Food by VICE

Ancient Grains Might Be the Key to Solving the Gluten Problem

On a small farm in Illinois, a baker, a farmer, and a scientist have joined together to study the properties of ancient grains that are not only delicious but might be easier to digest for people who claim to have a sensitivity to gluten.

by Sarah Freeman
Aug 25 2015, 7:15pm

Gluten: it makes you depressed, fatigued, and ties your intestines in knots, right? Hell, it probably stole $20 out of your wallet when you weren't looking.

For some of us, it's difficult to believe that one little protein is behind all of these problems—especially considering that wheat, a prominent carrier of gluten, has been feeding the human population for 10,000 years.

But what if the problem isn't gluten per se, but the wheat we eat today? Such wheat has been manipulated, manhandled, and made to behave in a way that barely resembles a grain, let alone the grains our ancestors successfully digested for centuries.

Rye and night

A rye field at Spence.

It wasn't always like this. Today, one-third of the population claims to suffer from gluten sensitivity, even though only 1 percent has been diagnosed with celiac disease, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic say the number of patients reporting gastrointestinal symptoms has quadrupled over the past 60 years. What happened?

First, a little wheat history: In ancient Greece, white flour was all the rage. The whiter the flour, the higher the eater's socioeconomic standing. This pristine color was often achieved by adding bones, chalk, or lead. Flash forward to the 1950s, when a Nobel Prize-winning scientist hybridized modern wheat—a dwarf variety with big heads. Finally, someone decided that the way bread had been made for centuries was not fast enough. Rather than allowing bread to ferment and rise naturally over a period of several days, most bakers now use leavening agents that shorten the time to as little as four hours, which also decreases the amount of time proteins and starches are able to break down before baking.

Spence Farm

Spence Farm.

But that's not the case at Spence Farm in Fairbury, Illinois, where a diverse array of organic crops—from rows of peppers to amber fields of rye—almost make you want to break out into an "America the Beautiful" sing-a-long.

The wheat we're looking at on an overcast day in July does not glisten gold, however; it's green and bearded like your neighborhood barista, and it goes by the name einkorn. This ancient grain is one of a dozen modern and heirloom varieties being studied by Bill Davison at the University of Illinois Extension. Davison is a farmer-turned-researcher who founded the Grand Prairie Grain Guild one year after reading Dan Barber's The Third Plate, which asks why grains were left out of the farm-to-table conversation. He, with the help of farmers like Marty Travis of Spence, explore the market value, flavor, and baking potential of "identity-preserved grains." Looking around at endless fields of corn and soybeans bound for government silos, you see why theirs is not a popular mission.

Marty Travis, Greg Wade, Will Travis

Marty Travis, Greg Wade, and Will Travis.

"[One of our goals] is to try to rediscover some of these old, ancient varieties that have incredible properties—whether it be taste, workability, texture—just trying to rediscover something, because so many of the modern hybrids lack so much," Travis says. "The other part of it is, in growing the einkorn and emmer, our hope is that we can reintroduce folks who have sensitivity to gluten to some really powerful breads."

It's important to note that no wheat has been proven completely safe for those diagnosed with celiac disease, but they're not the target customer anyway. They're looking for ways to reintroduce wheat to people with gluten sensitivities that have no conclusive cause, as well as people who have simply caught the gluten-free fad bug.

It took two years to secure enough of the rare seeds to sow the field we're standing in with Davison, Travis, Travis's son Will, as well as Greg Wade—gluten groupie and head baker at Paul Kahan's Publican Quality Bread in Chicago. It took two more years to grow a usable amount.

Travis looks worried. With his boots caked in mud, he clutches a head of white Sonora that grew, despite being bombarded by the rainiest summer he has seen in ten years of farming. But the kernels are empty, like a present under the tree on Christmas morning filled with nothing but wrapping paper. The einkorn is faring better, and Travis is confident he will grow enough to harvest, mill, and send to Wade at the bakery for testing flavor, texture, water absorption, and other qualities.

Einkorn

Einkorn.

Einkorn is planted later in the season to prevent cross-pollination, and its growing cycle is about a month longer than Travis's other wheat. It grows more like a wild grass, allowing it to take in nutrients differently and making it more resistant to vomitoxin—a mycotoxin produced in wheat and barley that must be less than one part per million in order for it to be considered safe for human consumption by the US Food and Drug Administration.

Aside from its green appearance, this ancient wheat has one third of the chromosomes of modern wheat—14 compared to 42. Lisa Kissing Kucek, a graduate student at Cornell University's School of Integrative Plant Science and author of a paper entitled "A Grounded Guide to Gluten," concludes this comparatively simpler genome structure makes einkorn easier to digest. Specifically, einkorn lacks the D genome that triggers chemical processes linked to gastrointestinal complaints. It and similar ancient species "exhibit average lower [immuno]reactivity than common wheat," she writes. Companies such as Jovial, which specializes in einkorn flour, bank on these properties by marketing their products specifically to customers with gluten sensitivity.

White sonora

White Sonora wheat.
Wade and wheat Wade checks on young wheat.

But it's difficult to draw all-encompassing conclusions about any variety of wheat because of the grain's genetic variability, not only among different varieties of wheat, but also within the same ones. For example, Travis has been growing glenn—a hard red spring wheat—for eight years, the original seed stock for which came from his neighbor's farm 15 miles down the road. Compare Travis's glenn wheat with his neighbor's side-by-side today and you have products that vary in color, flavor, and texture. Travis says wheat seems to be "quite adaptive" to growing conditions, soil composition, and crop rotation.

At Spence, it just needs to stop raining long enough for the ground to dry so that the combines can harvest. Once that happens, Travis will send the wheat to a nearby cleaner that uses gravity and a series of sieves to remove any remaining hulls and discard diseased kernels. The wheat berries will then return to Spence, where they will be milled on a small stone mill, and stored in a red shed between the fields and farmhouse. Whole-grain flour—the real stuff loaded with wild yeast, not the "dead" whole grain, shelf-stable product found on a typical grocery store shelf—is delivered to chefs and bakers like Wade the following day, totally free of additives, enrichment, or preservatives.

Inside the mill—tucked away in a powder-covered room not much larger than a closet—Wade presents two containers side-by-side, each holding mixtures of flour and water. One contains commercial flour, while the other is from Spence. The fresh flour mixture bubbles with enzymatic activity while the other sits there like roadkill.

This trick is made possible by an invention that ushered in the era of processed food in the 1800s: the roller mill. Two steel rollers rotating at different speeds rip wheat bran and germ—along with enzymes, fiber and nutrients—away from the endosperm, producing white flour. In the early- to mid-1900s, doctors and nutritionists began noticing an increase in heart disease, diabetes, and gastrointestinal problems related to the mass consumption of white flour. The solution was to enrich flour with vitamins, riboflavin, folic acid, niacin, and iron as well as barley malt to restore its baking capabilities. Even with the additives, Kucek and others suggest that refined flour will never behave the same as traditionally milled whole grains and is more likely to trigger allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, and indigestion.

Rye field

A rye field at Spence.

Even if you're using the most ancient of grains and milling them in a way that leaves their integrity intact, there's still gluten in there, ready to wreck sensitive intestines. That's where Wade comes into play. His right arm is covered in a single—albeit large—tattoo depicting the life cycle of bread, starting with a sun on his shoulder shining onto stalks of wheat that stripe his bicep. Travis calls him "one of the most creative and inspired bakers" he's ever met.

Wade's been preaching to the local, whole-grain choir since he met Travis seven years ago, when Wade was baking wood-fired bread for Stephanie Izard at Girl & the Goat. It's still a small choir, but one that's grown over the past year, thanks to the likes of Barber and Chad Robinson, whose Tartine Book No. 3 focuses on baking with whole and ancient grains.

Wade and rye

Wade examines some rye.

"When you get this super-ripe, heirloom variety tomato, it's something so unique and special and awesome that it becomes the focal point of the plate," Wade says. "But flour is so ubiquitous and in everything. I guess nobody cares."

Anxious to get his dough-coated hands on the einkorn, Wade will not only test the baking capabilities of the flour made from various Spence grains, but also their enzymatic activity and protein properties. He specializes in long fermentation, a process that helps break down starches and protein. That aids digestion as well as the production of phytase, a phytic acid inhibitor that allows your body to absorb more nutrients. Basically, his bread does the work before it hits your stomach. Once baked, all that's left is to feed it to a panel made up of gluten-free human guinea pigs.

"The hope is that we get all of these misguided gluten-haters together and tell them to kick rocks," Wade says. "In a lighter sense, it's to show these people that, grown properly and prepared properly, food is nothing to be afraid of. The hope is to get away from commercial wheat and grains—quick processes—and show them, 'Look, this is how we've been fucking up all these years and when all of these things fall in line, and we're just generally good, upstanding people and do things in a good, upstanding way, you don't have anything to worry about.'"

Time will tell—in the next four months, most likely—if Wade and his partners can succeed in this wheat crusade, but for people who have abandoned bread for fear of gluten, it's a step in the right direction.