There’s a movement gaining momentum across the U.S. and other parts of the world, and it has to do with amber waves of grain. Once a staple of the American diet, whole grains and the flours milled from them have yielded to refined flour, which is another way of saying flour stripped of nutrients to extend its shelf life. We love flour-based foods: pizza crusts, pie crusts, hamburger buns, hot dog buns, and cookies. In fact, Americans eat, on average, half a pound of grains, mostly in the form of refined white flour, each day.1 But the transition to refined flour has proven to be harmful to our health, especially to our children’s health. The food preferences they establish in their youth will follow them into adulthood. Our Grain Guide aims to present helpful tips and resources that will demonstrate how flavorful, and in fact how adaptable and preferable, whole grain flours can be.2
The Whole Grain Gain: One of the catalysts pushing the Food Lab toward fresh whole-grain flours is scientific research proclaiming the importance of whole grains, especially the Health Effects of Dietary Risks in 195 Countries, published in 2019. Scientists sought to identify three foods that assert the most significant influence on human health and longevity. After spending more than two decades sifting through research, scientists concluded that the foods that most affect worldwide disease and premature death are: too much sodium, not enough fresh fruit, and not enough whole grains 3. This research caught our attention. What had been silent and invisible and taken for granted suddenly became loud and visible. Grains were the last food category to be acknowledged by the farm-to-table movement. The research reported in the 2019 study changed our casual but passive respect for whole-grain breads; we leaped into an urgent full-on commitment to make a case for whole-grain flours.
A Food Revolution
When people talk about a food revolution, they often refer to the dramatic change in the quality and character of food that took place during the previous century. Before industrialization, people consumed food, wild or cultivated, unadulterated by toxic chemicals applied to the farmer’s soil or the cook’s creations – in other words, patently natural food. We mostly understand the 20th-century food revolution through hindsight; people realized that we harm ourselves and each other by turning away from “natural” foods and transitioning to industrialized foods. The modern diet is shaped by the chemists’ preservatives and imitation flavors and the marketers’ ability to appeal to our vulnerabilities. It is driven by profit and shelf life; it does not serve the public good. In this sense, the return to wholesome food is less a revolution and more an epic cultural and nutritional revelation. More people recognize that we suffer diseases that are linked to our modern diets. This revelation, increasingly shared by people who are fed up (so to speak), could be summed up this way: we are eating ourselves into sickness and premature death, and it is unnecessary. The alternative – eating wholesome food – benefits not only our families and communities but, literally, all that lives. Going forward, whole grains and whole-grain flour are central to a shared vision of regenerative, sustainable, and nourishing food landscapes.
We are not expert agronomists, bakers, or nutritionists, but we consulted with those who are, and we have compiled their advice and information that we are eager to share. Our objective is to provide you with as much information as possible to help you create your unique and creative pathway to healthier eating for the people who rely on you.
Modern wheat is a survivor. Over the course of thousands of years, it has evolved from a wild grass into today’s ubiquitous grain, a “staple food of the major civilizations in Europe, Asia and North Africa.” 4 Its success has been attributed to innate adaptability: thousands of varieties5 of wheat grow in a range of climates and soils across every continent except Antarctica. Its resilience has also been credited to its symbiotic relationship with homo sapiens: as hunter-gatherers observed and selected wild grasses over time, their diets evolved from foraged sustenance to diets based on controlled proliferation.6
Historically, wheat has played the part of the disrupter, a nutritional change-maker. Taming wild grasses to become edible grains enabled ancient people to claim a measure of control over their diets. In many ways, this was indicative of progress as more people could be routinely fed, crops occasionally yielded a surplus that could be stored against the shortcomings of future harvests, and tribes could put down roots in stationary communities. But there were also challenges: the labor dedicated to nutrition increased significantly because of the work required to prepare land for growing and because water needed transporting, weeds needed pulling, and crops needed to be harvested, dried, and processed.
Leaping forward to today’s grocery shelves, we face a problem with wheat’s ascendance, fueled as it is by ingenious industrialization. The conveniences and innovations have come at a cost: compromised flavor, compromised plant diversity, and compromised human, animal, and environmental well-being.
The Tufts Food Lab Whole Grain Guide draws from the national and international grain revolution that is growing out of a recognition of what has been lost. Wheat breeders, farmers, millers, bakers, chefs, scientists, and distillers are investigating and investing in varieties of wheat, barley, and other grains that favor flavor and nutrition and that suit the surrounding geography and climate. The result is a broadening diversity of grains containing nuanced flavors and a range of vitamins and minerals that flourish in local soils and weather. Flavor is determined by the grain’s variety, nutritional profile, and local agriculture practices. Grains, like wine, derive taste from place.
This Guide focuses on grain varieties that taste delicious, provide excellent nourishment, and perform well for the farmer, chef, and baker. If you are baking or cooking for institutional populations such as schools, universities, or hospitals, we think you will be interested in the deliciousness and the nutritional value that substituting some amount of whole grain flour for white flour will accomplish. Beyond this, our interest delves into food cultures that observe the importance of grains and shared bread and the traditions that tell us something about where we’ve been and what we might newly value.