Saturday, February 16, 2013

Who Stole My Bread?

I was born with a piece of bread in my tiny little hand, ready to eat it with a fork full of pasta in the other.  As a 3rd generation Italian, eating bread is as instinctual as breathing.  That’s why my Italian heart broke when I read "Wheat Belly" by William Davis along with the growing concentration of warnings by medical professionals about the dangers of wheat in our diet.

So What’s the Big Deal?  Studies are still somewhat preliminary but wheat is showing linkages to a range of health implications, most notably obesity and type-2 diabetes.  Davis blames wheat for the reason obesity has remained so pervasive despite our efforts to exercise and cut down on calories and fatty foods. To understand this, we need to consider the glycemic index (GI) of foods processed from wheat, which is a measure of the ability of a given food to raise blood sugar (glucose) levels after being eaten.  The higher the GI, the easier it is for our bodies to increase sugar levels that are then stored as visceral fat…leading to the proverbial wheat belly and, yes guys, “man boobs”.  Wheat has an alarmingly high GI.  Consider this:  whole wheat bread (something that is supposed to be the healthy option) has a GI of 72 while white bread has a GI of 69.  But here’s the kicker – a Snicker’s Bar has a GI of 51 and table sugar has a GI of 59.  Are you starting to see where I’m going?  Other health implications associated with wheat include heart disease, cancers, cataracts, wrinkles, aging, and mental illness although scientific evidence of these is a bit more scant.

How Did Wheat Become Unhealthy?   Wheat wasn’t always bad for us.  When our grandparents were younger (before the 1960s), wheat fields used to have stocks that were 4-5 feet high.  But over the last several decades, in our quest to increase consistent wheat yields and reduce costs to feed the poor, we hybridized the wheat grain so aggressively that we genetically transformed its composition.  Using excessive fertilizer to boost production, we dramatically increased the size of the wheat seeds, making them too heavy for the 4-foot stock, which buckled and killed the plant.  In response, the green revolution changed the genetic composition of the wheat so that it was shorter and bulkier to withstand the heavier seed head.  That’s why the wheat fields of today have stocks that are 2-3 feet high (see picture).  But unfortunately no animal or human testing was done on this new hybridized strain before entering the food system.  So while a majority of the planet can now access cheap wheat, we’re starting to pay the price.  The breads, cookies, and pancakes of today although similar in taste, smell and appearance to those our grandmother used to make have very different biochemical properties.  The processing of this strain of wheat results in a super carbohydrate that is very easy to digest and turn into sugar, hence the really high GI index.

How does this affect the daily consumer?  It may or may not come as a surprise, but wheat is everywhere!  Walk into your average Canadian staple Tim Hortons or American Dunkin Donuts and what you see before you is an explosion of wheat from the double chocolate donut to the latest and greatest grilled cheese on a Panini, to the wide assortment of muffins and bagels.  At home, the story is no different.  Gaze into your pantry and a majority of what you’ll find in there has huge concentrations of wheat including but not limited to breakfast cereals, pastas (god no!), potato chips, cookies, cakes, pies, cupcakes, pancakes, waffles, beer, pita, couscous, rye, unbleached flour, whole-wheat flour, barley, crepes, gnocchi, panko ,and sadly bread. 

This really sucks!  Believe me, I’ve been working my way off wheat for the last several months and it isn’t easy.  The hardest part is walking into a coffee shop or restaurant and realizing that 90% of what’s on the menu has wheat and the other 10% is typically a bowl of cheap fruit or a box of raisins!  Bloody hell!  And while these places are starting to offer gluten-free options, most people don’t realize that these foods are actually worse than eating the wheat. 

Gluten-free foods are particularly important for those people with celiac disease who are strictly intolerant of gluten.  For them, eating wheat can kill them.  So to meet the needs of these people, food producers have had to find replacement ingredients for gluten.  Enter things like corn starch, potato starch and tapioca starch.  But here's the problem, these starches have a GI index higher than whole wheat bread – upper 70s and 80s.  So going gluten free may make sense for someone with celiac disease, but it’s not the right thing to do for us who want to eat healthy.  The only non-wheat bread I’ve been able to find (and I’ve looked very hard) are those that have these starches in the ingredient list.

What are the Implications? Our highly industrialized and economic-centric response to feeding the planet has unfortunately come at great cost.  We only have so much land and with population levels expected to reach 9 billion before coming back down, it’s going to be harder and harder for us to eat healthy.  Just staying away from potato chips, chocolate bars, sodas, and candies is not enough anymore.  These were easy because they were meant to be a source of indulgence so they weren’t at all disguised.  But today and in the future, eating healthy means navigating a minefield of dangerous ingredients that we aren’t aware of yet, don’t have the time to learn about, or find it hard to ascertain what contains them.  I have no doubt that there is a direct correlation between unhealthy food ingredients and how pervasive they are in our food system.  This is the all-time market failure.  Wheat, soy and corn are the three most pervasive ingredients in our food system and all three have been heavily criticized because they have been so brutally hybridized and processed that they are no longer recognizable biochemically.  The sad thing is that we can predict the same outcome for those niche grains such as quinoa and millet which, at the moment are highly sought for as healthy substitutes.  But as demand grows and the industrialized food system gets their hands on them, we’ll see a similar manipulation of said grains thereby perverting the biochemical properties that took millions of years to specifically suit our genetic makeup.  Producers will then put these ingredients in everything from pancakes to muffins and nutritionists will support their consumption only to our chagrin later when we read “Millet Belly” or “Quinoa Belly” that tells us that their hybridization is what is explaining a new trend in human illness (see this very story on quinoa that just came out).

So who stole my bread?  The industrialized food system did and we, as consumers, are complicit because the only way that we can sustain ourselves in this finite planet with such high population levels is to sacrifice our health to get what we need.  That is why for me, the scientific evidence of the dangers of wheat are less important than the fact that we are starting to hit a wall in terms of what we can efficiently and safely produce to feed 7-9 billion people.  In other words, I’m not at all surprised that one of the most pervasive foods (wheat) in our food system is responsible for major disease.  You can’t manipulate nature to such an extent to radically increase production levels to unprecedented proportions and not pay a price down the road.  

This means that readers who want to remove themselves from the line of sight of the looming freight train will have to detach from the industrialized food system by creatively finding alternatives to what you're seeing in the aisles of the grocery store and in healthy recipe books.  For instance, how do you make homemade vegetarian burgers if you can't use bread crumbs or even panko crumbs?  How do you make homemade pancakes without wheat flour?  How do you make a sandwich if there is no bread?  In his book Davis tends to think that it's entirely possible and he provides some good advice on how to do so.  But there is no doubt that a serious lifestyle change needs to be made about where people are spending their disposable income.  If you want inexpensive food so that you can purchase more televisions, ipads, vehicles and the dream home, then, in my view, you will be a passive victim to a system that is inherently in conflict with the long-term health needs of our society.