In the first Wheat Belly book, I recounted the history of wheat from its wild-growing 14-chromosome einkorn ancestor, to the 28-chromosome emmer of Biblical times, to 42-chromosome spelt and other Triticum species, and finally to high-yield semi-dwarf strains created by agricultural scientists in the 1960s that now comprises 99% of all wheat products sold. The quantity of additional changes introduced since are many, including selection of strains enriched in wheat germ agglutinin and phytates for their pest-resistant properties (while increasing human toxicity), gliadin and glutenin for desirable baking characteristics (but with amplified celiac, autoimmune, and opioid properties), and genetically-altered strains obtained via chemical mutagenesis to generate herbicide resistance (introducing myriad changes in proteins, including new allergens).
Modern wheat that graces your breakfast bowl, dinner table, or snack tray is therefore completely unlike traditional or heirloom strains of even a century ago. Because the first Wheat Belly book emphasized the toxic properties of modern wheat (along with my experiment comparing bread made from einkorn wheat versus that made from modern wheat), some people interpreted this to mean that consumption of, say, emmer, Kamut, or Red Fife wheat was therefore good. Not so. It is simply less harmful. (Remember: less bad is not necessarily good.)
What happened to the first humans in the Fertile Crescent who harvested wild, then cultivated, wheat?
Human health took a nosedive even with consumption of traditional, wild strains of einkorn and emmer wheat and related grains. Consumption of traditional wheat resulted in an explosion of tooth decay and misalignment, iron deficiency, and knee arthritis, for example. (Because organs like stomachs, livers, and brains are lost, we can discern such changes from the only remnants that date back 10,000 years ago: bones and teeth and, to limited degrees, microbe composition and fecoliths or fossilized feces). Let’s consider these changes one-by-one:
Tooth decay—Before the consumption of any grains, tooth decay was uncommon (Roberts 2005). Only 1-3% of all teeth recovered showed evidence for decay, infection, abscess, or misalignment—despite the lack of fluoridated toothpaste, toothbrushes, dental floss, or dentists. The notion of dental hygiene never ventured further than applying a twig to remove the remnants of elk liver from between the teeth. When humans turned to grains, tooth decay became common, affecting between 16-49% of all teeth recovered. There was also common evidence for abscess formation and tooth misalignment. Think of all the mentions of rotted and missing teeth before the twentieth century before modern dental hygiene, largely due to grain consumption. This happened with einkorn, emmer, and other traditional wheat strains, as well as with millet first consumed in sub-Saharan Africa and teosinte and maize in Central America.
Iron deficiency—Recall that grains contain phytates that serve to deter pests like fungi and insects, i.e., phytates are pesticides. But, when humans try to consume grains, the phytates avidly bind minerals: calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium and others, binding most of these minerals to be passed out in the toilet. But it’s iron deficiency that is best preserved in the historical record, as it shows up in bones as “porotic hyperostosis” and “cribra orbitalis,” both representing hypertrophy of the bone marrow to compensate for the iron deficiency anemia that occurs in populations that consume grains, a phenomenon that leaves its mark in the skull (Cohen 2007). (The potential for iron deficiency has been made worse by selecting modern wheat strains with greater phytate content.) This is believed to be the reason why 7-8% of people of Northern European origin developed the mutation for hemochromatosis that causes hyperabsorption of iron in order to counter the lack of iron caused by grain consumption, a mutation that appeared around 6,000 years ago.
Knee arthritis—Osteoarthritis of the knee(s) has doubled or tripled since hunter-gatherers chased down their prey to kill and consume (Wallace 2017)—knee arthritis was the exception, not the rule. The evidence revealing this cannot, of course, pinpoint grain consumption as the cause, but it is at the top of the list of likely explanations. (Other potential explanations: lack of use due to sedentary behavior, walking on hard pavement and concrete, migration to colder climates and wearing clothes that reduce vitamin D exposure.) But, given the explosion of knee and other joint arthritis in people with excess visceral fat, grain consumption is, I believe, among the most logical causes.
What we cannot see in the historical record, of course, is the higher blood sugars, insulin resistance, fatty liver, autoimmune diseases, migraine headaches, mind fog, depression, acid reflux and other health conditions that got their start with the consumption of seeds of grasses, now common conditions among modern grain-consuming humans that promptly reverse with their elimination.
The health impairments that develop when we consume grains should come as no surprise when you understand that seeds of grasses should never have become items on the human dietary menu in the first place except in times of desperation. Imagine you and your family have had nothing to eat for the past week—you will consume almost anything, even tree bark. You stumble on a wild field of grass: Do you declare “Hallelujah! We eat tonight!” Probably not. How would hungry, desperate humans convert a field of grass into something Homo sapiens can consume? Not an easy prospect, an effort that requires isolating seeds of each stalk, drying, grinding, then somehow reconstituting, such as heating with water and forming a gruel. (The process of leavening with yeast was not discovered for several thousand years after the initial consumption of the seeds of grasses, a process discovered by Egyptians as beer, i.e., fungal fermentation, then leavened bread.) It is testimony to the cleverness of humans, but also to the fact that near-term survival is not the same as long-term freedom from chronic disease when you make such a desperate dietary mistake.
But we are not desperate, but live in a world of plenty. Ironically, we have turned back to the food of desperation, grains, as the cornerstone of diet, a fatal mistake now evident, for instance, in the $3 trillion health bill that Americans now pay. Modern wheat is a rotten, horrible thing. But traditional or heirloom wheat and grains are just not quite as awful . . . but still harmful to health.
- Roberts C, Manchester K. “Dental disease” in The Archaeology of Disease. New York:Cornell University Press, 2005, 63-83.
- Cohen MN, Crane-Kramer GMM, editors’ summation in Ancient Health: Skeletal Indicators of Agricultural and Economic Intensification. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007; 320-43.
- Wallace IJ, Worthington S, Felson DT et al. Knee osteoarthritis has doubled in prevalence since the mid-20th century. PNAS 2017 Aug 14, 201703856.