beings since the emergence of agricultural societies – of course, under specific conditions which will be revealed in later chapters.

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  1. James Braly, MD, Ron Hoggan, MA, Dangerous Grains, Why Gluten Cereal Grains May Be Hazardous to Your Health, Avery, New York, 2002
  2. Dr Joseph Mercola, The No-Grain Diet: Conquer Carbohydrate Addiction & Stay Slim for Life, Penguin Group, USA, 2003
  3. William Davis, MD, Wheat Belly, Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight and Find Your Path Back to Health, Harper Thorsons, London, 2014
  4. Dr David Perlmutter, Grain Brain, The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs and Sugar – Your Brain's Silent Killers, Yellow Kite Books, London, 2014
  5. Sayer Ji, The Dark Side of the Wheat, A Critical Appraisal of the Role of Wheat in Human Disease, pdf report available for free if you register at
  6. Web leaflet for Women's Gluten-Free Health Summit, 8 to 12 September, 2014
  7. Michael Specter, Against the Grain – Should you go gluten-free?
  8. Jonathan V. Wright, MD, foreword in the book Dangerous Grains (see note 1)
  9. Dr Mercola, Reduce Grains and Sugar to Lose Weight and Improve Health,
  10. There Are Too Many White People in Clinical Trials and it's a Bigger Problem Than You Think, by ThinkProgress, 6.04.2014,
  11. There is no reference given to enable us to know how they arrived at this number. This is not just a single instance when something very important is stated without any attempt to explain how the author has arrived to the 'fact' in question. This method is traditionally used in religious communities where the priest has the authority of knowledge, bestowed upon him by initiation in the sacred wisdom. The only task of believers is to accept as truth whatever priests are transmitting to them.
  12. Sayer Ji, Beware of Organ Removal for "Cancer Prevention": Jolie's Precautionary Tale, 24.03.2015,
  13. Hilary Wilson, Egyptian Food and Drink, Shire Publications, UK, 2001
  14. Statement of Jared Diamond, professor of geography and physiology at UCLA, quoted in Wheat Belly (see note 3)