Health: Why wheat flour is also a serious problem?
Wheat has been a staple food in many societies for milenia. People were used to eating a lot of wheat in the form of bread, biscuits, pasta, etc. Some populations, like in many states of north India, had diets based on wheat (in the form of chapatis and rotis) and not much more. Still, until the 1950's people were relatively healthy, with few cases of diabetes, gluten intolerance and cancer. This changed in the last few decades.
The fact is that the wheat we eat changed radically in the last century. The first modification was an aggressive process of selection and hybridization of the wheat seeds. The plants became much shorter and the grains much bigger. While this resulted in great productivity gains (leading to the so-called ”green revolution”), the resulting grains became very different from what people were eating in the previous centuries. The wheat became very rich in simple starches and the gluten content skyrocketed. At the same time, the content of vitamins and minerals became much lower.
The second change was the way the grains are milled. Traditionally, the wheat would be ground whole in stone mills. The resulting flour would be relatively rough, with much bigger particles than we see in wheat flour today. This would bring two advantages: a) The flour would preserve all the nutrients of the grains, since it would include the bran and fibers, and b) the flour would be relatively low glycemic. Combined with the much higher nutritional content of these ancient varieties of wheat, the final product would be relatively nutritious.
During the last century, the milling of wheat was progressively changed to roller-mills, a more “modern” process that results in a very fine flour, that is very high glycemic. To make matters worse, the grains are stripped from the germ and the aleurone cell layer, resulting in the loss of fibers, essential amino acids and most of the vitamins. To add insult to the injury, the product passes through a bleaching process (that increases the shelf life and makes the flour white) that destroys much of the little vitamins that are left. The result is a very fine white powder that has a glycemic index higher than white sugar and is devoid of practically any nutrition. Just like white sugar, the white flour we get from the supermarket is more like a chemical product than a food.
As discussed before, foods with a very high glycemic index make the blood glucose rise very quickly. In the case of wheat, this is combined with a high glycemic load (not only the glucose rises fast, but stays high for a long time). This forces the body to release a high dose of insulin, which in turn makes the body store all this energy as visceral fat. Not only this makes us gain weight, but leads to the accumulation of the most dangerous type of fat. Over time, this is also a strong risk factor for the development of insulin resistance or even type 2 diabetes.
To make matters worse (nothing is so bad that can’t become worse), there was the introduction of the transgenic wheat by Monsanto. The whole purpose of the genetic modification was to make the plants more resistant to the pesticide Roundup. Due to this resistance, farmers can use much higher doses of the pesticide, making the crops much less susceptible to pests, increasing the production. Not only that, but it became popular between the farmers to drench the plants in pesticide closer to the harvest, an operation that dry-out the plants, making the harvest easier. The result is that the final product is heavily contaminated with glyphosate, which causes several problems.
Not only glyphosate is a well known cancerigen, but it also interferes with the operation of the intestinal barrier, exacerbating the problems caused by the excess of gluten in the grains. Did you notice that nowadays more and more people have become gluten-intolerant? What was a relatively rare occurrence in the previous centuries became a pandemic. It’s not clear if the intolerance is caused by the higher gluten content, by the glyphosate, or by the combination of both, but the fact is that there are negative consequences even for people that are not gluten intolerant. One of the most serious is the increase in the permeability of the intestinal barrier, allowing the passage of bacteria and toxins, which in turn triggers inflammation and other dangerous immunologic responses.
The result is that wheat flour has become one of the most unhealthy foods one can eat. The problem is that because it's so rich in simple starches and so high glycemic, it acts in the rewarding centers of the brain, making it addictive, especially when combined with sugar and oil. Once one is hooked, it's difficult to stop, especially nowadays, when wheat flour is used in practically everything.
In the beginning of my research I was thinking that sugar was the main problem in the modern diet. I was surprised to discover that wheat flour is at least as bad as white sugar, if not worse! The fact that it is usually combined with sugar and refined vegetable oil doesn't help either. It’s difficult to talk about a healthy diet without first removing these three ingredients from the menu.
The first option most would consider is whole grain wheat flour. Compared with white flour, it is indeed better, with more fiber and vitamins. However, it is still very high glycemic, and still has the same problem with gluten and glyphosate, therefore it also can’t be recommended.
It’s possible to go back in time with the einkorn wheat, a variety that is very close to the wheat that people used to eat in ancient times. Compared to modern wheat, it is very low on gluten and much higher in nutrition. The problem is that this is a specialized product that is expensive and hard to find. Much more affordable options would be (organic) barley and rye, two options that are also similar to the ancient wheat but are much more affordable.
If you can buy a grinder and make your own flour at home from organic barley or rye, you will have a healthier substitute to wheat flour that can be used to make chapatis, rotis, pancakes, pies, or even some types of cakes.
From a health perspective, a rough or coarse flour is much better than a very fine powder. What makes the commercial wheat flour so high glycemic is exactly the fact that the fine particles are very quickly digested in the intestines, while bigger granules are absorbed slowly.
Apart from grains, there are a few other healthy options to replace wheat flour. Two particularly good options are coconut flour and almond flour. Coconut flour is a byproduct of the production of coconut milk. It's basically the fiber that is left after the milk is removed. It's not particularly nutritious, but it's very low glycemic, relatively low cost and can be combined with other flours.
Almond flour is nothing more than powdered almonds. It's very tasty and very nutritious, rich in healthy fats and proteins. Due to the low carbohydrate content, it's still very low glycemic, despite being a fine powder. As strange as it may sound, it can also directly replace wheat flour in many recipes: you can use it to make cookies or even some types of bread. The only problem is that it is very expensive.
There are also many other types of flours from different seeds and millets. Nowadays it’s possible to buy buckwheat flour, ragi flour, amaranth flour, besan (chickpea flour) and so on. They have different tastes and properties, but are also healthier options that can be used in many recipes. Another option to consider is rolled oats, that can be mixed to other flours in many recipes. Rolled oats are low glycemic, therefore it makes any recipe much healthier. They can be used to make cookies, cakes, pancakes and so on.