On Nutrition

Some nutrition myths are repeated so often that they take on an aura of truth. One such myth is that “modern wheat” contains more gluten and is therefore responsible for more people being diagnosed with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten or wheat sensitivity (NCGS/NCWS). This has led to the claim that heirloom and ancient wheats are the solution to this “problem.” Let’s break this down.

The two types of ancient wheat are einkorn, a diploid wheat (two complete sets of chromosomes), and emmer, a tetraploid wheat (four sets of chromosomes). The genetics matter because genes contain codes used to build different types of protein, and gluten is a protein.

Common wheat — a hexaploid (six sets of chromosomes) species — emerged about 9,000 years ago as a hybrid of emmer and wild “goat grass.” Heirloom or heritage wheat species are generally older, open-pollinated, regionally specific, genetically diverse varieties of common wheat. They’re the results of natural evolution and adaptation that were saved by farmers and passed on. Modern wheat is another form of common wheat that debuted in the 1950s to suit large-scale agricultural practices.

Back to that myth I mentioned. It’s true that wheat species vary in their levels of proteins — including gluten, a group of proteins that includes gliadins and glutenins. Gliadins are more likely to trigger celiac disease and some types of wheat allergy in susceptible individuals, while glutenins are essential for bread baking quality, but carry low risk of causing celiac disease, wheat allergy or NCGS/NCWS. Modern wheat has been bred for higher glutenin content, not gliadin content.

Authors of a 2022 study in the journal Nutrition Bulletin wrote that analyses of “ancient” and “modern” wheats show that the amount of gluten and other protein content in modern bread wheat has decreased over time — and that ancient wheats contain more protein and gluten. This means no single type of wheat is “better” for reducing the risks of celiac disease or is safe to eat by someone with celiac disease. 

If you haven’t been diagnosed with celiac disease, wheat allergy, or another wheat or gluten intolerance, whole wheat is a versatile source of fiber, protein, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. They work as hot breakfast cereals, side dishes, in grain bowls, and many other applications. Here’s a quick overview of the various types:

  • Wheat berries. Whole wheat kernels take about an hour to cook after overnight soaking.
  • Cracked wheat. Split wheat berries, with a quicker cooking time.
  • Bulgur. Whole wheat berries that are cleaned, boiled or steamed, then dried and cracked. Traditionally used in pilafs, tabbouleh and kibbe (a Lebanese dish of minced meat with bulgur and spices). When choosing bulgur, use coarse for pilaf, medium for tabbouleh and other salads, and fine for making kibbe.
  • Farro. In Italy, farro refers to three types of ancient wheat: einkorn (farro piccolo), emmer (farro medio) and spelt (farro grande). Technically speaking, however, emmer is the true farro. Enjoyed by Italians for centuries, wild emmer dates back 17,000 years to the late Paleolithic era.
  • Spelt. Spelt is a hexaploid wheat that was widely cultivated before industrialization, but has made somewhat of a comeback.
  • Freekeh. Wheat kernels are harvested when the plant is still young and green, then roasted and rubbed to give them their signature smoky flavor. Freekeh is traditionally used in Middle Eastern and North African cuisine and may be sold whole or cracked.
  • Khorasan wheat. A tetraploid wheat that includes the branded form Kamut, and has a rich, buttery flavor.