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Spelt or Wheat?

by Les Saidel - August, 2012

Recently there has been a lot of buzz about products made with spelt flour rather than wheat flour, claiming that spelt is healthier and branding wheat flour the new "bad guy". The purpose of this article is to clarify the facts behind the hype and give you the reader, a balanced view on the subject.

Most flour is manufactured from the 5 grains - wheat, barley, oats, rye and spelt. In fact these are the five grains for which the blessing of "Hamotzi" needs to be recited, thus categorizing the baked product as bread. In addition to the above 5 grains however, depending on the region, flours are made from additional sources, for example corn flour in Mexico, teff flour in Ethiopia, quinoa and many others.

The most common grain used to make flour worldwide is wheat.

Modern wheat is derived from einkorn (single grain in German) wheat or from emmer wheat. These were the original wheat strains of antiquity which have been cross bred and manipulated over the ages to develop more vigorous, infestation resistant hybrids. Ancient, heirloom wheat is a troublesome crop, prone to many maladies at many stages of its growth.

The reason wheat has become the ubiquitous grain can be found in its chemical composition. The inner portion of the wheat kernel, the endosperm, contains a combination of starch and various amino acids (proteins). Two of these are gliadin and glutenin, which when combined in the presence of water and friction, create a more complex protein - gluten. This protein is what gives dough its elasticity and extensibility, allowing it to rise while retaining its form.

Modern wheat used today to mill wheat flour has been genetically engineered to both enhance crop yield and also to increase the gliadin content thus providing an added "boost" of gluten. This added gluten allows the industry to create more attractive, puffed up, lighter loaves.

Other grains such as rye, spelt and oats have a lower concentration of gliadin and thus a weaker gluten structure. Breads made from these grains tend to be denser and of smaller volume.

Gliadin, which belongs to the family of opiates, also acts as an appetite stimulant. For this reason it has come under substantial criticism from the medical establishment which blames the increased gliadin in modern wheat for the rise in obesity, amongst other maladies.

The gliadin content of heirloom wheat was probably not harmful to the body in any great degree, due to the balance afforded it by nature. Modern, genetically engineered wheat unfortunately cannot claim this, since by tampering with it, the natural balance has been upset. While the end product may manifest itself as better income for the wheat farmer and more attractive loaves for the baker, it comes at the cost of reduced health for the consumer.

All grains, including spelt, possess some gliadin content. However the gliadin content of wheat in general and genetically engineered modern wheat in particular is higher than the other grains.

For this reason nutritionists recommend switching to flours made from the other grains - spelt, rye and oats. These remain "fringe" markets and have thus managed to evade the genetic engineer's "knife" until now. If and when they become more mainstream crops, perhaps due to the increased demand for products made with them, logic dictates that they too will suffer the same fate. As of now though, these grains remain true to their origins and modern spelt closely resembles the spelt of antiquity both in form and composition.

Two drawbacks of switching to flours milled from the other grains are increased cost and having to get used to a different texture in your bread, a less fluffy/light texture and a more dense texture.

The question to ask is - "Is wheat flour unhealthy?" The answer to that is not simple. It depends on the quantity of wheat flour you consume, whether it is whole wheat or white flour, your personal anatomy and physiology and many other variables. To say that wheat flour is unhealthy is a little extreme. It is certainly not poisonous, like much of the hype tries to make it out to be.

If you compare it to the other grains it is probably the least healthy of the five, but comparing it to the myriad chemical compounds we find in our foods, E-this and E-that, wheat is probably much healthier, so everything is relative. If you are looking to eliminate foods from your diet you may want to start with those containing excess sugar, excess salt, over refined ingredients, and other more potentially damaging candidates before adding wheat to the list. Whole wheat, even genetically engineered whole wheat, still contains many beneficial nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and oils. The worst thing modern wheat will do to you is probably stimulate your appetite and cause you to put on weight. While that is not a good thing necessarily, it is not Socrates' hemlock.

If however you already have taken the other steps to improving your health, such as avoiding highly processed and refined foods containing unnecessary and damaging chemicals, the logical extension to that is to switch to the healthier grains such as spelt, oats and rye. This however requires deeper pockets and a period of adjustment to get used to a different texture (and taste) in your flour products. This requires a certain degree of commitment and is more difficult to inculcate especially among problematic populations such as fussy spouses or children who have been reared on lighter wheat flour products.

If you have gluten intolerance or even some forms of Celiac (not all Celiac sufferers can eat spelt as it does contain some gluten) the choice is clear. Spelt, rye and oats flour are much easier on the digestive system than wheat.

If your goal is the best health you can possibly achieve, then by all means switch to spelt, rye or oats. Your body will feel better for it.

Les Saidel


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