What is wheat?

What is wheat?

A year ago, as I was saying goodbye to my first food business – a group of fast-casual, farm-to-table restaurants – I started to wonder about wheat.

Although I’d spent the past 13 years learning everything I could about all the other ingredients on our menu – from chicken and beef to kale and potatoes – I’d never thought much about our buns. Yes, they were “whole wheat” and delivered fresh each day from a trusted local bakery. But, I didn’t know anything about the flour that had gone into them, or the grains that had gone into the flour. Same for the bread my wife, three boys and I were eating at home. We put our bacon-and-eggs and PB&Js on toasted wheat or multigrain, but I’d never investigated the origins of those loaves.

“What do you know about wheat?” I started asking people. Friends, family, even food industry colleagues looked back at me with blank stares. I started reading – books, articles, scientific papers – but that wasn’t enough. I soon decided that I would have to talk, face to face, with some real experts. So I registered for a conference in rural Maine. The only topic on the agenda: grain.

Here’s what I learned. Wheat is a wild grass originally from the Levant region of the Near East and Ethiopia that’s been domesticated and is now grown around the world. In the United States, there are six main varieties, named for their color, hardness and/or growing season -- hard red winter, hard red spring, soft red winter, soft white, hard white and durum – and, despite the increasing concentration of production in mid-west mega-farms, wheat is still grown in nearly every state. (Remember those “amber waves of grain” from the song America the Beautiful? You don’t get that kind of shout-out if you’re not important.)

In the fields, wheat is green; if you peel off the chaff and eat a wheatberry right off the stalk, it doesn’t taste like bread or cereal. It tastes like a plant. After a couple of weeks, it dries to a golden hue, is harvested and stored.

In its natural form, wheat has three main components: the fiber-rich bran, the nutrient-dense, flavorful germ, and the starchy endosperm. Before any kind of processing, a cup of red hard winter wheat contains 12.6g of protein, 12.2g of fiber, 29mg of calcium, 126mg of magnesium, 363mg of potassium, and a host of other good-for-you vitamins (like B-6, E and K) and minerals (like zinc, manganese, and selenium).

When wheat is milled the old-fashioned way, all that goodness goes right into the flour and it's perishable. Unfortunately, to save money and make their stuff shelf-stable, industrial food companies strip the wheat of its bran and germ, leaving only the endosperm. They take a nourishing plant and turn it into an empty starch. Even when flour or baked goods are billed as “whole wheat” or “enriched,” it usually just means that some of the discarded fiber and vitamins have been added back in. They aren’t nearly as nutritious as the grain once was, and they don’t taste as good.

Wheat is this amazing superfood that’s been hiding right under our noses. We just need to grow and mill it, then make food the way our ancestors used to. By the end of that conference, I felt like I’d found a new calling: to bring back wheat you can eat.

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