First it was produce. Then the local food movement expanded to take on meat. Now it’s all about grains.
Nothing proves this point more than the packed room I found myself in last Sunday morning. At the point in the week when most people are unfurling their copy of the New York Times, or making their second leisurely café au lait, I filed in to the back of the dining area at Oliveto, a high-end Italian restaurant in Oakland, to join around 100 people gathered to discuss local grains.
The event was hosted by Community Grains, a Bay Area company founded by Oliveto owner Bob Klein, which sells local whole grain flour, pasta, polenta, and beans. It brought restaurateurs, foodies, journalists, bakers like Tartine Bakery’s Chad Robertson, who has been using local and heirloom grain varieties in recent years, and farmers such as Paul Muller from the iconic Full Belly Farm out on a Sunday morning.
I had arrived a few minutes late, missed the breakfast option, and was left staring enviously at other people’s whole wheat pastries. “Is there really that much to say about whole grains?” I asked myself, naively. “We all need to eat more of them. What else is there?”
It turns out there’s actually a lot more to know. Yes, localizing grain, and providing markets for heirloom varieties is important, and so is re-building smaller-scale grain infrastructure, and returning to fermentation-based baking traditions, rather than commercial yeast. But these are the problems I was familiar with. The argument I hadn’t heard, and it’s one Klein and several scientists on the panel that day seem to believe, is that we’ve also been milling grains—and in particular wheat—in a way that all but destroys it nutritionally.
This is especially interesting when you take into account that for nearly 150 years, we’ve been milling grains one way: with industrial roller mills. The roller mill made it easy to separate wheat germ and wheat bran from the endosperm (the white fluffy part). And, in doing so, it made flour shelf-stable.
“We figured out how to make white flour, but it made people sick, so we put all kinds of things back into it,” said Klein, in an interview after the event. In the 1940s, we began enriching flour, by adding B vitamins–thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin–and iron back in. Then we recreated “whole wheat flour” by adding the other parts of the grain back in. In fact, to this day, the degree to which your bread, pasta, or tortillas are considered “whole wheat” has simply to do with how much of the bran has been added back in to the white flour.
Reconstituted or not, the marketing language describing grain-based foods is still fairly unregulated. Grocery store products only need to be 51 percent whole grain to receive one of those brown and orange “Whole Grain” stamps by the Whole Grains Council. All this, despite the fact that, as more and more evidence suggests, when it comes to food, the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts.
“We’ve realized that we don’t really know what the difference is between reconstituted fortified flour and actual whole grain flour,” said Klein. “Are we missing one thing, or 10 things, or 100,000 micronutrients? Or is it the way these elements interact that’s important?”
Fewer Vitamins, More ‘Food Comas’
At the Oliveto event, Dr. David Killilea, a microbiologist at the Nutrition and Metabolism Center at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Institute, addressed larger questions about reconstituted whole grains, based on his study of micronutrients.
“Wheat is generally much more minerally dense than other staple crops,” said Killilea. “But most nutrients get milled out. We lose half the B vitamins, and lots of the vitamin E.” This last part is important, because wheat is a source of gamma vitamin E (or gamma tocopherol), which has powerful anti-inflammatory properties.
In general, as Killilea explained, it’s much more feasible to add minerals back into flour than vitamins, because the latter are “more structurally complex, and more easily damaged. The heat, oxygenation, and stress of the milling process makes the vitamins nearly impossible to recover.”
Dr. Mark Shigenaga, another microbiologist from Children’s Hospital Oakland Institute, spoke about the impact that white flour can have on the digestive system, likening eating it to drinking alcohol.
“The gut walls are disturbed for hours,” he told the crowd, adding that eating white flour can cause a “food coma” or have hang-over-like qualities, similar to eating too much food. Eating whole grains, on the other hand, has an impact more like eating small frequent meals, because of the slower rate of breakdown within the digestive system.
Shigenaga’s interest in this issue was piqued after he treated children who were experiencing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. “It turned out it was from consuming too many refined carbohydrates,” he said.
Milling Two Birds with One Stone
Unlike reconstituted “whole grain” flours, Community Grains products are made with flour milled using old-world methods. The flour comes from a man named Joe Vanderliet, who uses a patented technique to stone-grind the grains while keeping the parts intact and creating a shelf-stable flour. In other words: It’s a potential game changer.
“It’s the only milling operation like it in the country. I know of a small handful in Europe,” says Klein. But working with Vanderliet is just one part of a larger process that Klein and some of his co-conspirators have been engaging in over the last few years to re-build the Bay Area’s local grain economy.
What they’ve found, says Klein, is that, like small-scale meat, “There’s no real infrastructure for it. Grain milling and storage is done on an industrial level.” For one, there’s no way to keep your product intact and separate from the rest–until recently. (This last part is important to Klein, who prefers to sell products from single varieties, grown on single farms and list both pieces of information on the label when possible). He’s been working with small, medium, and a few large producers in his area, hoping to engage more as the market for such products picks up. “The big farms are anxious to get out of the commodity market,” he said.
The goal is to see local grains grown in a decentralized way by a range of California farms–at a scale that lessens the dependence on industrial Midwestern wheat–over the next several decades. And in the meantime, Klein and others at Community Grains find themselves educating the public about things like milling processes and the nutrition of genuine whole grain flour versus the reconstituted stuff. That’s where last Sunday’s event comes in. It was the latest in a series of meals and talks that Klein has been hosting at the restaurant over the last few years. (Civil Eats even co-hosted a talk there in 2012.)
The Role of Plant Breeding
In addition to milling, breeding is another important piece of the local grain picture. In fact, the two industries have worked in tandem for generations. “Wheat is bred for roller mills,” said Stephen Jones, a wheat breeder from Washington State University’s Bread Lab. “People want it white in color, with low ash, but the ‘ash’ is where the nutrients are.”
Despite some theories, Jones doesn’t see breeding as responsible for the recent rise in gluten intolerance (rates of Celiac disease, for instance have doubled every 15 years since 1974). “I think those rumors give too much credit to wheat breeders,” he told the audience. “That said, there’s a glut of gluten on the market. This is cheating: Adding slugs of gluten to industrial breads–especially the types with 12 different grains–to get it to hold together. It would crumble otherwise.”
Author and journalist Michael Pollan—who dove deep into traditional sourdough baking for his latest book, Cooked–spoke to the crowd as well. He drew the connection between plant breeding and the kind of underwhelming whole wheat bread many of us associate with the 1970s and 80s.
“We’ve been breeding wheat for white flour, and selecting for large endosperm for years,” said Pollan. “As we’ve done this, the bran has gotten harder and more bitter.” This results in mediocre whole wheat flour, and mediocre bread. When he started baking, Pollan says he realized, “I was making whole grain bread in what I like to call a ‘white flour industrial complex.'”
Today, however, Pollan has hope. He pointed to a new crop of grain farmers, like the ones working with Community Grains, such as Front Porch Farm and the Mendocino Grain Project, who are breeding wheat for flavor and old world baking. Combine this trend with innovative milling techniques, and Pollan believes we can have healthy bread that tastes good too–and not just in foodie enclaves like the Bay Area. “We need to create a whole economy, in fact a whole culture, that will make whole grain bread fantastic tasting,” he told the crowd.