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Understanding Grain Diversity and Gluten Sensitivity: Types of Grains Explained

Author: Yean Toh | Published date: April 5, 2024 | Category: Nutrition

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Types of grains

So far, we have discussed mainly wheat and rice. These are by far the most widely eaten grains and many people only know of these two. But there are lots more. And when we consider the various types of grain eaten throughout history, we come across a few surprises.

The first surprise is probably this - although rice originated in China and is widely associated with the Chinese, it was not the original staple food of the Chinese. Originally, the Chinese ate mainly millet. In fact, they ate two different types of millet. The Chinese have a concept of "Five Sacred Grains" and rice is not always included. One version of the Five Sacred Grains has soybean, wheat, proso millet, foxtail millet and rice. Another version leaves out rice, but includes hempseed! Note that these "grains" include beans and seeds.

Likewise, rice was not always the most important grain in Japan. Until World War II, the Japanese prepared their meals around barley, millet, buckwheat, beans, potato and pumpkin. Rice was considered a luxury food reserved for special occasions.

Now comes perhaps the biggest surprise of all... Although wheat and rice are the two most widely eaten grains, the most widely cultivated grain is actually corn! But most of the corn is either fed to animals, or used in the production of high fructose corn syrup.
We now take a look at the more common types of grains. Because of the serious impact of gluten, this discussion is divided into two sections - gluten grains and non-gluten grains.

Gluten grains

Gluten comes from the word "glue" and it refers to a type of protein that gives a chewy texture. It is found in grains such as wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt, Kamut and triticale. These grains all have a distinctive slit that runs down the middle.
The Japanese call such grains mugi.
Gluten means different things to different people...

  • To bakers, gluten is the unique substance that makes dough "doughy" - stretchable, rollable, spreadable and twistable. It enables bread dough to leaven - expand and yet hold itself together - when fermented with yeast. Without adequate gluten, you will not get bread but cake, which crumbles when broken.
  • To Chinese vegetarians, gluten is "mock meat". It is a vegetarian protein that is chewy like meat and it can be made to taste like meat. This is made by first mixing high-gluten flour with enough water to form a stiff dough, kneading the dough and then repeatedly rinsing it with water to remove the starch and fibre.

To people with gluten sensitivity, who form about 10 percent of the population in modern, Western societies, gluten is the source of a broad range of symptoms:

  • Bloating, abdominal discomfort, pain or
  • Headaches and migraines; lethargy and tiredness;
  • Diarrhoea;
  • Attention-deficit disorder and hyperactivity;
  • Bone and joint pain.


Some people are so sensitive that even trace amounts of gluten can trigger a reaction. Of all grains, wheat has the highest level of gluten, accounting for 80 percent of the total proteins. This makes wheat the most problematic grain.

Gluten consists of two main components: gliadins and glutenins. Gliadins are the chief "trouble makers". They are intestinal irritants that can seriously damage the mucus lining, leading to inflammation and leaky gut syndrome. Wheat gliadin attacks the intestine by triggering the release of a protein called zonulin that makes the intestines more permeable! Once this happens, unwanted proteins will enter the bloodstream. Protein needs to be broken down into amino acids before they can be utilised by the body. When they enter the blood as complete or semi-digested proteins, they are treated as "aliens" and the body's immune system will attack them. This leads to food allergies and autoimmune disease.


Coeliac disease

Coeliac disease is the most severe form of gluten sensitivity. Sufferers have absolutely zero tolerance of gluten and will react strongly at the slightest exposure. They need to avoid gluten for life. This is a fast-rising disease, which currently affects about one percent of the population in modern Western societies. However, the number of cases has increased four-fold in the past 50 years. Its symptoms are also getting progressively worse.

About 50 percent of people with coeliac disease experience distinct intestinal symptoms that include stomach cramps and intractable (difficult to treat) diarrhoea. They may also have symptoms similar to those of irritable bowel syndrome and acid reflux.

The other 50 percent of sufferers, however, may experience symptoms related to various other diseases, such as weight loss, malnutrition, anaemia, migraine headache, arthritis, neurological symptoms, infertility, failure to thrive, depression, chronic fatigue, dementia and cancer of the gut and lymphoma. Gluten intolerance is also linked to mental disorders like attention-deficit disorder, hyperactivity and schizophrenia. 

Coeliac disease is partially a genetic disease, although other factors are needed before the disease manifests. It is a permanent condition. Even if gluten is eliminated for many years, ,the symptoms rapidly reappear when the person is again exposed to gluten.

This content is adapted, with permission, from Book 1 of 2 : The Wonders of Nutrition by Dr Ang Poon Liat. MBBS, M.MED (PAED), MRCP (UK PAED), FAMS, MD.

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