Wheat is the oldest of the cereal grains and is a very important staple in many parts of the world. This grain is cultivated more than any other grain except in very cold climates and in tropical areas. The top three wheat-producing countries are China, the United States and Russia.
There are basically two different types of wheat: hard (durum) wheat and soft wheat. Hard wheat typically has a little more protein and is used to make products such as pasta and macaroni. While hard wheat can also be ground into flour for bread making, soft wheat is usually used to produce bread.
Wheat contains gluten, which is the mixture of nutrients that remains after the starches are washed away from dough which is made from wheat. This mixture contains approximately 80% protein and 20% carbohydrates, minerals and fats. This wheat content is so unusual that oats and rye, which were previously called “gluten grains,” are now thought to be safe for individuals who have gluten allergies.
History of Wheat
Wheat is thought to have been the most important grain throughout the known history of the world. It is believed to have originated in south-western Asia, and has been used as a food for human consumption for more than 10,000 years. First used in the Fertile Crescent and then passed on to Egypt, wheat played a nutritional factor in the development of civilization.
Although wheat is not native to the Western Hemisphere, it was introduced there in the late 15th Century when Columbus brought it to the New World. Cultivation of wheat did not flourish in the United States until the late 19th Century when a hardy strain of wheat known as Turkey red wheat was brought over by Russian immigrants.
Wheat also can boast the largest cropland area of any food, with more than 22% of the world’s available cropland given over to the growing of wheat.
Wheat Health Benefits
Typically, wheat products such as noodles, pasta, cookies and breads use wheat flours that have been processed until 60% of the wheat grain has been removed. Many of the nutrients are thus removed, including the bran and the germ. Unfortunately, more than half of the B vitamins, zinc, copper, folic acid, phosphorous, calcium and iron are removed in this manner.
In some countries, laws which require wheat to be enriched with some of the nutrients lost in processing are in effect. Wheat germ is removed when whole-wheat grain is made into white flour. The wheat germ is an excellent source of vitamins B1 and B6, as well as folic acid and vitamin E.
The health benefits of wheat can be maximized when 100% whole-wheat products are used which include the bran and the germ. White flour has almost no nutrients or health benefits, and has a higher glycemic index, which can adversely affect blood sugar levels.
A few of the benefits of whole-wheat products are listed below:
- Reduction in the risk of contracting breast cancer, because wheat bran is known to decrease blood estrogen, which is a promoter of breast cancer.
- Reduction in the incidence of colon cancer, which has not been seen with the consumption of either corn or oat bran.
- Promotion of good bowel functions, which can dramatically affect the incidence of diverticulitis.
Wheat should be rinsed under cool, running water to remove any debris or dirt. Whole-wheat products in bulk are best when purchased from stores which use securely covered bins and have a high turnover. Do not purchase bulk wheat which shows evidence of moisture in the product.
Whole wheat can be purchased as wheat germ, wheat bran, wheat berries, bulgur wheat, cracked wheat, unbleached whole-wheat flour and whole-wheat couscous. Wheat berries should be stored in sealed containers and kept in a cool, dark place. The best way to store wheat products is in airtight containers in the refrigerator, where the cooler temperature helps to keep the product from becoming rancid. Wheat products can also be frozen for several months.
Some quick serving tips for wheat products include the following:
- Use whole-wheat bread for sandwiches instead of white bread.
- Try whole-wheat flakes as a hot breakfast cereal.
- Use sprouted wheat berries in vegetable and grain salads.
- Whole-wheat bread can be used in French toast recipes instead of white bread.
- Pasta made from whole wheat is much healthier, heartier and tastier than white pasta.
- Try whole-wheat pitas with tomato sauce, soy cheese and broccoli as a delicious snack for all ages.
- Wheat germ can be a great addition to protein shakes, muffins, pancakes and casseroles. It can also be used as a topping on cereal, salads and yogurt.
Pancakes can be made from whole wheat by following this recipe: Mix 1 ½ cups of whole wheat flour, 1 tablespoon of baking powder, 1 egg, 1 cup of milk or soy milk, 1 tablespoon of honey, ½ teaspoon of salt, and 2 ½ tablespoons of canola oil. Mix until consistency is lumpy. Ladle onto griddle.
As mentioned above, some people react adversely to the gluten in wheat. Celiac disease is a disorder of the small intestine in which a reaction to gluten causes severe absorption problems, diarrhea which is frequent, and structures in the small intestine which typically return to normal once gluten is removed from the diet for a period of time.
Children are especially prone to wheat allergies. Symptoms of wheat allergies include the following:
- Frequent infections (such as ear and bladder infections)
- Bed wetting
- Asthma and sinusitis
- Chronic gastrointestinal disturbances
- Skin problems such as eczema, rashes, acne and hives
- Bursitis and joint pains
- Headache, fatigue and migraines
- Depression, insomnia and hyperactivity are also not unusual symptoms
- Holford, P. The optimum nutrition bible, Little Brown Group (2004)
- Holford, P & Lawson, S. Optimum Nutrition Made Easy How to achieve optimum health, Piatkus Books (2008)
- Murray, M.T. et al., Encyclopedia of healing foods, London : Piatkus (2005)
- The National Research Council. Recommended Dietary Allowances, 10th ed, National Academy of Sciences (1989)
- Werbach, M. Nutritional Influences on Illness, 2nd ed, Third Line Press (1993)
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