The History of Wheat: The Origin of the Bias Towards Wheat (And Against Gluten Free)


history of wheat

From a young age, children are taught that wheat is a good thing. As a society, we associate wheat with life, civilization, and progress. This history of wheat is complicated for someone prescribed a gluten free diet.  Most health content touts wheat as synonymous with health. Blogs, websites, books, and even pamphlets in your doctor’s office. Even in content from the government on how to teach a child about healthy food.  Wheat has had a constant thread throughout our lives and our history. From the earliest villages to modern-day metropolis. And so has the history of celiac disease or gluten intolerance. What does this idea of wheat as essential do to the population of people whose bodies can’t process it? Let’s explore this idea. First, we need to discuss and briefly go over the history of wheat. Then, what impact does it have on the thought processes and lives of people who are unable to eat wheat or gluten, and what we should do about it.

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wheat on a grey background

The History of Wheat

Let’s jump right into it here. The history of wheat is an important place to start. We can’t talk about impacts without going into some brief details.  Most of the below information is easily accessible. This is for context and not developed research.

Before the History of Wheat: Early Humans

We have learned some fascinating things about early society from cave paintings. We’ve even been able to verify or disprove theories based on these drawings.  Cave paintings brought this time alive and gave us insights. We’ve learned what animals actually looked like, their diet, and how they hunted.  For their diet, you can think of the “Paleo Diet” as attempting to imitate this. In the Paleo Diet, you are supposed to eat like the cavemen. This is primarily meat and vegetables. No grains, dairy, eggs, or anything cultivated.  The reason you cannot eat grains on this diet is they were hunter-gatherers. They did not cultivate crops.  By definition, hunter-gatherers roamed around looking for the best available food source. Their lives centered around where to find the best food.  Wheat and other grains do not grow in a field without cultivation by humans. Grains take time to grow. And these early humans moved on before the grains would have grown. So as long as humans were moving from place to place, it wasn’t a viable food source. Meat, berries, nuts, and any wild foraged foods and vegetables such as root vegetables. These are what made up their diet.  This was essentially a gluten-free society. This is what society looked like before adding gluten and grains to the mix.

river with caves above in a cliff
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History of Wheat Begins

There is no denying that wheat changed the course of history. Wheat was the catalyst between a hunter-gatherer society and the beginning of farming and forming societies.  Mesopotamia is the valley of life. And wheat was the plant that changed the course of history. Between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, there was very fertile land. It was here that grasses grew tall and people began to farm this grass.  It is usually agreed to have been einkorn wheat, an early version of what we have today. By cultivating wheat, they no longer had to keep moving to search for their food. They knew that they would have wheat to harvest, make into food, and sustain life. They also stored wheat to use it between harvests.  Wheat, and every other grain, is grass. It doesn’t need much to grow other than water and fertile soil. It’s a pretty hearty plant and ideal to have been the first cultivated crop.  These early humans were able to use it not only to feed themselves but also to feed their animals. This lent to the domestication of animals and took away the need to travel to find animals for food.  Everything they needed to live, they could farm. The most fundamental parts of life and society changed.  Because of wheat.

History of Wheat: a Tale of Egypt

One of the oldest societies as well as the longest-running is that of Ancient Egypt.  And it ran on wheat. Wheat didn’t just sustain life in Egypt. It was in every part of life. Not just the farmers or the makers of food.  The Nile flooded every year and provided arable land for growing. So growing wheat made Egyptian society flourish.  They cultivated the land, domesticated animals, and built pyramids with wheat.  While the pyramids are not made of wheat, it is what fueled it.  Wheat, bread, and beer were used for payment. So saying that wheat built the pyramids isn’t too much of a stretch.
Greek architecture

Greece: the History of Wheat Finds its First Snag

In Egypt, mummies show evidence of what scientists presume is celiac disease.  Greece was the home of the discovery of celiac disease.  

“Some 8,000 years after its onset, celiac
disease was identified and named. A clever
Greek physician named Aretaeus of Cappadocia,
living in the first century AD, wrote about
“The Coeliac Affection.” In fact, he named
it “koiliakos” after the Greek word “koelia”
(abdomen). His description: “If the stomach
be irretentive of the food and if it pass through
undigested and crude, and nothing ascends into
the body, we call such persons coeliacs”

-Dr. Stefano Guandalini, M.D So what does this mean? More than 2000 years ago, they first noticed the signs of celiac disease, or gluten intolerance, for the first time.  It took many thousands of years to notice that some people were not able to absorb the nutrients of foods.  There are other early reports from Turkey and from Egypt.  

“Recent and intriguing archeological data, largely from the Gobleki Tepe region of the Fertile Crescent, indicate that celiac disease probably emerged as humans transitioned from hunter-gatherer groups to societies dependent on agriculture to secure a stable food supply.” -Hugh J. Freeman

 Celiac disease, or at least gluten intolerance, has been around for as long as wheat has been in our diet as a species. This doesn’t mean that the notions we are all taught affect us any less.

What Does the History of Wheat Mean to Us Today

Wheat made the progression of civilization possible around the globe.  Wheat can be grown in fields by relatively few in the society, and provide for all in the society. It allows the advent of different professions. And leisure.  Growing grass (wheat), led to growing other crops for consumption. It allowed for the domestication of animals.  Architects, artists, scientists, were made possible by wheat. And everything that we know makes a society is possible by the leisure time. Moving from hunting and gathering to growing domesticated crops made this possible.

Influences in Today’s Society

I’m going to take a liberty here and skip through the rest of history. Let’s talk about where that leaves us now. Today, schools teach this history. As young as kindergarten, they learn that wheat products are healthy, good, and their own food group. Even homeschool curriculums generally cover this.  Teaching and nurturing a child who cannot eat or touch wheat for medical reasons can be tricky. Especially when presenting this information.  It is generally seen as essential, as bringing life, and necessary. Today, it is a subsidized crop. This means that the government pays people to grow (or not grow) it.  Because the farmers or companies are being paid to grow it, they can sell it at a much lower price. This drives down the price of wheat and wheat products.  This is not a bad thing on its own. This does make it easy and cheap to process wheat and therefore grow inexpensive food for a large population. This is why we find that wheat is hard to avoid in almost any product.  It is an inexpensive additive.

History of Wheat and Prevalence in Today’s Society

Because it’s so cheap to make, it’s not only the processed foods that end up filled with wheat.  It’s cheap to bread and fry almost anything. To make things with flour in them. And so it is everywhere.  Being social relies heavily on food in our culture. And food, in general, has a heavy inclination to have wheat in it for the above reasons. This results in isolation, social outcasting, and “othering” for those who cannot consume wheat. For anyone who cannot digest wheat without a price, this is a problem.  But it’s even more than not partaking in the food around the table. It’s not just social isolation. It’s the whole history of wheat and the world.  It’s what all school children are taught as integral to who we are as people.  And when you’re told all your life is that wheat is good and it has made life possible. When you find out that your body reacts to it like poison, it’s a difficult concept to process.  The struggle is that everyone in society has been taught this, it’s more than a personal bias. It’s more than a preconceived notion. Or an option to change our way of thinking. Society as a whole has these values. Not just today’s society, but arguably generational or even ancestral knowledge. This makes it even more difficult to challenge. It is so ingrained in our society that the biases don’t start with what we are taught. This struggle began 10,000 years ago. History and science show us that people have always had medical issues with gluten or wheat. (see above quote)
whole wheat pasta, tomatoes, and basil

Wheat as Health

Wheat is also on the lists distributed everywhere “healthy foods to eat every day”. “Whole Wheat” is, almost universally, seen as something healthy.  But one of the biggest health concerns about not eating wheat doesn’t have anything to do with what wheat contains. But the additives in wheat. Processed food became a higher consumed good. Doctors were noticing that their patients were having vitamin deficiencies.  So these foods were “enriched” with the vitamins they were noticing a lack of. These included thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid, and iron.  Most of these are B vitamins. It’s important to work with your doctor and dietician to make sure that your levels are good. You need to be getting enough of these nutrients through food or supplements.  It’s not only the wheat that is healthy but the additives.  When they talk about wheat being healthy, they are talking about whole wheat. Whole wheat is where the mill grinds the entire grain up. This includes the outer shell (hull) which is dark brown and makes the flour a darker color. The reason it’s healthier is that it contains fiber from the hull. It also happens to contain a lower percentage of gluten. Gluten is in the innermost part of the grain. So wheat fiber can be gluten free because it only uses the hull. Rye and barley, both gluten-containing grains, are also seen as healthy grain options. These are also lower in gluten than wheat.  Sometimes this can be confused with gluten free. But these do contain gluten and are not part of a gluten free diet.

The History of Wheat Affects How We Think About Gluten

There is a pervasiveness of wheat in our culture, our life, our civilization. As discussed above. And the very development of today’s society. This has a profound impact on how people treat gluten, wheat, or the absence of these.  To many people, if you categorize wheat as “bad” it flies in the very face of who we are at our core.  There have been many studies on wheat and how it has changed. How it does negative things in our lives. And how so many people are much better off without it.  But studies are logical. And this attachment to wheat doesn’t necessarily follow a train of logic. It is an emotional, if illogical, attachment.  People have relied on wheat to get us to where we are today. So it can feel like it is logical for everyone to eat it if they can. There are people who find that the more ancient forms of wheat have a lower impact on their bodies. These have less gluten. And have not been engineered through science or selective breeding. Modern wheat has been to be disease resistant, pest resistant, and hardy.  It is true that more and more people today are noticing that they need to be gluten-free. But it is unclear is if that is a question of science advancing. And more people who are aware of what their bodies are telling them. Or whether it is due to a change in the very substance of wheat and so gluten too.

History of Wheat Affects How People Treat People Who Eat Gluten Free

What we do know is that there are more and more people getting diagnosed with celiac disease. And non-celiac gluten sensitivity. As well as other conditions that react better to a gluten-free diet. What is clear is that there are conditions other than celiac disease that lead people to cut out gluten. Some of these are due to an auto-immune disease. Others due to an unidentified cause. And these people are not eating gluten-free because it seems like a good time. They are eating this way because their bodies are telling them something is wrong. And their doctors are telling them to try it. I have never seen people as concerned about what others eat as when they cut out wheat. The reaction is akin to a personal attack. It’s like they believe it is a personal attack when someone eats gluten free. This grain built our society and its precursors. People who are gluten free are told that this substance that is killing us — is life. That it is healthy, and the very basis of everything. There is an unfounded concern for the health of people who don’t eat gluten. Every person should make sure their vitamins are at appropriate levels with their doctor. Besides enriched grains, there is no evidence that eating wheat is healthier. And this is with the evidence that gluten intolerance or celiac disease have existed since humans started eating wheat.

woman scolding
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To Anyone Who Says Others Don’t Need to be Gluten Free

The history of wheat and everything in this article is not what is on people’s minds when they insist others should eat wheat.  Everything here is about the unconscious.  The thing is that it goes so much deeper than offense at others for eating differently. It’s even deeper than what children are learning in school.  I don’t even know how many times I’ve seen someone saying that unless you are celiac wheat is healthy for you. That is flat-out not accurate.  Doctors tell their patients to avoid gluten even in absence of celiac disease. Such as autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s or Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. Or when there are mystery symptoms without an apparent cause. Even if these doctors were few and far between, there is evidence for this protocol. In fact, some people’s labs will stop registering them for the autoimmune disease after giving up gluten.  But there are even people without autoimmune diseases going gluten free.  If you are someone who questions if people need to eat gluten free, I’d like to pose a question for you.  What if it makes them feel better? No, I don’t want to see your studies saying people are faking it. Or showing that it is something else. What if it makes them feel better? They don’t have to share their medical history with you. What if the only reason they give up eating wheat and gluten is that it makes them feel betterSo what? Why is anyone bothered? I encourage anyone reading this that has a problem with anyone avoiding gluten to ponder this as well.  Why do I care? Think about it. Why is it a problem? I am not telling you to eat differently. I am asking you to examine your thoughts around gluten and wheat. One other thing to think about. Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) is someone experiencing all the painful symptoms of celiac disease. I won’t go into the symptoms, you can look them up elsewhere. But let’s just say that they are not pleasant to read about, let alone experience. If cutting out gluten makes them go away, why should anyone else care?
man holding a magnifying glass in front of one eye

Examine Your Thoughts and Biases

What should we do? Nothing. If you are gluten free because you need to be, you don’t need to do anything to prove your worthiness. If you are looking inside yourself and making the best decisions for yourself, continue on. The history of wheat is something interesting to look at. To think about. Think about how it has influenced people.  It’s worth looking inside yourself to see how this has impacted you.  So think about how you feel towards wheat and gluten. And examine those thoughts in the context of the history above.  If you are someone who experiences shame over being gluten free, I encourage you to dig into this topic and explore where these thoughts are coming from. What is it about this specific plant? This specific grain. What is it that places that shame?  Be brilliantly gluten free. Shine. And go on. The history of wheat shows that some people have always had issues with wheat. It’s not you. It’s wheat. 

Fawn

My passion is supporting those who need to be gluten free. After my family had to transition to eating gluten free I realized how difficult it is. It is more than finding a recipe. It is about how to navigate social situations, deal with isolation, and other things that come along with it. I live in Oregon with my family, cats, and chickens.

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