A Return to Ancient Grains
By Theresa Herbrand, M.D.
The History of Ancient Grains
The origin of ancient grains can be traced back to the Fertile Crescent – an area in the Middle East. It was there that einkorn, one of the earliest cultivated forms of wheat, was harvested. Around 1500 BCE, the Ancient Egyptians, one of the most advanced civilizations of their time, were known to use barley, emmer and einkorn to make bread using naturally occurring yeasts, i.e., sourdough bread. What was their secret? They used few ingredients and lots of time. It was in Egypt, during the 400-year long diaspora, that the Jewish people learned the art of baking before returning to Canaan. Renownedly, before their exodus out of Egypt they were in such a hurry, they did not have time for the bread to rise, thus ended up eating unleavened bread (which they still do to this day during Passover) . It was from here, the art of bread making spread all over Europe and eventually, to the rest of the world.
What Are Ancient Grains?
Although no official definition exists, ancient grains are considered to be “grains that are largely unchanged over the last several hundred years,“ meaning they have never been (genetically) modified by humans . Ancient grains include einkorn, emmer, spelt, khorasan and barley. In contrast to ancient grains, modern day wheat, due to worldwide demand, has undergone specific modifications. In 1970, Norman Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize for his research around modern day wheat. The results were high-yielding wheat varieties that were high in starch and low in nutrients and flavor, and responded well to fertilizers and pesticides . Over time, ancient grains almost seemed forgotten over this newly cultivated, suddenly much cheaper form of wheat. However, during the process of cultivating modern wheat to produce high yield, many positive aspects of the former wheat were lost.
Why Ancient Grains?
So why is it that recently, ancient grains have gained more and more popularity? Ancient grains, though more challenging to cultivate and process, are known to have high levels of certain minerals and vitamins. Besides their nutritional properties, one of the biggest benefits of consuming ancient grains is their exceptional taste (e.g. einkorn is known for its nutty and delicate flavor, emmer is a more aromatic type of wheat, and spelt has a soft and sweet flavor). Due to their different baking properties and gluten contents, dough made with ancient grains cannot be processed with kneading machines the same way modern wheat is; Ancient grains produce less of a gluten build up and would stick to the metal of the machines. In fact, bread made solely from ancient grains require lots of skill and training, so it is common to see artisans combine modern wheat with ancient grains to make bread.
General health benefits of eating whole grain bread include reducing the incidence of coronary artery disease by ≤15% and the risk of stroke by ≤25% . Consuming whole grains may also reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by 36%, improve weight loss, lower blood pressure, reduce all-cause mortality and decrease incidence of cancer . A Harvard study found out that eating four servings (i.e., 70 g) of whole grains on a daily basis led to a 23% lower risk of cardiovascular disease and 20% lower risk of dying from cancer . Eating whole grains is healthy and recommended. But why is it that these days, there are more and more people that report having problems digesting wheat products?
- Celiac disease, an autoimmune disease with a prevalence of 1% and its first symptoms appearing around the age of 6 months, is caused by a reaction to gliadins and glutenins – two proteins found in wheat. The treatment is a lifelong gluten-free diet, including restraining from eating ancient grains .
- Wheat allergy, i.e., allergies to certain proteins within wheat (albumins, globulins, gliadins, and glutelins) may occur by contact exposure or as a food allergy. Patients with wheat allergies should avoid eating wheat. The prevalence of this disease is 0.2% .
- Non-celiac gluten sensitivity presents with symptoms upon consumption of gluten. Celiac disease and wheat allergy have been ruled out for these patients. The pathogenesis is not entirely understood and alpha-amylase-trypsin- inhibitors (ATIs) and “fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols” (FODMAPs) are discussed as an underlying cause (see below).
- General problems with the digestion of wheat may occur due to so-called ATIs, which are certain proteins in modern day wheat suspected to cause wheat allergy symptoms. Studies have found that einkorn, spelt and emmer had very low to no concentration of ATIs compared to modern day wheat . Therefore, einkorn bread may be a good alternative for those with suspected ATI intolerance.
- Another digestive problem may occur when consuming FODMAPs: short-chain carbohydrates resistant to digestion and may cause digestive symptoms (e.g., bloating, stomach pain or diarrhea). Through the long process of natural fermentation, these FODMAPs naturally deplete. Due to the demanding baking properties of ancient grains, most ancient grain loaves are produced over a long period of time. This process naturally breaks down FODMAPs, thus minimizing the risk of adverse events.
In addition to variations in nutrient content, Sereni et al. found out that an 8-week long diet of ancient grains significantly reduced total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL)- cholesterol, and blood glucose compared to modern wheat .
- Ancient grains have been consumed for thousands of years, before modified modern wheat with higher yield took its place.
- Positive aspects of ancient grains, e.g., its high nutritive content and exceptional, individual taste, were lost in the process.
- People with digestive problems when consuming wheat products may be able to consume bread made of ancient grains due to their different protein structures, gluten content, and usually longer processing time compared to modern wheat.
- Overall, consuming whole grains will significantly improve your health and risk factors. Combining conventional modern wheat with ancient grains may be an improved combination for our diets with a greater range of flavor and nutrients.
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