The Wheat Lobby Smokescreen

The Wheat Lobby has been busy.

The Grain Foods Foundation, the Whole Grain Council, and other lobby/trade groups for the wheat industry are in panic mode. After all, a recent 4.5% reduction in bread sales for the year were just reported. While 4.5% is not a big percentage, it is a percentage of a huge number. This is big. Food Business News comments:

According to SymphonyIRI Group (a Chicago-based market research firm), unit sales of fresh bread declined 4.5% in the 52 weeks ended Jan. 22 [2012] . . . The one-year volume decline likely was the steepest in the history of sliced bread. [Emphasis mine.]

So the Wheat Lobby and trade groups have been organizing behind several counterarguments to maintain the “healthy whole grain” franchise, including:

“Wheat is not genetically-modified.”
Dr. Glenn Gaesser of the Grain Foods Foundation recently offered this “counterargument” on a TV interview I did. This statement has also cropped up a number of times in various articles and reports that aim to counter the claims I am making, suggesting that it is part of a concerted, planned defense.

They are correct: Wheat is not genetically-modified. In the language of geneticists, “genetic modification” or genetic engineering refers to the use of gene-splicing technology to insert or remove a gene. While wheat has indeed been extensively genetically-modified in laboratory settings, no genetically-modified strain of wheat is on the open market. And I never said it was.

But that does not mean that the genetics of wheat have not been changed. Its genetics, in fact, have been extensively changed using techniques that include hybridization, repeating backcrossing (to winnow out specific characteristics like short height or seed head size), embryo rescue (to rescue otherwise fatal mutations), and chemical, gamma ray, and x-ray mutagenesis (induction of mutations, used for instance to create the popular Clearfield strain of wheat that is herbicide-resistant). These techniques, as any geneticist will tell you, are far less predictable, less controllable . . . far worse than the act of inserting or removing just one gene. But that is conveniently left out of the sound bites that come from the Wheat Lobby.

“Grains have been eaten by humans for thousands of years.”
Well, humans have been enslaved for thousands of years, children put to work and abused, the strong dominated the weak . . . but that doesn’t justify any of it.

Whole grains of 2012 are also not the whole grains of 1950, the 19th century, the Bible, or pre-biblical times. Modern wheat, in particular, is genetically distant from its predecessors, thanks to the extreme genetic changes (not genetic modification!) inflicted on wheat in the 1960s and 1970s in the name of increased yield-per-acre.

“Healthy whole grains have repeatedly been shown to reduce risk for diabetes, heart disease, and colon cancer.”
That’s is true . . . if whole grains are compared to processed white flour products. It is guilty of the kind of flawed logic that dominates nutritional thinking:

If something bad for you is replaced by something less bad and there is an apparent health benefit, then a whole bunch of the less bad thing is good for you.

This flawed logic is used to justify replacing high-glycemic index foods with low-glycemic index foods (more properly called less-high glycemic index foods), hydrogenated fats with polyunsaturates.

If “healthy whole grains” are compared to no grains, i.e, no wheat, then dramatic turnarounds in health are witnessed. The 1% of people with celiac disease are not the exception; they are the “canaries in the coal mine” telling us that wheat is inappropriate for any human to consume . . . especially the semi-dwarf strains made worse by geneticists.

Surely the experts know all this!

Nope. They are, to an incredible degree, ignorant. I recently debated a PhD Professor of Nutrition at a major university, who was also Director of Research at a major agricultural corporation, who offered up the usual defenses of wheat, while accusing me of ignoring the evidence. So, when I informed him that the wheat of today is a high-yield, semi-dwarf variant that stands around 2-feet tall, with marked changes in its genetic code, he answered with . . . silence. After a bit of hemming and hawing, he finally blurted, “Well, the farmers did that so they could see over the tops of the fields!” Farmers, of course, did not introduce these changes to create the dwarf strain of wheat. In other words, the fact that modern wheat is the markedly altered product of genetics research was entirely new to this “expert.”

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