Don’t blame the grain - ancient grains may have helped build our brains
This reports looks at why wholegrains are good for you; why some people are gluten sensitive; the big difference between ancient and modern wheat and the role grains played in our evolution.
Are grains good for us or not?
There’s a big trend among the health conscious for gluten-free foods and a move against grains, with low carb diets being heralded as the solution for obesity and diabetes. Low carbers, Banters, and Paleo people all talk about shunning grains, which provide two thirds of humanity’s calories and more than half our protein.
In contrast, growing evidence is suggesting that ancient grains may have been a fundamental building block both for our advanced human brains and civilisations. Also, surprising new evidence shows that some ancient wheats, which contain gluten, may be positively good for you, helping reduce diabetes, heart disease and IBS, exactly those conditions for which high carb diets, based on modern wheat, are blamed . I say this having been one of the first in the UK, back in the 1980’s, to shout loudly about the dangers of wheat.
To put this in context, a meta-analysis of thirteen studies, recording 104,000 deaths, published in May in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, investigated the link between whole grain consumption and risk of death. The authors conclude that there is ‘significant inverse relationships between whole-grain intake and mortality due to any cause, CVD, or cancer. The findings support the recommendation of increasing whole-grain intake to improve public health.’ The more whole grains eaten, the lesser the risk of death from any cause.
Another, carried out by the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, published in June 2016, in the British Medical Journal, this time including 45 studies, concludes ‘whole grain intake is associated with a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and total cancer, and mortality from all causes, respiratory diseases, infectious diseases, diabetes, and all non-cardiovascular, non-cancer causes.’
Another UK study following people over time finds whole grains and high-fibre cereals are associated with weight loss. Two systematic reviews in the US report the same thing. Two other surveys find that regular wholegrain consumers have half the risk for digestive cancers and lower cancer risk overall. Another, in April this year, involving 54,871 Danish adults finds that those in the top quarter of wholegrain consumption versus those in the bottom quarter, cut their risk of a heart attack by 25%. In this study the grains that were most protective were oats and rye.
Should we all be rushing out and buying wholegrain products?
For the majority, as these big scale surveys show, the answer is probably yes. But for a growing minority, perhaps one in five, modern wheat is not a friend, but a foe. To understand why, we need to go back to the beginning, as we know it, both in relation to grains and our evolution.
The history of grains
Starting with the geneology of grains, the founding father of today’s wheat is a genetically much simpler version called Einkorn. The earliest evidence shows we were certainly eating it at least 10,000 thousand years ago. It is called a ‘diploid’ wheat meaning that it has two whole sets of chromosomes (7+7), 14 in all. At some point it ‘mated’ with wild goatgrass to become ‘tetraploid’ wheat with 28 chromosomes, thus double the genetic complexity. In this generation are emmer, durum and khorosan. Durum is still used today to make pasta. Emmer is hard to get while khorosan wheat, also known as Kamut® khorosan wheat, has been intensely researched. More on this in a minute.
These have been around for thousands of years and were first found being growing agriculturally in the Near-Eastern Fertile Crescent about 10000 years ago. These then ‘mated’ again with goatgrass to produce modern wheat, as well as spelt, both of which are much more genetically complex with 42 chromosomes - known as hexaploids.
Gluten is a group name for a family of proteins found in wheat. The main type in wheat is called gliadin. (Oats contain avenin. This used to be called a gluten, but in recent years the terminology has changed to exclude avenin from the ‘gluten’ family of proteins.) There’s a good reason to want to increase gliadin content in wheat.
When bread is kneaded to make dough, gliadin adds an elasticity which allows the carbon dioxide which yeasts expel when fed sugar, to be trapped, thus allowing bread to rise. I have heard it said that the elasticity and strength of this modern wheat gluten now exceeds the elasticity and strength of a common rubber balloon. Of course, this means less wheat is needed to make a large loaf, and the baker can make more money.
The wheat we are eating today has been through hundreds, if not thousands of hybridisations, genetically modifying its gliadin protein. For example, one study found no less than 14 new gluten proteins as a result of one hybridisation. Gliadin, as we will see in a minute, is the factor in modern wheat that damages the gut wall, so there’s a high price to pay for a lighter loaf.
Other grains haven’t suffered so badly. Rice, maize and oats, all gliadin free, are less hybridised, largely because they’re not good grains for bread. Rice is, and always has been boiled. Oats are generally eaten whole. Corn is either eaten whole or ground to make cornmeal. So the commercial imperative to genetically modify them has primarily been for higher agricultural yield. Corn is changing since it has been discovered to be a viable source for sugar – high fructose corn syrup.
Evidence of ancient faecal remains show we ate these ancient grains and seeds ground, then cooked into bannocks or pancakes, thus breaking down cell structures, making their energy giving carbohydrates more available. Before that, evidence is rather patchy. They were not, however, a major part of our ancestor’s diet as they have become today.
A significant milestone is the discovery of fire, and its use for cooking. The first evidence of cooking is about 1.8 million years ago. Cooking means you can render previously hard to digest carbohydrates much more available as an energy source.
Paralleling our ancestors’ use of cooking is a growth in their brain size, along with an increase in aerobic capacity and a shortening of the gut and reduction in tooth size. This quite likely happened due to the fact that cooking reduced the time needed to digest and absorb nutrients in the gut, as well as needing less time to chew.
Around a million years ago, the DNA record of our ancestors shows that they started to have multiple variations in amylase enzymes (AMY1&2), needed to turn cooked starch into glucose. This design improvement would have meant more available fuel for both the body and brain.
‘Consumption of increased amounts of starch may have provided a substantial evolutionary advantage to Mid-to-Late Pleistocene omnivorous hominins,’ concludes Karen Hardy and Professor Jenny Brand-Miller from the University of Sydney, in their extensive paper entitled ‘The Importance of Dietary Carbohydrate in Human Evolution’.
Digestible carbohydrates, including ancient grains, were necessary, they propose, to accommodate the increased metabolic demands of a growing brain. Cooked starch, a source of preformed glucose, greatly increased energy availability to human tissues with high glucose demands, such as the brain, red blood cells, and the developing foetus.
For those into theories of nutrition and evolution, we are talking about a period of pre-history after the ‘aquatic ape’ period, which proposes that a group of proto humans adapted to wetlands and swamplands and, through wading in water, become upright and, due to large quantities of marine-based food high in omega-3 fats, had superior brain development. Whether or not this is true, the importance of omega-3 fats for brain structure and development is well established. Also, jumping forward, many of the earliest appearances of civilisations coincide with both being by the water’s edge and having a source of seafood and a plentiful supply of grains.
During the Pleistocene period, starting roughly 2.5 million years ago, the last Ice Age hits, ending about ten thousand years ago. By that time there was also widespread extinctions of large mammals across Europe, North America and Asia. Our ancestors were running out of easy meat. Grain kernels were taken south, especially those that came from plants whose kernels did not spontaneously shell out of the head to sow themselves for the next growing cycle. This feature allowed early man to harvest the ‘stickier’ grains whose grain seed was still attached to the grain head or spike. The only way to survive was to collect the most transportable grains and take them to lower, warmer areas, hence we ended up with grain which was held more tightly in the spike by a protective covering called chaff. This chaff is removed from the grain as a part of the harvesting and cleaning process. Many wild cereals people had relied on before, largely disappeared from the menu.
By the end of the Ice Age it’s principally wheat, rye and barley that our ancestors are eating in Mesopotamia – all gluten containing grains. Grain, especially wheat cultivation, led to the formation of villages as tribes settled down and left their nomadic ways. Ploughing led to greater yields. Grain stores meant more security during winter and hard times. Population growth ensued. Peasant farmers did better than hunter gatherers and increasingly took over, for better or worse.
Not long after that we have the earliest civilisations emerging – the Sumerian 6,000 years ago and Egyptian civilisation 5,000 years ago, all based on grains. Cereal grains are associated with virtually every highly developed civilisation in mankind’s history, including the Greek, Roman and Babylonian civilisations.
17 plant species provide 90% of human food supply
It is a great shame that, of the 195,000 species of flowering plants that produce edible parts which could be utilized by man, less than 0.1% or fewer than 300 species are used for food. Now, approximately 17 plant species provide 90% of mankind’s food supply, of which cereal grains supply far and away the greatest percentage. Eight cereal grains: wheat, maize, rice, barley, sorghum, oats, rye, and millet provide 56% of the food energy and 50% of the protein consumed on earth. Today, for large chunks of humanity, grains stand between mankind and starvation. Three cereals: wheat, maize and rice together comprise at least 75% of the world’s grain production. Until refining processes such as the milling of white flour, which started a little over 100 years ago, all these grains were eaten as whole grains. No wonder bread is in the first line of the Lord’s Prayer.
However, there are also significant downsides with a less ‘varied’ diet, both in terms of the nutrients they provide, but also, in the case of modern wheat, the harmful effects of gluten, linked to many of today’s epidemic diseases including heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
Could modern wheat, be part of the reason for the demise of health in our modern industrialized civilizations? Are grains a double-edged sword, accelerating our development and now our demise?
Gluten sensitivity is on the rise
Jumping forward, we see alarming new trends developing over the past 50 years of increasing sensitivity to wheat, increasing incidence of coeliac disease, that is gluten intolerance, and also auto-immune diseases. One in 30 people with digestive problems, and even more with auto-immune diseases have coeliac disease, now diagnosed in about 1% of the population. This problem seems not to be dependent on whether or not people are eating whole wheat or refined wheat, but it may be dependent on whether they are eating ancient wheat or modern wheat.
More people than not go undiagnosed sometimes with fatal consequences. One study shows that 8 of 10 coeliacs, chronically allergic to gliadin, go undiagnosed. Some countries are more aware than others. In Finland 25% of coeliacs are diagnosed by their doctor. In Italy only 6% are diagnosed. Some die from it with gastrointestinal cancers.
Why exactly can our daily bread be deadly?
Thanks to the research of Dr Alessio Fasano, from Massachusetts General Hospital, we now know that gliadin triggers the release of zonulin which opens up the ‘tight junctions’ between the gut’s epithelial cells, letting gliadin partially through the gut wall, to which the gut’s highly active immune system, known as GALT (Gut Associated Lymphatic Tissue) takes great offence. This triggers an immediate inflammatory response, and inflammation is the backbone of today’s endemic diseases. In time, the gut’s mucosal membrane degenerates as the protusions, the villi, flatten out. This means ever-decreasing ability to absorb nutrients.
Dr Alessio Fasano, who leads this field of research, believes that many more people, perhaps one in five, have non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). While one can be gliadin allergic, which involves the IgE antibody, the culprit for conventional allergies, many self-diagnosed gluten sensitive people test positive for IgG antibodies reacting specifically to wheat gliadin. However, this is a hotly debated area and a minefield for research both to find out if there is any biological basis for self-reported gluten sensitivity, and whether eliminating gluten makes any difference. A recent study, for example, took duodenal biopsies from self-reported NCGS subjects, versus otherwise healthy individuals and reported no differences.
In contrast, two research groups, including that of Fasano and another from Monash University in Australia, headed by Dr Jessica Biesiekierski, put non-coeliac volunteers onto a gluten-free diet and reported improvements in bloating, abdominal pain, stool consistency and tiredness, as well as changes in gut permeability.
The emerging link between wheat gluten (gliadin) and mental illness
This was first reported fifty years ago by Dr Curtis Dohan, showing a link with schizophrenia. More recently wheat gluten sensitivity has been linked to some cases of autism. At the Brain Bio Centre, where we treat people with a wide range of psychiatric disorders, we have had several clear-cut cases of gluten-induced psychopathology. I remember a girl, Liz, who has complete remission of her schizophrenia through gluten elimination, despite not testing positive for coeliacs. A similar case was recently published of a 14 year old girl, diagnosed with schizophrenia, who made a full recovery on eliminating gluten. She too did not test positive for coeliacs.
Is modern wheat the problem?
Is this something inherently wrong with wheat or is this to do with modern wheat? Modern wheat has undergone thousands of hybridisations to increase and change the quality of the gluten content, making the wheat plentiful and cheap. This explains why today’s wheat has a whole lot of subtly different gluten proteins that were never present in original wheat strains. It has been extremely modified or changed for reasons of profit rather than health. This madness is now continuing at a new level as biotech companies strive to create and then introduce strains of GMO wheat that can both be patented and compatible with specific pesticides and chemical treatments. The net result, even before GMO wheat is perfected and introduced, is that the gluten proteins in today’s wheat are substantially different to the gluten proteins as well as other compounds such as a rich array of polyphenols, found in the earliest forms of wheat, such as Kamut khorasan.
Ancient Kamut Khorasan wheat
A Montana organic farmer of 30 years, Bob Quinn, who is also an entrepreneur and researcher, is very upset about this and the loss of biodiversity. He has now helped farmers in his own state as well as adjoining states and Canadian provinces to convert 80,000 acres to grow ancient Kamut®khorosan wheat organically.
Khorasan is an ancient wheat that has not undergone one single hybridisation since it was grown by ancient civilizations before recorded history began. After many people told him that they could not eat modern wheat but could eat his Kamut khorasan wheat, he had a hunch that the problem was due to changes breeders had made in wheat since World War II, but he wanted to find out. Sixteen studies later, all published in peer reviewed scientific journals, a pattern is emerging. One study shows that rats fed modern wheat do indeed get small intestinal villi atrophy, but those fed Kamut wheat do not. Four of the most recent clinical trials – on diabetics, cardiovascular patients, healthy people and those with IBS show that modern wheat increases inflammatory markers while Kamut wheat does the reverse. Another study is under way of fatty liver disease with a further study in design to test the effects on cognitive function.
To give you a scale of this effect in the healthy volunteers, inflammatory markers TNF-alpha went up by 15% on modern wheat and dropped by 36% on kamut wheat. In the recent diabetes trial the inflammatory marker VEGF dropped by 34% on kamut compared to modern wheat. Insulin also dropped by 16% while it went up by 12% on modern wheat. Most telling is the trial on IBS sufferers, published in the British Journal of Nutrition. All symptoms substantially improved on kamut wheat, but got worse on modern wheat, and the inflammatory marker IL-6 dropped by 37%.
I was rather skeptical at first since the consensus is to eliminate all wheat in anyone with IBS or bloating as a first port of call. But I have treated and met many people who react very differently to Kamut wheat.
Case in point
Laura is a case in point “Sunday nights for my family have always been spaghetti night. I grew up on normal wheat pasta, and just assumed that needing to lie down on the sofa afterwards was part of the ritual... until I discovered Kamut. It's magic. Total indulgence without the bloating and excessive full feeling that a bowl of pasta leaves you with. I'm so wedded to kamut that I recently took it with me on a trip to Puglia!”
Whole versus refined wheat
Hang on a minute. Isn’t this simply difference between whole and refined wheat? No. All flour in these studies mentioned above was semi-refined – both for the Kamut and the ‘control’ wheat so they looked the same. But surely Kamut khorsan contains gliadin? Yes, but it is clear that human physiology is treating it as a friend not a foe. As often in life things are more complicated than you think. Ancient grains still contain gluten, but it is qualitatively different.
French Doctor and researcher, Michel Delogeril has been studying the difference. His main conclusion is that “coeliac-triggering gluten proteins are expressed to higher levels in modern cereals while non-triggering proteins are expressed less”. Another researcher, Dr Van Den Broeck from Wageningen University’s Applied Plant Research department has found the same thing. “The presence of the Glia-9 epitope (associated with triggering coeliacs disease) was higher in the modern varieties, whereas the presence of the Glia-20 epitope was lower, as compared to the landraces. This suggests that modern wheat breeding practices may have led to an increased exposure to Coeliac Disease epitopes”. In Italy, another research group has reported that “in non-celiac gluten sensitive patients and healthy subjects, protein extracts of modern wheat varieties, compared to ancient wheat varieties, induced a higher production of CXCL10, an inflammatory cytokine highly expressed also in celiac and IBS patients.”
It is looking as if the gluten in ancient grains, Kamut khorosan in particular, has subtly different genetic tagging, that may not trigger the body going into the same inflammatory attack mode. In clinical trials, ancient wheat is certainly not acting as a deadly bread, unlike most people’s modern, genetically altered and refined daily bread. However, it may not only be about gluten. These ancient grains have other qualitative differences. More diverse and higher levels of polyphenols and stronger antioxidant properties, both of which are generally anti-inflammatory in effect. Modern wheat, in contrast to ancient wheats, have been shown to protect against oxidative stress, another co-conspirator with inflammatory diseases. Do we yet know why our physiology likes these ancient grains and not modern wheat? In truth, not yet, but it is likely to be a more complex culprit than just a mono-polar focus on wheat gluten being the root of all evil.
Ancient whole grains are good for you
We have learnt that there is a vast difference between ancient wheat such as Kamut khorosan, and modern wheat. Also, that non-gluten grains such as oats and rye (which has much less gluten) have more health benefits. Also, eating more wholegrains versus refined grains is associated with many health benefits.
One probable explanation of the general benefit is that wholegrains contain more fibre and thus release their sugar content more slowly. This effect, however is reduced substantially when wholegrains are processed into convenience cereals. Thus the ‘ideal’ wholegrain product is one with minimal processing, such as whole oats and pumpernickel or volkenbrot bread, which are actually slow cooked by steaming and you can see the wholegrain. Pasta, which is cooked for only a few minutes, or bulgur, which is less finely ground than couscous, also fits into this category. The soluble fibres, particularly in oats and barley, also help speed up gastric transit time, the slowing of which is a major contributor to colo-rectal cancer, the incidence of which is highest in those eating lots of meat.
The oldest, and best researched ancient grain is Kamut khorosan which, incidentally, tastes absolutely delicious and is rapidly becoming a favourite pasta in Italy, the leading brand being Sgambarro.
There is no need to avoid, and plenty of reason to positively include, ancient wholegrains in your diet. While there are positive benefits for diabetics and the obese to avoid all carbs, equally good results are to be achieved with a low GL diet, including ancient wholegrains. According to Harvard’s Professor of Nutrition, David Ludwig, one of the world’s leading expert on carbohydrates "replacing added sugars and refined starchy foods with unprocessed carbohydrate, healthful fats and proteins may provide many of the benefits of a very low carbohydrate diet, without having to eliminate an entire class of nutritious (and delicious) foods.”
The myth that our ancestors were gluten and grain free, depends on a very limited understanding of our complex evolutionary journey, and the built-in ability to adapt to different environments. I believe it is wrong to think that there was ever one ‘perfect’ point in prehistory, a Garden of Eden, that fixes our definition of a perfect diet. Epigenetics shows we evolve, and have evolved with grains. Modern grains, as opposed to ancient grains, may have just evolved a lot faster than we can handle.
Is it time we stopped blaming all grains and acknowledge that they have been part of humanity’s evolution for the last million years and probably will be for the foreseeable future.? If we become too fixated on low carb and paleo approaches we are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater when what we need to do for better health is eat whole, organic ancient grains such as Kamut khorosan, but also whole oats and brown rice, barley and rye, quinoa and buckwheat, all of which remain relatively less genetically modified, and to go back to growing foods organically, suitable to our particular habitat, as part of a healthy, varied diet.
Kamut products and recipe
There are other Kamut products, some sold in supermarkets, listed at www.kamut.com .