Elimination or diversification?
What’s the verdict?
STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY AUBE GIROUX
"When you can eat just about anything nature has to offer, deciding what you should eat will inevitably stir anxiety"
–Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma)
I am a lover of grains and baked goods in all their glorious incarnations. Cakes, cookies, breads, crêpes, pasta, you name it, if it’s made with a dough or a batter, I’d probably love to devour it. But I’m also someone who is digestively challenged and I often suffer from low energy and fatigue. Over the years I have had an on-again, off-again relationship with the world of grains and flour, since it’s been suggested to me that gluten, the great villain of the twenty-first century, might be the culprit. Many of my friends have had quasi-miraculous health recoveries after eliminating gluten and, in some cases, all grains from their diets. I’ve tried going gluten-free on several occasions, each time with inconclusive results.
These days it seems that everywhere I turn, I’m hearing about the Paleolithic (Paleo) diet, a low-carb, no-grain diet based on the pre-agricultural eating habits of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The diet promises boundless energy and puts into action what a 1985 New England Journal of Medicine article proclaimed: “The diet of our remote ancestors may be a reference standard for modern human nutrition.”
Although I have a distaste for diet trends and eliminating any food items from my dinner plate (especially from my favourite of all food groups, dough), my inner cavewoman is genuinely intrigued and maybe even half-convinced by some of the strong arguments I’ve heard for not eating grains. I had been toying with the idea of going off grains altogether for a while to see how I would feel. But the weird and mysterious ways of the universe worked their mischievous magic and made it so that, not too long ago, I fell in love with a farmer. More specifically, a grain grower. And his enthusiasm for the cereal family is contagious.
My beau is currently growing out seeds from old and rare open-pollinated varieties, each with its own fascinating history, including Rouge de Bordeaux wheat, Black Winter emmer, Red Proso millet, Oberkulmer spelt and Black African sorghum, among many others. Given that, over the past hundred years, grain biodiversity has been going downhill, the act of growing and saving seeds from heritage or heirloom varieties has become an act of stewardship, helping to secure the survival of at-risk plant varieties.
Over the past century about 75 percent of crops have been lost through industrial food production, which relies on only a select few crop varieties; 96 percent of the vegetable varieties available in the early 1900s are now extinct. We often hear about endangered animal species such as pandas and tigers, whose plight is of great importance. But what about the disappearing agricultural plants and animals whose unique flavours will never be experienced again? My taste buds get so sad just thinking about it.
Recently, I helped my boyfriend harvest his first crop of winter rye, which proved to be both a challenge and a thrill. We harvested over a tonne of organically grown rye. And I decided that if I’m going to be sharing my life with a grain grower I’d better sort out my indecisive stance on grains once and for all.
What is certain is that all is not right on the grain front. As a diehard baker who believes that making a cake can soothe all woes, I’ve always been reluctant to admit that conventional white flour, the backbone of most baking cupboards, is the first to blame. But medical research shows that a diet high in refined flour and other processed carbohydrates is actually far more harmful to your health than originally thought and has been linked to rising obesity rates, diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
Black Winter emmer, a beautiful and delicious ancient grain that almost went extinct
Currently, conventional wheat production follows a pretty toxic journey. The wheat seed is first treated with fungicide. Once planted, the crop is sprayed with pesticides. After harvest, the wheat is doused with insecticides for storage. It is then milled and refined, stripping away its most nutritive components, and bleached with a chlorine agent. The result is a toxic-laden flour that is all starch and almost devoid of nutrients. On top of all this, modern wheat varieties are very different from what our great-grandparents ate. Since the 1950s, the agriculture industry has been breeding new wheat varieties in order to create higher-yielding crops. But along the way they have inadvertently transformed the gluten proteins found in wheat.
Many studies are now pointing to modern wheat-breeding techniques as the cause of the 400 percent rise in Celiac disease over the past forty years. And aside from sky-rocketing Celiac rates, a major study published in 2009 in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that undiagnosed gluten sensitivity (less acute than full-blown Celiac, yet present in 7 percent of the population) can lead to a 35- to 75-percent higher risk of death due to increased rates of heart disease and cancer. While this information might be a bit hard to stomach, I can wrap my head around it relatively well. Where we get into murky territory is when it comes to whole grains. You know, the stuff that’s good for you.
Whole grains are high in dietary fibre and nutrients. However, increasing numbers of people are going grain-free, and some people go as far as to say grains are downright toxic to your body. They suggest that, from an evolutionary perspective, eating grains is a relatively new thing (only about 10,000 years old) and our bodies have not yet evolved to properly digest them. They argue that most (even organic whole grains) are turned into sugar by the body, raising our carb load and thus increasing the risk of disease and obesity.
Another worry is that the oils in ground grains easily go rancid, developing toxic compounds that act as inflammatory agents in our bodies. Perhaps most importantly, many nutritionists claim that, while some grains contain gut-damaging glutens and lectins (sugar-binding proteins), all grains contain a substance called phytic acid, which is known to block the body’s ability to absorb minerals such as calcium, magnesium, copper, zinc and iron, causing mineral deficiencies coupled with digestive problems that can lead to more serious diseases.
After emerging from the dark depths of the anti-grain manifestos I’ve been reading, I anxiously present my grain-loving man with this flood of unsavoury information. He looks up from his reading on grain harvesting, unfazed, and calmly replies, “Everything in moderation.” With those three words, I am swiftly brought back down to reality. It’s what my grandmother often used to say and it rings true to my ears. While I am still tempted to go grain-free for a short time to see if it soothes my temperamental belly, I’ve decided that, while I don’t discount many of the concerns around grains, I’m drawn to a more balanced approach, as opposed to eliminating them altogether.
Pacific Blue Stem, an heirloom wheat variety
A refreshing and fascinating alternative to the “collective spasm of carbophobia,” as Michael Pollan refers to the no-grain food trend, is the Nourishing Traditions approach. Nourishing Traditions is a cookbook by nutrition researcher Sally Fallon. It provides a well-researched approach to grain preparation, documenting how cultures around the world have traditionally soaked or fermented grains before consuming them. This process activates the enzyme phytase which breaks down the phytic acid in grains and is important for healthy digestion and proper assimilation of nutrients and vitamins. Fallon advocates soaking grains in water to which a small amount of yogurt, lemon juice or vinegar has been added. She also recommends using sourdough starters for bread-making whenever possible and eliminating or greatly reducing the use of refined white flour. For those who do a lot of baking, a small countertop grain mill (costing between $50 and $200) is recommended to convert whole grains into flour as needed, avoiding the rancidity that can develop so quickly in milled flour.
I have started to experiment with some of these techniques and am so far liking the outcome. It takes only a few minutes to make flour with our small kitchen mill and the result is incomparable in terms of flavour and freshness. Soaking also imparts flours with a surprising lightness that allows them to rise more easily. As far as sourdough goes, it’s always been my bread of choice. Now I just have to get better at making it.
Regardless of how we prepare our grains, varying the types we eat is probably a good idea. There are thousands upon thousands of grain varieties out there. Sadly, we only see a tiny fraction of these in our grocery stores. Supporting local organic grain producers who grow heirloom varieties is a great way to diversify our diets with grains that are better adapted to our local climates and soils and are often more healthful and digestible. Increasingly the farm-to-table movement, which has made meat and produce more locally accessible, is extending to the world of grains. Grain co-ops and CSAs are sprouting up in many places and some people are experimenting with growing their own grains on a small scale. While some grains may be a pain in the gut for some of us, it can be worth exploring the alternatives that are out there instead of closing the door on grains altogether.
Make sure to view the video that accompanies this article.
Aube Giroux is a writer, filmmaker and award-winning food blogger based in Toronto. Visit her video food blog at www.kitchenvignettes.blogspot.com.
By Aube Giroux
This salad can be adapted and the ingredients interchanged with your favourites. You could, for instance, replace the zucchini with green beans or the chicken with tofu. The options are endless. Whatever you do, soak those berries well and have fun with it! Rye berries (hulled rye kernels) can be found in health food stores or the natural foods section of many supermarkets. You might want to seek out the Oak Manor label, an organic brand produced in Ontario.
Note: The general rule for the preparation of grains for optimal digestibility and nutrient absorption is to soak them in twice their volume of water, adding 2 tablespoons of an acidic medium per cup of grain. The acidic medium should ideally be yogurt, kefir, whey or buttermilk but apple cider vinegar and/or lemon juice can also be used.
1 1/2 cups rye berries
3 tbsp plain yogurt (see Note, above)
1 tsp sea salt or kosher salt
Juice of one lemon
1 tbsp unfiltered apple cider vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp pure maple syrup
1 clove garlic, minced
Sea salt or kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 cup shredded cooked organic chicken
2 to 3 ears of sweet corn, steamed, kernels removed
1 small zucchini, thinly sliced
1 shallot or small red onion, finely diced
4 ripe figs or seasonal local fruit, chopped
3/4 cup toasted walnuts
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1 small bunch basil, stemmed and chopped Zest of 1 lemon
Prepare the rye berries: In a large bowl, add the rye berries, yogurt and water. Stir well to combine. Let soak for a minimum of 7 hours or up to 24 hours. Drain and rinse the rye berries. (You can cook them in the soaking liquid if you wish.) Bring the berries and about 5 cups of water to a boil. Remove any scum that rises to the surface. Stir in the salt, reduce the heat, and simmer until the rye berries are the desired tenderness, about 45 minutes. Drain the rye berries. Transfer the rye berries to a large bowl. Cool to room temperature. They are now chewy, flavourful little bundles of nutrients, all ready to use!
Prepare the salad: In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, vinegar and mustard. Slowly whisk in the oil. Whisk in the maple syrup and garlic. Add salt and pepper, to taste; set aside. In the large bowl with the rye berries, add the chicken, corn kernels, zucchini, shallot, figs, walnuts, cranberries, basil and lemon zest. Stir well to combine. Stir in the vinaigrette. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.