The Problem with Wheat: Understanding Modern Grain Concerns

Author: Yean Toh | Published date: April 12, 2024 | Category: Nutrition



Wheat is the most widely consumed grain. It has become so much a part of our lives that we may eat it throughout the day. As a doctor who adopts a nutritional approach to healing, I have often told parents to stop giving wheat-based foods to their sick children. The response is predictable. With a look of despair, they would say: "But doctor, my child has nothing else to eat".
It is also the most problematic grains, with high levels of gluten and anti-nutrients like phytates, lectins and saponins. Wheat itself may not be problematic, but modern wheat is. This explains why wheat or gluten sensitivity is a new problem faced mainly by Westerners in the last 50 years. Among Asians, Africans and Mediterranean people, only a small number have wheat sensitivity. But with growing wheat consumption, the incidence is likely to rise.
To appreciate the difference between modern and ancient wheat, let's look at how wheat has evolved over the past 10,000 years:

  • Einkorn was the original wheat that first entered the human diet. It was not very "baking- friendly" - which is a sign that it did not contain much gluten. This wheat had a simple genetic code of only 14 chromosomes.
  • Emmer was another early form of wheat, with a genetic code of 28 chromosomes.
    Triticum is modern wheat that has resulted from hundreds of natural and human- designed hybrids over the millennia. It produces flour that is easy to bake with, due to the high gluten content. There are three varieties:
  • Triticum aestivum is the most popular variety of modern wheat, used for producing bread, biscuits and many other flour products. It has a complex genetic code of 42 chromosomes. It is thousands of genes apart from the original wheat. Meanwhile, genetic manipulations have made wheat even more distant from the original variety.
  • Triticum durum or "durum wheat" is another modern wheat, used for making pasta
  • Triticum compactum is used for making cakes and other fine products. These three varieties of modern wheat account for 99 percent of today's total worldwide wheat production.

Modern wheat still retains 95 percent of its original proteins but 5 percent are unaccountable. Wheat glutens, in particular, have changed structurally with hybridisation. Compared to ancient wheat, modern wheat has more genes for gluten proteins that are associated with coeliac disease3. Eating more modern wheat means you are getting more gluten and more of the abnormal gluten proteins that could potentially give you gluten sensitivity.
The following grains are also wheat products:

  • Kamut® is the brand name of a variety of ancient wheat called Khorasan wheat. It is one of the earlier forms of wheat with a relatively simple genetic code of 28 chromosomes. This wheat may be suitable for some people with gluten sensitivity but should still be avoided by people with coeliac disease. However, those with coeliac disease should still avoid it completely.
  • Spelt is another ancient wheat, but genetically closer to modern wheat with 42 chromosomes. Most people with gluten sensitivity do not react adversely to spelt. 
  • Bulghur is a quick-cooking wheat product eaten in the Middle East, Europe and the United States. It cooks quickly because it has been parboiled (boiled in its husks, a process that drives some of the nutrients on the skin into the starch) and ground into smaller pieces. Bulghur should not be confused with broken or cracked wheat (whole wheat cut into smaller pieces, similar to steel cut oats) although it is sometimes mixed with broken wheat. The difference is that bulghur has been pre-cooked.

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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