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Do Heritage Grains Hold Promise for the Gluten-Sensitive?

• June 15, 2012 • 4:00 AM

(Maurizio Milanesio/Shutterstock)

The cultivation of ancient grains whose makeup hasn’t been amended as much as modern wheat could allow the gluten-intolerant to have their bread and eat it, too.

There is a growing movement of farmers, scientists, and foodies working to bring back heritage grains—especially those ancient varietals of wheat that were around long before grains were widely hybridized to boost yield and resist disease. Among those who are growing and baking with these heirloom grains, there is a keen interest in einkorn, a nutty and nutritious species of ancient wheat that may be digestible by people with gluten allergies.

Eli Rogosa, the director of the Heritage Wheat Conservancy, has dedicated herself to preserving rare old wheat species and establishing them in a local and organic grain economy in the Northeast. On her farm in Massachusetts, she cultivates rare breeds of grains that come from seed banks all over the world but are hardy enough to thrive in a variety of different environmental conditions.

Einkorn is one of them. A diploid species with 14 chromosomes, einkorn has a different gluten structure than modern wheat (which has 42 chromosomes) and is easier to digest. Rogosa, in partnership with the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is testing to see if gluten-sensitive celiacs can tolerate the grain. Rogosa is also growing plants on site and organizing conferences with artisan bakers and crop specialists on the farming of heritage wheats in New England. (Ambitious readers can try baking a loaf of sprouted einkorn bread with Rogosa’s recipe. (PDF))

On the West Coast, Bob Klein is just as passionate about einkorn. Klein is the co-owner of Oakland, California’s Oliveto restaurant and founder of Community Grains, a company he hopes will help build a local California grain economy using whole organic heritage grains. “Einkorn is 10,000 years old,” he says—it was the first cultivated wheat. “We ended up making radically different grains through the Green Revolution”—post-1940.

“Things like goat grass were introduced into the wheat strain, and there’s evidence that some degree of intolerance comes from goat grass,” says Klein. If you look at earlier varieties, he explains, you don’t see that problem. “You have this modern phenomenon of lots of people becoming intolerant to gluten, and it’s indisputable. But it’s also very hazy as to what it is exactly, and whether it’s one cause or many. One theory is that we’re responding not to the grain itself but the refinement, and I’m in that class.”

Klein has assembled a science committee for Community Grains that includes the writer Michael Pollan and Mark Shigenaga, a scientist at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute and a leading authority in the biochemistry of the gut. Shigenaga’s research has focused on the role of diet—especially whole grains—in modulating systemic inflammation. Shigenaga and Klein are theorizing that that refined flour may cause a “sugar shock” reaction that true whole-wheat flour does not, and that reactions to eating it (tiredness, bloating) may be caused by the process of refinement.

Community Grains sells grains in their entirety: 100 percent of the germ, bran, and the endosperm found in the grain. Klein doesn’t separate any of the parts in milling his whole-grain flour (industrial millers tend to strip the germ and bran off and add the parts back in later).

One big heritage grain supporter is Chad Robertson, the baker and owner of Tartine, whose wife and co-owner, the pastry chef Elizabeth Prueitt, is gluten-intolerant. Last year, Robertson traveled to Denmark to bake with rare heirloom grains and work with Claus Meyer, the co-owner of Noma and the driving force behind the two-decade-old movement to restore Scandinavian heirloom grains in modern food culture. Robertson returned to San Francisco and began experimenting with new bread creations using einkorn, kamut, emmer, and other grains for his new Bar Tartine sandwich shop. (His wife has found she can eat many of these primitive grains.)

In a recent article for Food Arts, Robertson writes that the revival of ancient grains benefits everyone: “From my first mentor, Richard Bourdon, I was taught the importance of making bread that is easy to digest. This lesson is brought close to home by my wife’s intolerance to gluten. Gluten-free products have mushroomed into a big business. What interests me is how to make native and ancient grains more easily digestible for all of us, gluten-intolerant or not.”

There is evidence that some ancient grains lack the toxicity of modern wheat grains, but some experts are calling for more data. “A lot of claims are made, but they’re not necessarily based on much evidence as yet,” says Peter Green, the director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University. One of the most basic challenges he points out is that while there is a lot known about celiac disease, there is not much known about nonceliac gluten sensitivity in which patients show symptoms but no pathological abnormality.

The ancient grains might very well be less toxic to both audiences—but the proof remains to be seen.

Bonnie Tsui
Bonnie Tsui writes frequently for The New York Times and The Atlantic; her next book is a collection of essays on swimming.

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