The second chapter of Wheat Belly talks about the changes in wheat over the years and how common the grain is in the American diet. The book tries to build a case that Americans consume too much wheat by measuring the length of grocery store aisles and listing the names of foods that contain wheat. I could do the same for cheese, but it would tell you nothing about whether cheese is a healthy food or not. The book then claims, “It is, by a long stretch, among the most consumed grains on earth, constituting 20% of all calories consumed.” Wheat isn’t even the primary source of calories from grain; both corn and rice are produced in larger caloric amounts.
Interestingly, the US is actually a relatively low consumer of wheat. In 2000 the average American ate about 150 lbs. of wheat. In 1894 it was about 220 lbs. The French consume 242 lbs per person annually and have one-third of the obesity rate of Americans. Canadians consume twice as much wheat per person and yet have obesity rates that are two-thirds that of Americans. People in Turkey eat almost 300 lbs per person annually yet Turks have half the US obesity rate. So clearly, wheat consumption doesn’t track with obesity rates. This means that the book has a high bar to hurdle to try to prove that wheat consumption is the primary cause of obesity.
The chapter then tries to establish that “genetic changes” have made modern wheat uniquely bad. The book tries to paint a picture that modern wheat has been genetically engineered. The book says, “A loaf of bread, biscuit, or pancake of today is different than its counterpart of a thousand years ago, different even from what our grandmothers made. They might look the same, even taste much the same, but there are biochemical differences.” It tries to establish that in the early 1960s wheat changed dramatically. The book has a section heading “Wheat BEFORE Geneticists Got Hold of It.”
This is simply not true.
There are no genetically modified varieties of wheat that are sold currently in the United States in any form. The only genetic changes that have happened to wheat are the same ones that have happened to oranges, pears, plums and many others. Throughout history, farmers have selectively bred the most productive strains of plants to create the most food. The farmer breeds the juiciest, sweetest fruit, the best looking broccoli and the oranges with the fewest seeds. This has been going on for at least 10,000 years. Nothing was done to create modern wheat that was any different than the selective breeding done previously.
The book’s attempt to insinuate that modern wheat is genetically engineered like GMO corn or soy is an example of its essentially misleading character. Using words and ideas that create the concept of GMO in the reader, the book tricks one into thinking there is GMO wheat. The book is so effective that there are blog posts written by people who think modern wheat has been genetically modified on the basis of reading the book, even though the book never actually states that. It just uses the terms, geneticist, genetic modification and single gene insertion to describe what can be done to any plant. The fact that no commercially available wheat has ever been subject to genetic modification by gene insertion is simply not discussed.
The book tries to paint modern wheat as a bizarre agricultural product that can only live with human assistance, stating: “Triticum wheat of today is the product of breeding to generate greater yield and characteristics such as disease, drought, and heat resistance. In fact, wheat has been modified by humans to such a degree that modern strains are unable to survive in the wild without human support such as nitrate fertilization and pest control.” Yet this is the case with almost all modern food whether it is an animal or a plant. There are no wild flocks of chickens that roam around the US, yet chickens are one of the most consumed animals in the US. Cattle that aren’t tended by people don’t generate viable reproductive communities, yet nobody avoids eating beef for this reason. The fact that apple and apricot orchards aren’t wild does nothing to keep them from being healthy foods to eat. Once again, removing our focus from wheat and stepping back shows how disingenuous the book is.
The book then describes a history of wheat from its primitive days as a harvested starch grain to the modern dwarf wheat that is highly productive and is one of the caloric engines of our civilization. Almost all of this description is irrelevant as far as it relates to any health problems associated with wheat, but the book tries to create in the mind of the reader an idea that wheat has degenerated from a primitive ideal form to something modern that is dangerous and creates sickness. Yet it doesn’t lay out this case at all in the second chapter. All the work is done by innuendo and implication. I’ve already done a post on the fact that wheat proteins have a 5% protein difference from older strains and compared that to chickens, which have a 43% protein difference. Step back from wheat and this argument collapses.
The chapter ends with the author’s experiment with “ancient wheat.” This autobiographical vignette is the only evidence put forward for negative health effects from modern wheat and even the book can’t bring itself to call it scientific. Here we have a whole chapter constructed of nothing more than misdirection, smoke and mirrors. There is no significant evidence put forward in a whole chapter supposedly devoted to the perils of modern wheat that suggests modern wheat is at all dangerous. The footnotes lead back to studies that have no validity for broad populations of human beings, only those with celiac disease.