Are Grains Really Dangerous to Our Health?

By Brane Žilavec, May 2015


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." [1] In fact, the average "packed lunch of the Egyptian workmen consisted of bread, beer and onions." [1] 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." [1]

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." [1]

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." [1] 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. [1] 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." [1]

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." [1] 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." [1]

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," [1] 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." [2]

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." [3] 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." [4] 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." [5]

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.


  1. Hilary Wilson, Egyptian Food and Drink, Shire Publications, UK, 2001
  2. James Braly, MD, Ron Hoggan, MA, Dangerous Grains, Why Gluten Cereal Grains May Be Hazardous to Your Health, Avery, New York, 2002
  3. Michael Specter, Against the Grain – Should you go gluten-free?
  4. Dr Mercola, Reduce Grains and Sugar to Lose Weight and Improve Health,
  5. Statement of Jared Diamond, professor of geography and physiology at UCLA, quoted in Wheat Belly (William Davis, MD, Harper Thorsons, London, 2014)