Most of us consume significant amounts of wheat flour every day, whether or not we realise it. Let’s look at what the average Nigerian might eat in a day. We might have bread for breakfast, jollof rice for lunch and Indomie for dinner. Wheat flour has already featured in 2 out of 3 meals for the day. In between we might snack on biscuits, puffpuff or meatpies – more flour. But what’s wrong with that?
Wheat is supposed to be one of the healthiest foods known to man. Rich in protein, carbohydrates and micronutrients, it was the major source of sustenance for several ancient civilisations. But what we know as wheat today is a very different crop from what was consumed in ancient times. The story of modern wheat is a case study in how industrialisation is not always a good thing, especially in agriculture.
Watered down by the Green Revolution
During the green revolution which took place from the 1930s to 1960s, there was a big push to use advanced technologies to increase agricultural production. One of these technologies was the development of ‘improved’ crop varieties through genetic manipulation, and it’s primary victim was wheat. Because of severe genetic manipulation to induce characteristics such as high yield and high gluten content, the strain of modern wheat we cultivate today (dwarf wheat) may grow faster, but is far less nutritious than nature intended. Compared to ancient varieties like einkorn and spelt, it is lower in micronutrients like zinc, magnesium, iron, copper, and selenium.
Stripped of nutritional value
Modern wheat has also been bastardised by over-processing. Generally we consume wheat in the form of refined flour – that brilliant white powder that is used in everything from pasta to pastry. White flour is amazing in its ability to keep for long periods of time; but it is precisely that shelf stability that makes it so dangerous to our health. If you were to simply grind up whole wheat berries, the oil released from the wheat germ in the process would make the flour go rancid in a matter of days. Obviously this makes it useless for industrial purposes, so wheat flour is refined to remove such ‘impurities’. As a result, the parts of the wheat plant that contain the little nutritional value left in modern wheat are stripped away in the process of refinement. The wheat germ, bran (fibre) and wheat germ oil are all removed until what you have is an unnatural substance. As if that weren’t enough, some manufacturers also bleach the flour, a process that creates a by-product called alloxan, a diabetes-inducing chemical.
Don’t be fooled by ‘Wholewheat’ and ‘Enriched’
Despite its name, ‘wholewheat’ flour is not much better. It goes through the same process of refinement, but after the white flour is produced some bran is mixed in to give it a fibrous texture. Although it contains more fibre than white flour, there’s really nothing whole about it. Enriched flours are simply refined flour with some of the vitamins that were lost in the refinement process added back later.
What does this mean for your health? Unlike whole foods like beans, potatoes and brown rice which are rich in fibre and other nutrients, refined flour foods contain carbs and not much else. So when they are broken down in the body they have little to offer but glucose. They have little fibre to regulate absorption and let us know when we’ve had enough to eat, so you eat too much of them. They are low in micronutrients so you need to eat them in larger quantities in order to obtain sufficient vitamins and minerals. These are some of the reasons that consumption of such foods results in weight gain.
The solution: go gluten free?
Does this mean you need to avoid wheat completely and go gluten free? No, strict avoidance is not necessary at all, unless you have celiac disease. As mentioned earlier, wheat is a highly nutritious food when consumed in its natural state. What you can do is avoid heavy consumption of foods containing refined wheat flour. You have a few options:
1. Make your own bread, pasta, etc with wholegrain flour: This option is the most desirable, but it is also an expensive and time consuming exercise that involves sourcing organic wheat berries, grinding them into flour and doing the baking at home – unfortunately not realistic for most people.
2. Switch to whole grain products: Although these are not so easy to find in Nigeria, they are the best option for wheat products and I buy them whenever I can. Look for ‘100% whole grain’ on the packaging, as seen on the Weetabix cereal box.
3. Reduce consumption of refined flour foods: The best way to eat less bread, semo, noodles, pasta and so on is to replace them with something better each time you have to make a choice. This is what I do most of the time. For example, if you usually have white bread for breakfast, have oatmeal instead. And instead of 2 packs of Indomie, try having just one with lots of vegetables to bulk it up.
Whatever option works best for your lifestyle, remember that everyday actions really add up over time; eventually you’ll realise you’ve cut down your flour consumption by half. Your body will thank you for it!