Wheat is one of the oldest harvested grains. Domestic wheat was first cultivated in western Asia 6,000 years ago, and it likely descended from a wild grass that was harvested as early as 12,000 years ago. Wheat was milled into flour for bread in ancient Egypt and was the grain of choice during the Roman Empire.
Wheat fell behind barley, rye, and potatoes as a staple food in Europe during the Middle Ages, but it reemerged as the preeminent grain in the 19th century. It was brought to the New World by European settlers in the 1700s, and by the mid-19th century was established in what would later be America’s wheat belt.
Today wheat is the most important cereal crop in the world; it nourishes more people than any other grain, mainly in the form of bread and noodles. Unlike many other grains, such as oats, corn, sorghum, and millet, wheat is not typically used as animal feed, but is processed directly into food for people. Wheat bran and germ, however, which are the nutrient-dense by-products of flour refining, are given to livestock. The bulk of the wheat grown is milled into flour—usually white flour. But there are forms of wheat, with their bran and germ intact, that can be eaten as a main or side dish.
The United States ranks among the top five wheat-growing nations in the world, exporting half of the annual wheat crop to other nations.
Types of Wheat and How to Use Them
There are thousands of known varieties of wheat, but all of them fall into one of six classes, determined in part by when they're planted.
Unrefined wheat is a highly nutritious food source. Wheat is low in fat and provides complex carbohydrates, insoluble and soluble fiber, and an assortment of vitamins and minerals. Though its protein is incomplete, when combined with other cereal grains, animal proteins, or legumes, it becomes complete.
The nutritional value of wheat is determined by how it is processed. Whole wheat retains its natural bran and germ, and thus retains a full range of nutrients. Whole wheat offers a good supply of protein, B vitamins, and minerals, including iron and magnesium.
Refined wheat has been stripped of its bran and germ, and thus most of its fiber and many nutrients. Although refined-wheat foods are usually enriched with a few vitamins and minerals (sometimes even with fiber), not all of the nutrients that existed in the whole grain are replaced.
Wheat germ is the “heart” of the wheat kernel, and is packed with folate, thiamin, magnesium, and vitamin B6, iron, selenium, vitamin E, zinc, and fiber. Wheat bran is the outer layer of the wheat kernel, and it offers fiber, B vitamins, protein, and iron.
The nutritious bran and germ layers of whole wheat are rich in beneficial phytochemicals called flavonoids, lignans, and saponins. Whole-wheat foods—such as wheat berries, bulgur, cracked wheat, and whole-wheat flour—are made from the whole grain, which preserves the beneficial substances from these layers.
To find a whole-wheat product without spending hours inspecting labels, look for the word “whole” before “wheat.” If the first ingredient is whole-wheat flour, you’re getting what you need. Do not be fooled by the following words: enriched, unbleached, bromated, stone ground, granulated, 100% wheat, rye, pumpernickel, multi-grain, 7-grain, semolina, or organic. These products may contain little or no whole grains. And “hearty wheat,” “stoned wheat,” or “multigrain” crackers are made from refined, white wheat flour.
For a full listing of nutrients, check the National Nutrient Database:
A word on gluten sensitivity
Gluten is a component of wheat. It makes flour elastic and smooth. Other cereal grains, such as rye and barley, have a related compound. Gluten contains a protein called gliadin. A small percentage of people (about 1 percent) are born with an intolerance to gliadin. In people with this genetic disorder, gluten provokes an autoimmune response that damages the small intestine and may cause symptoms such as diarrhea, bloating, cramps, abdominal pain, weight loss, fatigue and loss of appetite. This condition is known as celiac disease.
Celiac disease can begin at any age and occurs more often in people of European descent and in women. Only a physician can diagnose celiac disease and the treatment is usually a lifelong gluten-free diet. Corn and rice products are fine for people with celiac disease because they contain no gluten.
About 6 percent of Americans are thought to be gluten-sensitive but don’t have celiac disease, according to the Center for Celiac Research at the University of Maryland. There’s much debate about this condition, sometimes called “nonceliac gluten sensitivity,” and about how prevalent it is.
If you have chronic indigestion or other symptoms suggestive of gluten sensitivity, consult your doctor and get tested for celiac disease. If you have a family member with celiac disease, get tested even if you don’t have symptoms. Treating the disease can help prevent intestinal damage and complications.
If celiac disease is ruled out and you continue to have problems, you can be tested for nonceliac gluten sensitivity via an “elimination and provocation” diet.
Keep in mind that “gluten free” is the latest fad diet sweeping the nation, and gluten-free products are one of the fastest growing segments of the food industry. But wheat is a source of many vital nutrients. Unless you have celiac disease or clear gluten sensitivity, gluten-free products are not better for you than their wheat alternatives, and often have added fat and sugar to compensate for taste.
Published March 02, 2016