Are Ancient Grains Healthier?

“Are Ancient Grains Healthier?” The number one killer in the United
States and around the world is what we eat, killing millions
more than tobacco, for example. What are the five most important things
we can do to improve our diets, based on the single most comprehensive global
study of the health impact of nutrition? Eat less salt, eat more nuts, eat more
non-starchy vegetables, and more fruit, and finally eat more whole grains.
Any particular type of whole grains? What about so-called ancient grains? Are
they any better than modern varieties? Like what about kamut,
the so-called mummy wheat, supposedly unearthed
from an Egyptian tomb. After WWII, the wheat industry selected
particularly high-yielding varieties for pasta and bread. Over
the past few years, though, some of the more ancient varieties
have been reintroduced on the market, defined basically as those
that haven’t changed over the agricultural revolutions
of the last century. Nutritionally, einkorn wheat, the
oldest wheat, and kamut have more of the eyesight-improving
yellow carotenoid pigments like lutein and zeaxanthin, compared
to modern bread and pastry wheat because the pigments have been
bred out of bread intentionally. People want their white bread white,
but modern pasta flour, durum wheat, maintains much of that
yellow hue nutrition. Yes, modern wheat
may have less lutein, but, for example, tends
to have more vitamin E. Based on straight vitamin and mineral
concentrations, it’s pretty much a wash. They both have lots of each, but
the primitive wheats do have more antioxidant capacity, likely due
to their greater polyphenol content. But to know if this makes any difference,
you have to put it to the test. If you expose human liver cells
to digested bread made out of ancient grains—kamut
and spelt, heritage wheat— or modern strains, and then expose
the cells to an inflammatory stimulus, the modern wheat strains seem less
able to suppress the inflammation. The investigators conclude that despite
the fact that these different grains seem to be very similar nutritionally,
they seemed to exert different effects on human cells, “confirming the potential
health benefits of ancient grains.” But this was in a petri dish.
What about in people? If ancient wheats are better at
suppressing inflammation, what if you took people with irritable bowel
syndrome and randomized them to receive six weeks of wheat products
made out of the ancient wheat kamut in this case, or modern wheat. Same
amount of wheat, just different types. If there’s no difference between
the wheats, there’d be no difference in people’s symptoms, right?
But check this out. Here’s how the control groups
did on the modern wheat. Switched to the kamut, they experienced
less abdominal pain, less frequent pain, less bloating, more satisfaction
with stool consistency, and less interference
with their quality of life. So after switching to the ancient grain,
patients experienced a significant global improvement in the extent
and severity of symptoms related to their irritable bowel.
What about liver inflammation? The liver function of those with
nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, randomized to eat kamut, improved
compared to those eating the same amount of regular wheat,
suggesting kamut is superior. In diabetics, better cholesterol
and insulin sensitivity on the same ancient grain.
In those with heart disease, better blood sugar control
and better cholesterol. Better artery function in those
without overt heart disease. The bottom line is findings derived
from human studies suggest that ancient wheat products are
more anti-inflammatory, and improve things like blood
sugar control and cholesterol. Given that the overall number of human
interventional trials is still small, it is not possible to definitively conclude
that ancient wheat varieties are superior to all commercial, modern
wheat counterparts in reducing chronic disease risk, but the
best available data does suggest they’re better if you have the choice. Regardless of what type of wheat
you may eat, word to the wise: don’t eat the plastic bread-bag clip. A 45-year-old guy presents
with bloody stools, and this is what their CT scan looked like.
Later questioned, the patient admitted to habitually eating quickly
without chewing properly.
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