Grain of Truth: The Real Case for and against Wheat and Gluten
by Stephen Yafa
Hudson Street Press, 2015
Proponents of countless health-aspiring camps have joined the cacophony of condemnation of grains, and especially wheat, for nearly a decade now and the furor seems unlikely to diminish anytime soon. In the tsunami of near universal rejection of the once-venerated “staff of life,” yet one more voice seeking audience on the subject might easily be ignored. After all, many are convinced that wheat and gluten are irrevocably proven the scourge of humankind. Wheat and gluten sensitivities afflict many of one’s friends, family and co-workers. Restaurants, food retailers, and any social event that includes edibles these days all offer gluten-free or grain-free options. Those mortals with as yet no overt symptoms of wheat sensitivity nervously fear the stealthy onset of some associated illness and reject the verboten foods as a means of prevention and, they believe, just good common sense.
There is no question that wheat and gluten sensitivities are very real and that a growing number of Americans suffer their effects, not only in the gastrointestinal system, but in many other unpleasant manifestations, including the function of the brain, the nervous system and the immune system. Books such as Wheat Belly and Grain Brain claim that wheat is poison and the instigator of numerous ailments and degenerative conditions—including the obesity epidemic—that plague so many of us. The zeal of this evangelism threatens to squelch any unorthodox viewpoint, yet Stephen Yafa manages to present some calm and refreshing insights amid the firestorm.
Yafa, novelist, screenplay writer, and California wine grower, is also the author of Cotton, his first non-fiction investigative work, and writes about wine for the San Francisco Chronicle. His interest in the story of wheat was partially fueled by his wife’s experience at an Ayurvedic retreat when her masseurs refused to continue body work until she gave up gluten. “I have gluten neck,” she reported ruefully to her husband. Yafa companionably joined her in a gluten-free month-long experiment and while they both noted her improvement in some physical disorders, Yafa watched his pleasure fade from mealtimes. Unapologetic in his devotion to Wheaties and Triscuits, Yafa found that while he had no cravings for these rebuffed favorites on their wheat fast, the exclusion of all wheat and bread products nevertheless blunted his otherwise happy anticipation of dining. For more than the next year he embarked on a journey of discovery that included speaking with wheat growers, millers, plant geneticists, artisan bakers and others involved one way or another in the troubled history of this maligned food.
Yafa soon discovered that one may find “a grain of truth” in nearly every thesis presented by all the writers who profess to have found the “smoking gun” in the guise of wheat gluten responsible for the sorry state of health in the United States today. Readers will find his historical perspective on humans and grain consumption revealing, as well as the path that plant breeders have taken in selecting modern strains of wheat to fulfill strict industry requirements of yield, accommodation to harvesting machinery, milling and manufacturing technology. Gluten, most plant experts agree, has in fact not increased in modern wheat, yet something called “vital gluten”—a powdered, high-potency concentrated gluten supplement—is routinely added to commercial bread recipes in order for the dough to perform in high-speed mass-production lines. Most of the bread products made commercially (hamburger buns, etc.) are transformed from dry ingredients to packaged product (with super doses of undigested gluten) in a mere four hours. The products’ health qualities are not remotely considered—most of the big players in the industry know that neither insects nor rodents are stupid enough to eat the denatured flour they are made from—yet they are consumed daily by most Americans. Their role as “carriers” for sandwich fillings makes them, at best, “edible gloves,” as Yafa says.
Those with an interest in history, plant biochemistry, microbiology, horticulture and the culinary arts will all find subjects and personalities of great interest and illumination in Grain of Truth. Yafa comes to believe that it is the unsavory mix of modern technology and mass food production that has besmirched the reputation of wheat. The miserable offerings of the public food trough—commercial, mass-produced, crud-laden, food-like artifacts—are largely responsible for the tangled web of health disorders we can’t seem to escape. Conditions like wheat and/or gluten sensitivities may also be symptoms of sugar overload, imbalanced and damaged gut flora, glyphosate and other pesticide and chemical exposure, as well as other exogenous assaults too numerous to list.
Dairy products have suffered a similar struggle to maintain integrity in the past half century in this country. “Nature’s perfect food” has been targeted as a poison and killer along parallel tactics of mistaken identity. I shouldn’t have to point out to readers of this journal the obvious fact that industry-produced dairy products not only bear no resemblance to the genuine article, but are indeed dangerous to health.
Yafa’s many months of research bear fruit in a most rewarding and delightful way when he decides to roll up his sleeves and become an artisan sourdough baker. My heart leapt in comradely spirit to read of his excitement when meeting other bakers with intimate knowledge of heritage wheat breeds, their individual nutrient and flavor profiles, and the magic of sourdough alchemy that creates satisfying tastes and aromas as well as producing digestible (to healthy individuals) results. Yafa’s wife was able to return to eating bread when made by her husband with his newfound skill in the gentle art of fermentation. In fact, she even lost a last bit of stubborn weight effortlessly when fully satisfied with her meals that included sourdough bread. His chapter entitled “The Sourdough Solution” provides an elegant introduction and explanation of the magical transformations that microbes and an acidic environment wield on organic, whole meal flour.
Grain of Truth includes an appendix with detailed instructions for Yafa’s multi-day sourdough bread recipe as well as one for local organic grain and flour sources, and another for heritage grain and flour sources. Yafa’s pleasure in exploring the flavor palettes and nutritional benefits of properly grown and cultured heritage grains is inspiring and may be the best part of this story.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2015