This post covers the section “Whole Grains” of Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon. “Traditional” as used in this blog refers to the healthy isolated groups of people studied by Weston A Price, who were untouched by modern ways of dealing with food, or other pre-modern ways of eating that promote good health. Opinions are mine unless indicated otherwise.
Grains, even whole grains, are getting a bad rap these days. I kept wondering why more and more people were developing problems with wheat, or more specifically, gluten. At first I thought it was just a small percentage of people, but as gluten sensitivity awareness has grown, so have the numbers. What was going on here? There are those who believe humans aren’t supposed to eat grains, but my religion has a health code called the Word of Wisdom that specifically says that grain, particularly wheat, is good for man. So I can’t just jump on the paleo wagon and say that grains are bad for us.
This troubled me for some time. I don’t know how the answer eluded me for so long, but it did. I prayed many times in my nightly prayers for an answer. I finally said a truly heartfelt prayer one night, after which I simply got the distinct impression that, just as it says in the Word of Wisdom, that grain is a good thing to eat. Now this wasn’t the full answer I wanted, but it did bring me some peace that what I believe in is true.
Well, I feel like I pretty much have the answer now that I have been looking for. It was right in my Nourishing Traditions book. This book is pretty big, and I somehow had kept missing the section on grains as I flipped through the book. I finally read it, and now everything makes sense. In fact, Fallon confirms much of what I had suspected about this mysterious grain and gluten intolerance problem.
Proteins in grains, particularly gluten, are very difficult to digest. In some people, the immune system sees gluten as an invader and begin attacking it. The antibodies developed from this allergic response then begin attacking the intestinal walls and damage the villi that line the intestine. Villi are important for proper digestion, thus putting a strain on the whole digestive system. So that means we shouldn’t eat grains with gluten, right? Not necessarily.
PHYTIC ACID AND ENZYME INHIBITORS
All grains, not just gluten-containing grains, contain phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors. Enzymes are crucial for proper digestion, so enzyme inhibitors are problematic. Phytic acid is a substance that binds phosphorus in the grain so that it’s inaccessible for assimilation, and it can also bind to calcium, magnesium, copper, iron, and zinc (especially zinc) in the intestinal tract and block their absorption (maybe this is why I have to eat a lot of beef to keep my zinc levels up?). So it sounds like grains are not just indigestible, but are actually very anti-nutritious, right? Like maybe we shouldn’t eat them, right? Not necessarily.
IT’S ALL ABOUT PREPARATION
You see, back in the olden days, before the modern farm machine called the combine made wheat harvesting a quick and clean process, farmers used to put the wheat in stacks like the ones pictured here. They would sit there for a while, exposed to the elements. They would get wet and begin to ferment and/or sprout. Societies with traditional (pre-modern) diets also soak their grains before cooking them. It seems that sprouting helps break down gluten and neutralize phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors. The fermentation process also help neutralize phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors, and it breaks down gluten into simpler components that are more digestible. For people who are sensitive to gluten, sprouting and/or soaking may be all that is needed in order to safely eat grains. However, for those who have a true gluten allergy, it’s best to avoid it altogether.
- India: Rice and lentils are fermented for two days before prepared as idli and dosas
- Africa: Soak coarsely ground corn or millet for several days to make ogi (the Welsh made a similar dish)
- Oriental and Latin American: Rice fermented for long periods before preparation
- Ethiopia: Ferment the grain teff for several days before making injera bread
- Mexican: Corn cakes called pozol are fermented for as long as two weeks in banana leaves
- Europe: Before commerical brewers yeast, slow-rise breads were made from fermented starters, and they made their porridge and greul from grains soaked in soured milk overnight or as long as several days
- American Pioneers: Made sourdough bread, pancakes and biscuits
- Oatmeal containers in the U.S. used to call for overnight soaking.
BENEFITS OF SOAKING
ARE SOME GRAINS BETTER THAN OTHERS?
Well wheat is the grain that the Word of Wisdom specifically says is for man (I know most of my readers won’t care about that, but it’s important to me). Wheat has been the prized grain for thousands of years. Just how nutritious it is would depend on who you ask, but it does regularly hit top grain lists, such as this one (the ancients kinds, anyway, see below). But yes, it does have gluten. The only way around that is to soak and/or sprout.
It’s important to remember that modern man likes to experiment with food, especially so that he can grow lots and lots of the same type of crop on one giant farm without having insects go crazy on it (bio-dynamic farming is important for keeping pests down naturally). So food scientists play with the DNA of food, create hybrids, and essentially fabricate food that nature could not, to get food that grows fast and big, repels insects, and doesn’t decay easily. While this is good for growing big crops (and making big money), it is not necessarily good for health. In fact, one of the things they’ve done with food is increase the gluten content. (No wonder gluten sensitivities are popping up like crazy.) So what you really want to look for is ancient wheat varieties, such as kamut and spelt. The gluten in spelt breaks down more easily than in modern wheat, and people allergic to modern wheat also report doing better with ancient kamut. Eikorn is possibly the oldest cultivated form of wheat and is quite different from our modern varieties of wheat.
There are also grains that do not contain gluten (or at least a less problematic kind?). For people who are very intolerant of gluten, these would be preferable. They include: Buckwheat, rice, millet, amaranth, corn, quinoa, teff, and wild rice (buckwheat, quinoa and wild rice are not true grains but should still be soaked). Soaking rice is less important but still beneficial. All grains contain phytates, so it’s best to neutralize them when you can.
SELECTING AND SOAKING GRAINS
Choose whole grains that have not been ground, cracked or rolled, as these processes will allow the grain to go rancid. It’s best to leave the grain intact until you are ready to use it. Grains can be soaked in warm water with whey added (living whey that has beneficial bacteria in it), cultured buttermilk, kefir, yogurt, or lemon juice. Soaking should be done at least overnight. Corn is unique in that it must be soaked in lime water to release it’s vitamin B3 and improve the amino acid quality.
WHAT ABOUT GRAIN/GLUTEN ALLERGIES?
Allergies to grain and gluten likely occur either because the person has eaten too many unsoaked grains in their life, or because their parents did and passed the allergy on to them. Or it may be that their digestive tract is simply screwed up for whatever reason. This doesn’t mean humans are not supposed to eat grain. People can be allergic to anything, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, milk, fish, and meat. The problem isn’t the food–the problem is much more deeply rooted than that. It’s extremely important to maintain a healthy gut, as this will reduce allergies. Allergies are not normal–they are a symptom of an underlying problem. Eating the right amounts of properly prepared foods is key.
Some people with grain and gluten allergies actually do fine on the old forms of grains when they are fermented (soaked). Sometimes it may take some gut healing before a person should eat even soaked grains. For some, allergies become so severe that the allergen must be completely avoided. Don’t eat anything that makes you sick!
WE ARE GOING TO EAT GRAINS
The more I learn about food, the more I am realizing that every type of food is potentially harmful. Food must retain it’s integrity and be properly prepared. I’m not going to argue whether or not we evolved from carnivorous neanderthals (or fruitarian apes for that matter) because I think the point is moot. If man evolved, then so did his diet. I believe that nature provided a way for us to eat grains safely. That’s good enough for me.
I don’t know that we should eat loads and loads of grains though. I believe in eating a variety of foods. Eating too much of any one thing can cause intolerance or other problems, especially if you already have a compromised digestive system, as many of us now do. I know that not everyone can eat every type of food. Some people have bodies that are way out of whack and this is just not possible for them. But I do think that as a general human rule, we should eat a little of everything, taking cues from the seasons, our activity, our surroundings (well, natural surroundings–an abundant grocery store that ships in food from out of country doesn’t count), our stage in life, etc.
And, to be perfectly honest, our family cannot financially afford not to eat grains. I’ve already pushed our food budget to the limit. High-quality meat and eggs, raw milk and other quality dairy, and organic produce are expensive. Grain is affordable. All I have to do is soak it to make it nutritious…so simple.