What if Everything You Knew About Grains Was Wrong? | Civil Eats

What if Everything You Knew About Grains Was Wrong?

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.


Bob Klein, Michael Pollan, Dr. David Jacobs, Dr. Mark Shigenaga, and Dr. David Killilea talk whole grains.

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.”

We’ll bring the news to you.

Get the weekly Civil Eats newsletter, delivered to your inbox.

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.”

Thank you for being a loyal reader.

We rely on you. Become a member today to read unlimited stories.

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.


Twilight Greenaway is the former managing editor and executive editor of Civil Eats. Her articles about food and farming have appeared in The New York Times, NPR.org, The Guardian, Food and Wine, Gastronomica, and Grist, among other. See more at TwilightGreenaway.com. Follow her on Twitter. Read more >

Like the story?
Join the conversation.

  1. Don Dufresne
    Heritage grains, non-altered. Anson Mills is a notable pioneer in the States for products in this arena. The "gluten-free" movement is merely trading one industrialized food group for another, IMHO.
  2. Love this! Really makes me want to pack up and move to SF! I really hope this movement takes off like wild flour. We really need to localize all of our food sources and go back to the basics! Great article!!!
  3. Leon Gunther
    This is a wonderful article. It shows that when people care and act on it, we CAN make a difference and explain to the world what they are typically currently missing that's good in flour and what they are consuming that is unhealthy. People don't know what wheat products -- breads and cakes ... used to taste like.
    There is hope.
  4. mary edwards
    here's the thing with the gluten free explosion: celiac patients like me catch a lot of flack for people who play with GF....it's imperative to limit ANY grains, and since most GF grains are highly processed, it's like walking through land mines trying to heal a gut!!
  5. DC Matthews
    We do have a problem with not as nutritious foods, but even back yard gardens have some soil and other issues too. Can we grow for so many people w/out chemicals and have good, nutrient based soils? Can breeding do the whole trick? PS: I wonder if ,for many, it is like for me -not the gluten per se, but the ( some is created?) yeast that is the real problem.
  6. These are really analyzing factors for the wheat flour, which are stated above that the heating process, oxygenation, and stress of the milling process makes the wheat vitamins nearly impossible to recover in flour. If the grain processed to make flour with out milling process than the vitamin can be stable in flour.
  7. Justwendy
    Thank you for this very informative post. I find it interesting, though, that any mention of Bob's Red Mill brand stone ground flours (of Vermont) are conspicuously absent from your article. Their company, too, specializes in minimal processing using stone ground milling at cool temperatures that retain all the nutrients of the grain.
  8. Rebecca Leisen
    It will be interesting to see how shifts to perennial wheat and grain options like what Wes Jackson is conducting at The Land Instituite will impact nutritional value of these whole grains as well.
  9. Enrique Silva
    A reply c/o DrRose:

    In the 80s I began investigating and researching information about grains as well as processing of grains. My degree in Iridolgy as well as being a medical intuitive came in handy indeed. By the late 80s - early 90s, nearly 1 million people had attended my classes or been private clients. A pattern began to emerge regarding grains the good , not so good, and not good. We uncovered the importance of organic high protein wheat and my friend was just beginning to experiment with kamut. We did confirm the importance of grinding our own grain and using it within 30 minutes to maintain its highest vitamin E and B Complex benefits. We confirmed thru thousands of students that organic wheat and later kamut provided we're complete foods, in short, when above a 14.3 percent protein we can survive and be super healthy on organic wheat and/or kamut. We evaluated over 120 different types of grinders to find those that kept the grain the coolest in order to maintain nutritional value. By far the Family Grain Mill is still the best. We developed smoothie recipes with soaked and/or sprouted organic wheat/kamut. One of the factors in reversing my spinal degeneration was from the raw wheat smoothies.

    From our research I began sourcing out high protein organic wheat crops. Visited their fields. Then negotiated purchimg from 80000 to 120000 pounds per year to ship out to our clients thru out the U.S and Canada.

    The most exciting aspect of the article is the fact that they are supporting and seeking out local farmers. Family owned farms. The backbone to our countries freedom to be healthy.


    Doctor Rose

More from




Tracking Tire Plastics—and Chemicals—From Road to Plate

Can New York City Treat Its Food Scraps As More Than Trash?

Garbage bags full of waste, including compostable waste, pile up on the streets of new york city.

Senator Cory Booker Says FDA Proposal Could Worsen Antibiotic Resistance

A farmworker feeds cows in a barn.

Are Companies Using Carbon Markets to Sell More Pesticides?

a tractor sprays pesticides on a field while hazard symbols fade into the distance. (Civil Eats illustration)