Posts tagged: wheat

Frankenfoods: What has man wrought?

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By , September 15, 2011

Plant Breeding and Genetic Modification

After reading Dr. Davis’ Wheat Belly, I decided to take another look at how man modifies his food. While there’s a lot of concern about genetic modification of foods, with some standards attached, traditional plant breeding has only a few steps between creation and marketing of the modified food.

Genetic modification (GM) is the process of inserting genes or portions of genes into a plant to introduce a specific trait, such as resistance to a herbicide. Most of the soybeans, corn, and cotton grown in the US are GM crops. In most cases, they have been modified to be resistant to a specific herbicide, Monsanto’s Round Up, or to be resistant to pesticides.

There is a patina of acceptability touted by the proponents of GM foods as the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition “evaluates” them. But the review process is less stringent than a driver’s license test: the food producer submits “summaries of food safety data” that are based “in part on the basis of comparability to conventionally-produced foods.” There are no specific tests done by FDA to determine safety.

Plant breeding, on the other hand, is a time-honored method of cross-breeding plants to obtain certain traits. Prior to the 1940’s, most cross-bred plants were within the same family, such as a mildew resistant pea being cross-bred with a high yield pea to produce a high yielding, mildew resistant pea. This type of cross breeding can occur in nature, but is a slow process, depending on the vagaries of wind, rain and animal movement to introduce new varieties.

There is a dark side to “traditional” plant breeding. Different techniques are used that would not be found in nature. In some cases the food scientist uses a chemical to produce mutations in a plant, and uses the resultant mutation to cross breed with a “normal” plant. The Wikipedia overview highlights the possible danger:

With classical breeding techniques, the breeder does not know exactly what genes have been introduced to the new cultivars. Some scientists therefore argue that plants produced by classical breeding methods should undergo the same safety testing regime as genetically modified plants.

The Poisonous Potato

There have been spectacular failures with traditional plant breeding, including poison potatoes:

. . . for example the poison solanine was unintentionally increased to unacceptable levels in certain varieties of potato through plant breeding. New potato varieties are often screened for solanine levels before reaching the marketplace.

As that quote indicates, there is no requirement to ensure the cross-bred plant is suitable for human consumption. The determination is made based on a plant biologist’s interpretation of how close to the original plant is to the cross-bred plant. In the case of the potato, the food company will look for the presence of a specific, known poison. But there are no long-term trials and no testing on human subjects. The impact on human health is not considered by a physician. We simply don’t know if the new, cross-bred plant carries a toxin that will be found only after the unwitting “test subjects” — the general population — start to have health problems.

Modern Wheat

As Dr. Davis has documented with more authoritative sources, modern wheat is a result of aggressive plant breeding, as Wikipedia notes:

The novel technological development of the Green Revolution was the production of novel wheat cultivars. Agronomists bred cultivars of maize, wheat, and rice that are generally referred to as HYVs or “high-yielding varieties”. HYVs have higher nitrogen-absorbing potential than other varieties. Since cereals that absorbed extra nitrogen would typically lodge, or fall over before harvest, semi-dwarfing genes were bred into their genomes. A Japanese dwarf wheat cultivar (Norin 10 wheat), which was sent to Washington, D.C. by Cecil Salmon, was instrumental in developing Green Revolution wheat cultivars.

No long term testing using human volunteers was implemented. The foods were introduced on the basis that a plant biologist deemed them similar to existing foods. There has been a long term test, of course. On all of us. The fact that we didn’t volunteer doesn’t seem to bother the plant biologists or food companies.

Wheat Belly shows us the result of just one of these “frankenfoods”, the modern dwarf wheat mutant that we have all been eating since the mid-1970s. Because wheat is so ubiquitous in our foods, its effects may have bubbled up to the surface faster than less-commonly used foods such as soybean, cotton and the high-yielding rice (although, there is plenty of evidence of issues with soy for certain people).

Note: I have used Wikipedia articles rather than the scientific journal articles to enable sharing of the resources by the general public, as the journal articles are long, hard to read, and some require payment to access. For those so inclined, Dr. Davis has 16 pages of footnotes to journal articles and studies in his book Wheat Belly.

Wheat Belly Book Review

By , September 6, 2011

Wheat Belly

About the Author

Dr. William Davis is a practicing cardiologist in Milwaukee, WI with over 25 years of experience treating patients. Dr. Davis has impressive credentials: he is a graduate of St. Louis University School of Medicine and the Ohio State University Hospitals, with additional training in advanced cardiac catheterization techniques and coronary angioplasty at the Case-Western Reserve University system in Cleveland. But along the way, Dr. Davis discovered that his heart patients had a host of other problems, including obesity, gout, GERD, IBS, celiac disease, unexplained rashes and other mystifying symptoms.

There is no one as certain of the truth as a scientist cloistered in academia, performing tests on cells in a petri dish, or a researcher running computer programs to find patterns in data. While doctors share the same training in the scientific method they also live in the real world, and they often see their patients reacting very differently than popular studies and national dietary standards describe.

Dr. Davis’ Journey

Like many other medical doctors, Dr. Davis found that low carb diets were most effective in lowering his patient’s weight and improving lipid panel results. But he is aware of the exceptions, where a person’s genetic makeup can require a different approach. It is this relentless pursuit of truth and frank discussion of exceptions that makes his Track Your Plaque / Heart Scan Blog so valuable.

Dr. Davis noted his patients had dramatic improvements in other health issues after restricting carbohydrates. After thousands of years of eating carbohydrates, why would the last 50 years see such a dramatic increase in GERD, pre-diabetes, type 2 diabetes, obesity and celiac disease? Not satisfied with simply knowing the facts, Dr. Davis sought the cause of the rapid increase.

Wheat Belly

His new book, Wheat Belly provides his answer: wheat. Yes, that golden grain, enshrined in our mythology and patriotic songs, is killing us. But humans have eaten wheat for thousands of years.

So why has this seemingly benign plant that sustained generations of humans suddenly turned on us? For one thing, it is not the same grain our forebears ground into their daily bread. Wheat naturally evolved to only a modest degree over the centuries, but it has changed dramatically in the past fifty years under the influence of agricultural scientists.

William Davis, MD, Wheat Belly, (New York: Rodale Inc., 2011), 13.

About Wheat Belly, the Book

Eminently readable, Wheat Belly is written in a conversational style, suitable for any audience. Extensive footnotes are gathered together in the References section at the end of the book, where they don’t interfere with the text. Sidebars include fascinating details; patient success stories, insights into heirloom wheat, etc.

The book is just under 300 pages, divided into three main sections:

  • Wheat, The Unhealthy Whole Grain
  • Wheat and its Head-to-Toe Destruction of Health
  • Say Goodbye to Wheat

The first section gives the history of wheat, from the heirloom wheat mentioned in the Bible (einkorn, gathered by semi-nomadic tribes such as the Natufians as far back as 8500 BCE) to the modern, genetically altered variety created by aggressive cross breeding in the past 50 years.

Differences between the wheat of the Natufians and what we call wheat in the twenty-first century would be evident to the naked eye. Original einkorn and emmer wheat were “hulled” forms, in which the seeds clung tightly to the stem. Modern wheats are “naked” forms, in which the seeds depart from the stem more readily, a characteristic that makes threshing (separating the edible grain from the inedible chaff) easier and more efficient, determined by mutations at the Q and Tg (tenacious glume) genes . . . But other differences are even more obvious.

William Davis, MD, Wheat Belly, (New York: Rodale Inc., 2011), 21.
Note: the ellipsis indicates I removed a reference to a study mentioned previously in the text.

The differences in modern and ancient wheat is more than “skin deep”. On the glycemic index, whole wheat bread exceeds table sugar, scoring 72 versus sugar’s 59 on the scale. Because the carbohydrates in modern wheat are so easily digestible, eating whole grain results in the same blood sugar impact as an equivalent amount of highly processed flour. White bread, with less of the whole wheat grain, comes in at 70. A Snickers candy bar comes in lower, with a glycemic index of 41.

Interestingly, Dr. Davis’ self-experiment with baking bread showed his own blood sugar rise from 84 mg/dl to 110 mg/dl with 4 ounces of bread made with einkorn wheat. He also baked bread with modern wheat, keeping all other ingredients the same, and consumed the same four ounces. His blood sugar shot up from 84 mg/dl to 167 mg/dl.

Dr. Davis provides more detail on the genetic differences that carry unknown effects including the increase in chromosomes from 14 to 42.

Wheat and Modern Health

After establishing why modern wheat is different, Dr. Davis lists the health impact this new, genetically modified food product has introduced. First among impacts is the addictive property of modern wheat, and how it stimulates hunger. Then an extensive treatment of each health condition:

  • Obesity
  • Celiac Disease
  • Diabetes and Insulin Resistance
  • Acid Reflux and Stomach pH
  • Cataracts, Wrinkles, and the aging process
  • Heart Disease
  • Wheat’s effect on the brain
  • Acne, rashes and other skin problems
Note: I have reworded the actual chapter titles to reflect the contents.

Each chapter in this section includes footnotes to studies, as well as examples from Dr. Davis’ practice. Each topic is fully developed, and written in an easy-to-read style without excessive medical terminology (Dr. Davis explains the medical terms he does use).

Practical Application of Wheat Elimination

In the third section, Dr. Davis deconstructs the modern “eat healthy whole grains” advice. If you eliminate all wheat, do you end up with vitamin and mineral deficiency? Not if you follow his basic (and very easy) guidelines. Dr. Davis comments on the true effect of eliminating wheat:

Let me describe a typical person with wheat deficiency: slender, flat tummy, low triglycerides, high HDL (“good”) cholesterol, normal blood sugar, normal blood pressure, high energy, good sleep, normal bowel function.

William Davis, MD, Wheat Belly, (New York: Rodale Inc., 2011), 188.

The book devotes 37 pages to Dr. Davis’ simple method for eliminating wheat and replacing it with unlimited vegetables, raw nuts, grass fed beef, chicken and fish, and other whole, nutritious foods. He departs from the usual low carb / paleo prescription to warn about eating too much processed meat, with its chemical soup of seasoning, nitrates and other potentially harmful chemicals. And, a special note is made regarding the proliferation of “gluten free” products that substitute fructose and “chemical soup” in place of wheat that may still pose health risks. Instead, Dr. Davis provides a variety of great wheat free recipes to provide an insight into managing a diet without wheat, introducing wonderful variety and enjoying the journey.

My Conclusions

I am by nature a skeptical person, but my personal experience with low carb dieting led me to believe, long before I discovered Dr. Davis’ blog, that I may have a “hidden” wheat allergy. After suffering from painful GERD for over a decade, I noted a rapid decrease in symptoms when I started a low carb diet. My GERD does not return when I have the occasional indulgence of ice cream while on a cruise, but comes back with a vengeance when I consume wheat products. My personal experience is not scientific proof, of course, any more than the sidebar stories of dramatic cures are scientific proof in Wheat Belly.

I suspect I will still eat bacon and other processed meats, and I don’t share the enthusiasm for grass fed organic beef and free range chickens and eggs. But those quibbles aside, Dr. Davis’ clinical experience, supported by his scientific research as revealed in 16 pages of references, make a powerful argument that I find hard to refute.

It is easy to do your own experiment; there are no adverse health effects to eliminating wheat and eating according to Dr. Davis’ easy prescription. Two weeks is usually sufficient to notice differences in some conditions. I can heartily recommend Wheat Belly as a practical guide to seeing if you also have a “hidden” wheat allergy.

Resources

Other Reviews:
Book Review: Wheat Belly, by Tom Naughton at Fathead.
Review: Wheat Belly by Dr.William Davis, by Dana Carpender at Hold the Toast.
Wheat Belly Book Review, by Joe Lindley at Stop Craving Sugar.

Dr. Davis’ Blogs:
Track Your Plaque / Heart Scan Blog
Wheat Belly Blog

Disclaimer: Dr. Davis provided a complimentary review copy of the book, but did not attach any editorial restrictions to the review.

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