Wheat and You: a Grainy History

I was pre-cooking some wheatberries when I realized that wheat is actually a very interesting crop. Wheat is probably the most influential crop in the history of humanity. That’s quite a statement, but I do intend to half-heartedly back it up.

For as long as people have needed to eat, they have ground up some sort of grain, added water and salt, baked it somehow, and eaten. For most of the world, that ground grain is wheat. Not in all parts of the world, and many countries didn’t pulverize the grain, they just ate it. But China (rice), Chile (quinoa), Ireland (potato), and Mexico (corn) aside, most countries have heavily relied upon wheat, now and in the past.

Wheat is the number one source of vegetable protein worldwide, and is the third most grown crop by volume, following rice and maize. Although there is more maize produced than wheat, much of today’s corn goes into feeding livestock, not humans (read Omnivore’s Dilemma), so wheat actually feeds more people than maize. Still less than rice though. It’s not really close. Chine is a rice eating machine.

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In addition to being used for flour, wheat can also be used to ferment liquids to make beer,

its stalks are used in biofuels, and of course wheat is a cereal grain, so you and the rest of America get most of your grains from breakfast cereal in the morning.

Wheat is also interesting to me because of the number of times it is referenced in the Bible. In the Old Testament, one of the most common sacrifices was wheat flour and oil combined, and then burned in a bronze pan. In fact, I would wager that was the most common sacrifice of the Israelites to God. In the New Testament the parables about wheat are abundant. Yesterday’s reading in Mass was Jesus telling a parable to the disciples that involved wheat. He said that an enemy planted weeds in His wheat fields, but He was not going to pick them now. The landowner was going to wait until harvest so that he wouldn’t uproot the wheat when he removed the weeds. There are many wheat references in the Bible because wheat was such an every day part of peoples’ lives back then. There are also many references to yeast and dough, because the Israelites also had to make their own bread whenever they wanted bread, so they were quite familiar with how yeast works through a batch of dough (or how Pharisee’s cynical thinking works through the minds of the uncertain).

I said earlier that I was boiling wheatberries, and now that I’ve explained a little of wheat’s importance, I can get a little practical with you. If that’s ok.

When wheat is harvested, the most valuable part is the wheatberry. In the same way that when corn is harvested, the most important part is the corn kernel. Other parts of the plant are used because so many plants are grown that it would be wasteful not to use everything, but wheat is grown for the wheatberry.

This is what a wheatberry looks like:20110718-112035.jpg

This is what a wheatberry looks like cut in half:

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It is a tiny little kernel that looks a lot like popcorn. Hayleigh bought these for me at Whole Foods in Austin for like four dollars for four pounds–they’re not expensive. I boil these and then let them simmer for an hour and a half and then let them sit in the water for eight hours then boil them one more time and drain. Then I have useable wheatberries. They are very tough naturally, and you see the process I have to go through to make them edible. People grind them into flour because it is much easier than boiling them for hours on end, and you can use flour for more things than you can use wheatberries (I put mine into my sandwich bread).

The wheatberry consists of three different parts: the endosperm, the germ, and the bran.

There are two main kinds of flour that the general public knows about: whole wheat flour and all-purpose (or bleached) flour. Whole wheat flour is simply a lot of wheatberries ground up. Boom. All-purpose flour is only the endosperm ground up. Some process seperates the bran and germ from the endosperm, and then only the endosperm is used. The endosperm is starchy like a potato, and is the food source for the germ when it is a young seed. The reason why people seperated them a long time ago is because the bran and the germ have most of the minerals and nutrition; but, the nutritive qualities that the bran and germ have also make them go bad more quickly (called “rancidification” I learned). More bugs, bacteria, fungi, and animals are attracted to whole wheat flour because it has more things that animals want. Contained within those two parts of the wheatberry are most of the B Vitamins, and that’s why unbleached white flour is usually “enriched.” 20110718-112016.jpgWhen they enrich white flour, they inject artificial forms of the vitamins and minerals that they removed by seperating the endosperm from the germ and bran. Kind of ironic huh? The artificial forms last longer, but are not absorbed in the same way by your body, that is why whole wheat flour is more natural for your body. Many health people nowadays lament all the white flour that we eat and insist if more of it were whole wheat, we wouldn’t have an obesity epidemic. Personally, I dont think that it is those few minerals and vitamins that are missing that make America fat, I think it’s that we eat too large of a quantity of the jejune flour. Still, switching to whole wheat is a good idea now that we don’t have to worry about the shelf life of our flour because it is delievered so fresh to grocery stores.

My mom, who is a health paragon and I love her, tries to eat a bran muffin everyday because they are high in fiber and tasty. I am going to homemake her some soon, but until then she is very happy with H.E.B. muffins. She does not eat many sweets, and so she must consider the health benefits of bran to outweigh the bad effects of the sugar. But if she believes that much in bran, then you should too, because she knows what she’s doing.

The germ has most of the vitamins and minerals because it is essentially the seed that the bran protects and endosperm feeds; the germ is the money-maker of the three, they do everything they do for it.

To summarize: wheat is made from wheat plants grown all across the world. Wheatberies are what you want from the wheat. Boil them for a million hours like me so you can eat them. Pulverize them into flour to make bread with them. The wheatberries consist of the bran (brown outside), the germ (the living seed), and the endosperm (the food for the seed). All-purpose flour is the flour made of only ground endosperm, and works very well in baking, but lacks the nutrients and fiber that the germ and bran provide. Wheat is in the Bible. Wheat is cool. Wheaties.

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Wheat and You: a Grainy History

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