Debunking Common Myths About Wheat

 Jeffrey Casper
Jeffrey Casper
R&D Manager
Horizon Milling

Messages about what foods to avoid and to eat are ubiquitous in magazines and on talk shows.  Moderation is not sensational, so perhaps that is why we are constantly told to avoid certain foods entirely.  One of the latest we have been told to avoid is wheat.  While it is important for people who have a diagnosis of celiac disease, wheat allergy or gluten intolerance to eliminate wheat from their diets, most of the rest of us have no need to avoid wheat containing foods. In fact, eating a gluten free diet can put consumers at risk of not getting enough fiber, key minerals, and B vitamins.  Also, gluten free food items are typically more expensive—and may be laden with calories and fat. 

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a cornerstone of federal nutrition policy and nutrition education activities, recommend that we consume grains –at least half of them as whole grains – every day.  Wheat can have an important role in helping to achieve this goal.  Because many potentially harmful myths about wheat are circulating freely in our homes and workplaces, I am dedicating this post to examining four of the most prominent myths about wheat being discussed today.

Myth #1:  The wheat we eat today is nothing like the wheat our ancestors ate.  About 8,000 years ago, somewhere in a field in Iran or Turkey, cultivated emmer or durum wheat bred naturally with a wild grass, resulting in what we call “common wheat.”  This “common wheat” was recognized early on as having the ability to create enhanced textures in foods such as breads, noodles, and other types of foods that are still to this day considered staples in cultures around the world.

The wheat we currently eat has been bred using traditional methods. Today’s wheat allows for the production of more food per acre of land and reduces the need for fertilizers.  As of today, all of the wheat types commercially grown globally, including in the U.S., have been traditionally bred using the same methods that produce popular fruits such as the Honeycrisp apple.  There is no genetically modified wheat being commercially sold today, a fact that may be surprising to many.

Myth #2: Wheat consumption causes weight gain. Many people seem to believe that a gluten free diet is the magic bullet to weight loss. I am not aware of any published evidence that a gluten free diet will produce weight loss. Unfortunately, some people who follow a gluten free diet may actually gain weight according to research published in 2011 in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.*  This is likely because many gluten free products have more calories and fat and less fiber per serving as compared to their gluten-containing counterparts.

If you look at Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization data on global obesity rates and per capita wheat consumption in the 150 countries without food scarcity problems, you'll find no correlation between the two.  In fact, people in Mediterranean countries (known for eating the "Mediterranean diet") eat more wheat per capita yet are less overweight than people in the United States and Canada. Perhaps this finding is due to lifestyle factors and not just due to the wheat they are eating.

Myth #3: Wheat causes digestive and other health issues. For those with diagnosed celiac disease or wheat allergy, the consumption of wheat can be destructive to the digestive system due to how their body responds to specific protein fragments contained in wheat.  For those with celiac disease, continuing to eat wheat can cause further damage to the gastrointestinal tract placing them at greater risk for developing other diseases and cancer. For non-celiacs, consuming a gluten free diet may be linked to a potential change in gut microflora compared to those who consume whole grain wheat, according to recent studies published in the British Journal of Nutrition.**,† Results are preliminary, however, and more study is needed in this area.

Myth #4: White flour is bad stuff. One of the reasons the U.S. government recommends that half of the grains we eat each day be whole grains is because white flour is enriched with critical nutrients such as B vitamins. B vitamins like folic acid, niacin (vitamin B3) and thiamin (vitamin B1) are crucial for healthy growth and development as well as harnessing energy from the foods we eat and for preventing birth defects. 

When white flour was first enriched with folic acid in the U.S. in 1998, rates of spinal cord-related birth defects dropped significantly, an indication that some portion of the population was indeed deficient in folic acid.  According to Dr. Eric Rimm of Harvard School of Public Health , if all the white flour consumed in the U.S. was swapped with unenriched wheat flour, most Americans would again be folic acid deficient. In fact, NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) intake data shows that almost half of Americans count on enriched grains as the only major source of folic acid in their diets.  It is also important to note that many of the refined starches used in gluten free products are not enriched, potentially putting wheat avoiding consumers at a nutritional disadvantage compared to those who consume enriched white flour containing products—if they are not proactively ensuring adequate folate intake through other foods or supplements.

The bottom line is that wheat, particularly whole grain wheat and enriched wheat, is nutritious and an important part of the human diet.  It is the dietary foundation for many cultures globally.  Its benefits are well known and enjoyed in many widely consumed foods, and it would be a shame to let a few unfounded myths undermine its value.

Jeffrey Casper, Research and Development Manager of Horizon Milling, has been with Cargill and Horizon Milling for the past 5 of his 15 years in the industry.

*Marcason W. Is there evidence to support the claim that a gluten-free diet should be used for weight loss? J Am Diet Assoc. 2011;111(11):1786.
** De Palma G, Nadal I, Collado MC, Sanz Y. Effects of a gluten-free diet on gut microbiota and immune function in healthy adult human subjects. Br J Nutr. 2009;102(8):1154-1160.
† Costabile A, Klinder A, Fava F, et al. Whole-grain wheat breakfast cereal has a prebiotic effect on the human gut microbiota: A doubleblind,placebo-controlled, crossover study. Brit J Nutr.2008;99(1):110-120.