One of the most commonplace foods today is wheat. Most of us consume significant amounts of it every day, whether or not we realise it. Let’s look at what the average Nigerian might eat in a day. We might have bread for breakfast, jollof rice for lunch and Indomie for dinner. Wheat flour has already featured in 2 out of 3 meals that day. In between we may snack on biscuits, puffpuff or meatpies – more flour. But what’s wrong with that? you may be wondering.
Wheat is supposed to be one of the healthiest foods known to man. It was the major source of sustenance for many ancient civilisations. But what we know as wheat today is a very different crop from what was consumed in ancient times. The story of modern wheat is a case study in how industrialisation is not always a good thing, especially in agriculture.
During the green revolution which took place from the 1930s to 1960s, there was a big push to use advanced technologies to increase agricultural production. One of these technologies was the development of ‘improved’ crop varieties through genetic manipulation, and it’s primary victim was wheat. Because of severe genetic manipulation to induce characteristics such as high yield and high gluten content, the strain of modern wheat we cultivate today (durum wheat) may grow faster, but is far less nutritious than nature intended. Compared to ancient varieties like einkorn and spelt, it is lower in micronutrients like zinc, magnesium, iron, copper, and selenium. But that’s not all.
Modern wheat has also been bastardised by over-processing. Generally we consume wheat in the form of flour – that brilliant white powder that is used in everything from pasta to pastry. Wheat flour is amazing in its ability to keep for long periods of time; but it is precisely that shelf stability that makes it so dangerous to our health. If you were to simply grind up whole wheat berries, the oil released from the wheat germ in the process would make the flour go rancid in a matter of days. Obviously this makes it useless for industrial purposes, so wheat flour is refined to remove such ‘impurities’. As a result, the parts of the wheat plant that contain the little nutritional value left in modern wheat are stripped away in the process of refinement. The wheat germ, bran (fibre) and wheat germ oil are all removed until what you have is an unnatural substance that farm animals reject when it is fed to them. As if that weren’t enough, the flour is also bleached, a process that creates a by-product in the flour called alloxan, a diabetes-inducing chemical.
Despite it’s name, ‘wholewheat’ flour is not much better. It goes through the same process of refinement, but after the white flour is produced some bran is added back in to make ‘wholewheat’. It’s pure marketing ploy – there’s really nothing whole about it.
What does this mean for your health? Basically when you regularly consume wheat flour, you deny your body of the fibre and micronutrients it requires to maintain normal digestive function, boost your immunity and maintain hormone balance. Conventional ‘healthy eating’ wisdom says you should cut down on carbs to lose weight, but the truth is there’s nothing wrong with carbohydrates. In fact, most of our calories should come from carbs – our brains run on glucose. The real problem is processed high carb foods, because they also tend to be the high-flour foods – bread, biscuits, cakes, puff-puff, etc. Unlike whole high-carb foods like beans, potatoes and brown rice which are rich in fibre and other nutrients, these processed high-carb foods contain carbs and not much else. So when they are broken down in the body they have little to offer but glucose. They have no fibre to regulate absorption and let us know when we’ve had enough to eat, so you eat too much of them. They are low in micronutrients so your body tells you to eat even more food so you can get sufficient vitamins and minerals. This is part of the reason consumption of processed high-carb foods results in weight gain and diabetes.
Does this mean you need to avoid wheat completely? Go gluten free? Not at all (unless you have celiac disease). What you need to do is avoid consuming large amounts of foods containing wheat flour. You have a few options:
+ reduce consumption of bread, pasta, etc to the barest minimum
+ buy bread, pasta, etc made from wholegrains
+ make your own bread, pasta, etc with wholegrain flour
As the last option is an expensive, time consuming exercise that involves finding wheat berries, grinding your own flour and doing the baking yourself, it’s not realistic for most people. The second option is also not realistic for the average Nigerian; wholegrain bread is as elusive as Abacha’s loot. What is most realistic is the first option – significantly reducing consumption. The best way to do this, as with anything you want to eat less of, is to replace it with a healthier option each time you have to make a choice. Do you normally have bread and eggs for breakfast? Have oatmeal (try these quick banana oatmeal muffins!) or cereal instead. Usually have 2 packs of Indomie for dinner? Use 1 pack and add some beans or plantain. Do you go for puff-puff at weddings? Choose the plantain masa. Fridge at home full of cookies and biscuits? Stock up on Reelfruit and nuts. Office canteen offering ‘Semo’ or ‘wheat meal’ with soup? Ask for eba.
These little actions really add up over time; eventually you’ll realise you’ve cut down your flour consumption by half. Believe me, your body will thank you for it.