Are Grains Really Dangerous to Our Health?

By Brane Žilavec, May 2015

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5. Is the Elimination of Grains the Solution for the Present Crisis?

In the previous two chapters we have examined the evidence about positive health impacts of a gluten-free diet experienced by patients and health experts of the anti-grain movement. We have seen that dietary changes can be a powerful therapy in specific circumstances with specific people with specific health problems. Now the question arises: Can these examples serve as a basis for elimination of gluten grains – or even all grains – from human nutrition? We have already pointed out examples of misinterpretations of medical outcomes in the previous chapter. We have also seen that the reductionist approach which dominates modern medical and nutritional research has serious limitations when it tries to explain the causes behind the modern health crisis. Now we will explore few more aspects which need to be investigated before any specific dietary guidelines are promoted as generally valid for the whole population.

When we properly evaluate diets promoted by the anti-grain health experts, we find out that with the adoption of their dietary rules the people have to eliminate from their diets great amount of junk food. This is the case whether one eliminates grains – as is recommended in The No-Grain Diet – or whether one eliminates gluten – as is recommended in Grain Brain – or whether one eliminates wheat – as it is recommended in Wheat Belly. In each case we are dealing with the significant elimination of the prevalent American standard diet and replacing it with real food, such as vegetables, fruit, nuts, and meat from grass-fed animals.

Then we need to take into account that there are other diets which also claim astounding positive health impacts. For example, a raw food diet; and again we see that with switching to the raw food one must eliminate all junk food and replace it with real foods. In the past the macrobiotic diet was popular because of its very positive health impacts. With switching to macrobiotics one is also forced to eliminate all junk food.

These examples suggest that the main reason for the positive health improvements achieved by a gluten-free or wheat-free diet is the elimination of junk food. In his book In Defense of Food author Michael Pollan comes to a similar conclusion: "All of our uncertainties about nu­trition should not obscure the plain fact that the chronic dis­eases that now kill most of us can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food: the rise of highly processed foods and refined grains; the use of chemicals to raise plants and animals in huge monocultures; the superabundance of cheap calories of sugar and fat produced by modern agriculture; and the narrowing of the biological diversity of the human diet to a tiny handful of staple crops, notably wheat, corn, and soy. These changes have given us the Western diet that we take for granted: lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of everything – except vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.

That such a diet makes people sick and fat we have known for a long time. Early in the twentieth century, an intrepid group of doctors and medical workers stationed overseas observed that wherever in the world people gave up their traditional way of eating and adopted the Western diet, there soon followed a pre­dictable series of Western diseases, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer. They called these the West­ern diseases and, though the precise causal mechanisms were (and remain) uncertain, these observers had little doubt these chronic diseases shared a common etiology: the Western diet.

What's more, the traditional diets that the new Western foods displaced were strikingly diverse: Various populations thrived on diets that were what we'd call high fat, low fat, or high carb; all meat or all plant; indeed, there have been tradi­tional diets based on just about any kind of whole food you can imagine. What this suggests is that the human animal is well adapted to a great many different diets. The Western diet, however, is not one of them." [6]

Thus we can say that the main healing diet is a junk-food-free diet. Or, in other words, "the human body has not evolved to consume a modern Western diet, with meals full of sugary substances and refined, high-calorie carbohydrates. Moreover, most of the wheat we eat today has been milled into white flour, which has plenty of gluten but few vitamins or nutrients, and can cause the sharp increases in blood sugar that often lead to diabetes and other chronic diseases." [7]

We need to keep in mind that we are dealing here with the overall cumulative effect of prolonged consumption of junk food. Only in such cases will any diet which replaces junk food with real food have such tremendous health effects as can be often witnessed. Of course, there can be variations because various diets put stress on various foods or nutritional principles, and because people differ in their genetic make-up (influenced by their racial origins), their cultural traditions (including the food culture they grew up with), and their individual characteristics.

It is hard to pinpoint which characteristic amongst all the bad characteristics of this Western diet is the 'main culprit'. "As noted by Dr. Joseph E. Pizzorno, founding president of naturopathic Bastyr University and former advisor to President Clinton on complementary and alternative medicines, 'toxins in the modern food supply are now a major contributor to, and in some cases the cause of, virtually all chronic diseases." [8] Among toxins can be counted herbicides, pesticides, GMO and "the 6,000 food additives – flavourings, glazing agents, improvers, anti-caking agents, solvents, preservatives, colourings, acids, emulsifiers, releasing agents, antioxidants, thickeners, bleaching agents, sweeteners, chelators – and the undisclosed 'processing aids' that are routinely employed behind the scenes of contemporary food manufacture." [9]

To this we can add that in recent years "research coming out of some of America's most respected institutions confirms that added sugars (primarily refined sugar and processed fructose) are a primary dietary factor driving chronic disease development. So far, scientific studies have linked excessive fructose consumption to about 78 different diseases and health problems, including heart disease and cancer. And it doesn't matter whether that sugar comes from food staples like soup and sauces, or cookies and candy. Your body treats it all the same. Ever since the saturated fat myth was born, processed food makers have removed the healthy fat and replaced it with sugar, and reading food labels can be an eye-opening experience. You think you're making a healthy dinner, but in reality you could be serving your family dozens of teaspoons of sugar once all the sources are added together... If you struggle with weight and/or health issues, replacing processed foods and beverages with unadulterated, whole, and ideally organic foods, along with pure water for drinking, you would be well on your way toward improving your health." (italics mine) [10]

So the first carbohydrates to eliminate from the human diet are white sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and all other highly refined or artificial sweeteners. This would eliminate the vast majority of modern sweeteners which are causing havoc to the metabolism of carbohydrates. Only after such a step could we properly evaluate the possible negative health effect of modern grains. Till then the elimination of gluten grains must be regarded as a temporary rescue diet in the case of specific diseases and not as a general solution for the present health crisis.

We can conclude this chapter with the following question: Are not all present health problems linked to nutrition an evident sign of the loss of the healthy eating instincts? Modern human beings are evidently capable of exercising unhealthy eating habits for decades without noticing any negative impacts on their state of health, until they become seriously ill and then become more willing to change their diet – often as the last resort. When they start to eat real food again, the healing impact can be really dramatic and fascinating. What is often missed – as is the case with diets which eliminate (gluten) grains – is the awareness of the impact of the quality of food we consume. This is not a surprise when we take into account the level of ignorance of this aspect of modern nutrition, especially amongst the members of the medical establishment.

6. Is the Quality of modern Grains the decisive factor?

Now we will explore the question of how much the quality of the grains and grain products people consume nowadays has contributed to the onset of the health problems which are exposed in the literature of the anti-grain health experts. If we look at Nine Aspects of a Healthy Meal we can see the triad of quality, quantity, and choice as an indispensable part of any healthy meal. This means that we cannot focus any dietary recommendations just on the quantity of specific foods – which is the predominant approach in this field – without taking into account the way the food is produced.

The modern grains and the foods made from them are not the same as they have been eaten in old Egyptian society, or any traditional food cultures up until the middle of 19th century with the emergence of the second scientific-industrial revolution, based on chemical engineering, oil, and electricity. One can find the references to this fact also in the books written by the anti-grain health experts. For example, Dr William Davis writes (italics mine):

"Modern wheat is an opiate... This opiate, while it binds to the opiate receptors of the brain, doesn't make us high. It makes us hungry. This is the effect exerted by gliadin, the protein in wheat that was inadvertently altered by geneticists in the 1970s during efforts to increase yield. Just a few shifts in amino acids and gliadin in modern high-yield, semi-dwarf wheat became a potent appetite stimulant." [11] Here we have clear reference that the gluten protein in modern semi-dwarf wheat is not the same is in traditional varieties, called heritage wheats. In the previous chapter about medical evidence is mentioned the fourfold increase of coeliac disease in USA since the early 1950s. This increase correlates to the increased use of artificial fertilisers and other agrochemicals since the beginning of the World War II, as a part of the war strategy to produce enough food.

The indisputable fact is that "we have made dramatic changes to the human diet since beginning cultivation of cereal grains 10,000 years ago." [1] Of all changes in this period, the most dramatic were the changes brought about by the scientific-industrial revolution on the way how our food is grown and processed. For example "research conducted by Dr. Donald R. Davis, a former nutrition scientist at the University of Texas, demonstrates how wheat has declined nutritionally over the last 50 years as farms have become more industrial. (He said): Beginning about 1960 modern produc­tion methods have gradually increased wheat yields by about threefold. Unfortunately, this famous Green Revolu­tion is accompanied by an almost unknown side effect of decreasing mineral concentrations in wheat. Dilution effects in the range of 20 percent to 50 percent have been documented in modern wheats for magnesium, zinc, copper, iron, selenium, phosphorus, and sulfur, and they probably apply to other minerals as well. In addition, some of today's varieties have only half as much protein, and there is evidence that old wheat varieties often have substantially higher amounts of valuable phytochemicals." [12]

This ought to apply also to other grains. [13] The loss of essential minerals has also been greatly increased by the refining of grains and other forms of carbohydrate-rich foods, such as cane or beet sugar. It is very surprising indeed how this impact on the quality of grains has been 'overlooked' by anti-grain health experts. The reason for such an omission might be that such facts don't fit into their suggested version that "grains are not high in nutrients – they are high in anti-nutrients." [14]

In other words: "We haven't been eating the same kind of glu­ten (grains) since our ancestors first figured out how to farm and mill wheat. The grains we eat today bear little resemblance to the grains that entered our diet about ten thousand years ago. Ever since the seventeenth century, when Gregor Mendel described his famous studies of crossing different plants to arrive at new varieties, we've gotten good at mixing and match­ing strains to create some wild progeny in the grain department. And while our genetic makeup and physiology haven't changed much since the time of our ancestors, our food chain has had a rapid makeover during the past fifty years. Modern food manufacturing, including bio-engineering and specifically hybridization, have allowed us to grow structurally-modified grains that contain gluten that's less tolerable than the gluten that's found in grains cultivated just a few decades ago". [4]

Thus we can imagine that modern dwarf wheat has "the gluten structure increasingly strong," [15] we could say hardened, by the impact of the artificial mineral fertilizers. "There is scientific evidence … that varying levels of sulphur and nitrogen fertiliser can change the proteins in wheat… One study found that increasing the level of nitrogen fertiliser directly resulted in increased levels of gliadin… (and) older varieties of wheat, which have fewer chromosomes, also tend to have lower levels of gliadins." [15] In the abstract of one of the two scientific studies (mentioned in the article Growing Intolerance from which the above quote is taken) is found very interesting confirmation "that induced sulfur deficiency during growth resulted in the most pronounced effect on protein composition." [16]

Another scientific publication of 2012 found that particular fractions of wheat albumin (called ATIs) are able to cause intestinal inflammation in humans. "This can be the case for both celiac and non-celiac patients. Detlef Schuppan, whose research team discovered this role of the ATIs, emphasizes that modern wheat cultivations are bred to have a high ATI content and that this may play a role in the onset and course of disorders such as celiac disease and gluten sensitivity." [17]

It should be common sense to expect that the manner of fertilising will affect the inner structure of the plants. But modern farming doesn't stop with artificial fertilisers; we need to take into account the effects of herbicides and other pesticides. Then we need to add – in the phase of food processing – the effects of food additives and the loss of nutrients caused by refining and other methods of over-processing.

If we focus our attention to modern wheat – one of the most consumed foods on our planet – we will find the story of the loss of its primeval quality. "For one thing, it is not the same grain our forebears ground into their daily bread. Wheat naturally evolved to only a modest degree over the centuries, but it has changed dramatically in the past fifty years under the influ­ence of agricultural scientists. Wheat strains have been hybridised, crossbred and introgressed to make the wheat plant resistant to environmental conditions, such as drought, or pathogens, such as fungi. But most of all, genetic changes have been induced to increase yield per acre. The average yield on a modern North American farm is more than tenfold greater than farms of a cen­tury ago. Such enormous strides in yield have required drastic changes in genetic code, including reducing the proud 'amber waves of grain' of yesteryear to the rigid, eighteen-inch-tall high-production 'dwarf' wheat of today. Such fundamental genetic changes, as you will see, have come at a price." [3]

The most troublesome part of the story has evolved in Mexico. "Much of the current world supply of purposefully bred wheat is descended from strains developed at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (IMWIC), located east of Mexico City at the foot of the Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains. IMWIC began as an agricultural research programme in 1943 through a collaboration of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican gov­ernment to help Mexico achieve agricultural self-sufficiency. It grew into an impressive worldwide effort to increase the yield of corn, soya and wheat, with the admirable goal of reducing world hunger… One of the practical difficulties solved during IMWIC's push to increase yield is that, when large quantities of nitrogen-rich fertiliser are applied to wheat fields, the seed head at the top of the plant grows to enormous proportions. The top-heavy seed head, however, buckles the stalk (what agricultural scientists call 'lodging'). Buckling kills the plant and makes harvesting prob­lematic. University of Minnesota-trained geneticist Norman Borlaug, working at IMWIC, is credited with developing the exceptionally high-yielding dwarf wheat that was shorter and stockier, allowing the plant to maintain erect posture and resist buckling under the large seed head. Tall stalks are also ineffi­cient; short stalks reach maturity more quickly, which means a shorter growing season with less fertiliser required to generate the otherwise useless stalk." [3]

In this way "dwarf wheat today has essentially replaced most other strains of wheat in the United States and much of the world thanks to its extraordinary capacity for high yield. According to Allan Fritz, PhD, professor of wheat breeding at Kansas State University, dwarf and semi-dwarf wheat now comprise more than 99 per cent of all wheat grown worldwide." [3]

For all these reasons we cannot use any one word – grains – for all existing grains after the emergence of scientific-industrial revolution. We need to distinguish two groups of grains and foods made from them. The difference is in the methods and substances used in their production. In the first group we have grains or pure grain products:

Because of the cumulative effect of all these methods and substances the final outcome can be regarded as good quality food made from grains. For that reason we will call them real grains.

In the second group are grains or grain products:

Because of the cumulative effect of all methods and substances the final outcome can be regarded as bad quality food made from grains. For that reason we will call them pseudo-grains.

With the help of the above distinction we can avoid the continuous mistake of the anti-grain proponents of mixing these two groups of foods made from grains. For better clarity we need to mention that there are, of course, some grains which can have just a few characteristics of one group, or even some grains having mainly the characteristics of one group with one or two characteristics of another group. But familiarity with the characteristics of these two groups will enable us to put them in the place where they belong.

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NOTES

  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 www.greenmedinfo.com
  6. Michael Pollan, In Defence of Food, Allen Lane (Penguin Books), 2008
  7. Michael Specter, Against the Grain – Should you go gluten-free? www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/11/03/grain
  8. Dr Mercola, Special Alert! It's Make or Break Time – Act Now to Make GMO Labeling a Reality Across the US, May 11, 2015, articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2015/05/11/gmo-labeling-pompeo-bill
  9. Joanna Blythman, Swallow This, Serving up the Food Industry's Darkest Secrets, Fourth Estate, London, 2015
  10. Dr Mercola's Nutrition Plan, www.mercola.com/nutritionplan/intermediate_carbs.htm
  11. Dr William Davis, www.wheatbellyblog.com/2012/04/wheat-is-an-opiate
  12. Tabitha Alterman, Whole Grain Baking Made Easy, USA, 2014
  13. There is scientific evidence about the steady decline of trace minerals and vitamins in the range of cultivated plants in the last decades since they started to measure them.
  14. Dr Peter Osborne, statement in the interview available on functionalhealthsummit.com/dr-peter-osborne-video
  15. Vanessa Kimball, Growing Intolerance by www.resilience.org/stories/2015-02-03/growing-intolerance
  16. Proteome changes in wheat subjected to different nitrogen and sulfur fertilizations. Grove H1, Hollung K, Moldestad A, Færgestad EM, Uhlen AK, 2009 May (link via article Growing Intolerance)
  17. Wikipedia, Non-celiac gluten sensitivity, April 2015