At his wit’s end because of his severe reactions to eating wheat, William Davis, MD decided to become the guinea pig in a simple experiment. The question was whether his body would react differently to bread baked from modern organic whole wheat or to bread baked from einkorn, the first cultivated wheat and an original source of our current crop of 100,000 modern wheat varieties. From wheat kernels found in tombs near the Sea of Galilee, we know that humans have been eating the hard-hulled einkorn unchanged for nearly 20,000 years. We have also been crossbreeding wheat and grasses for almost as long. Compared to einkorn, which now is mostly raised for animals, the whole wheat we buy today tends to have stronger and shorter supporting straws, larger kernels, and dramatically higher yields. These huge advancements have put wheat (breads, cereal, and pasta) at the base of the American food pyramid, and we are told to eat six to eleven servings each day.
But as Dr. Davis has learned the hard way, the ubiquity of modern wheat has also created a host of potential problems. Most obvious is that if you are sensitive to wheat, it can be very difficult to find food to eat. Davis also knew that einkorn is sold in health food stores because it lacks the gluten of modern wheat and is said to be tolerated by people with wheat sensitivities. So Dr. Davis’s first goal was to find out if going back to the source would make bread safe for him.
Davis’s plan was to eat four ounces of einkorn bread on one day and four ounces of organic whole wheat bread the next. To begin, he hand-ground two pounds of the einkorn into flour and made a simple dough with water and yeast. He describes the einkorn dough as stickier and less stretchy than any he had seen before. It barely rose after a period of proofing. After baking, Davis nervously prepared for his first bite, but the nutty, denser bread caused him no problems — and a blood sugar test revealed only a modest rise from 84 mg/dl to 110 mg/dl, similar to consuming any carbohydrate. In his new book, Wheat Belly, he writes, “Afterwards … I felt no perceptible effects — no sleepiness, no nausea, nothing hurt. In short, I felt fine. Whew!”
The next day he baked a loaf of modern organic whole wheat bread and repeated the experiment. Before eating the four ounces, his blood sugar registered the same 84 mg/dl; afterward, it spiked to 167 mg/dl. “Moreover, I soon became nauseated, nearly losing my lunch. The queasy effect persisted for thirty-six hours, accompanied by stomach cramps that started almost immediately and lasted for many hours. Sleep that night was fitful, though filled with vivid dreams. I couldn’t think straight, nor could I understand the research papers I was trying to read the next morning, having to read and reread paragraphs four or five times; I finally gave up.”
A preventive cardiologist practicing in Milwaukee, Davis is the first to admit his experiment in no way represents a clinical trial; nevertheless, it set him on a path to learn more about the differences between ancient and modern wheat. His ultimate goal is to answer two questions that go well beyond gluten: Has our rapid crossbreeding of wheat outpaced the human body’s ability to digest the final product? Is twenty-first century wheat a major culprit in our current epidemic of obesity and diabetes?
The Begetting of Modern Wheat
Back in Neolithic times, einkorn was mated with another wheat and begat emmer, another wheat found in ancient tombs and still available in modern health food stores. (In fact, emmer is prized in places like Tuscany, where it’s raised under the name farro.) A big difference between einkorn and its progeny is that einkorn has 14 chromosomes and emmer has 28. Then emmer was mated with goat grass, which has 14 chromosomes and, more important, unique glutenin genes. The progeny of emmer and goat grass was essentially modern wheat, which has 42 chromosones and the gluten that makes modern bread chewy, elastic, and shapely.
In early times, plant hybridization was hit or miss and very gradual, depending on local farmers and local conditions. In the nineteenth century, plant genealogy and sophisticated breeding techniques began earning serious attention; nevertheless, modern wheat remained essentially the same until the mid-twentieth century, when the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (IMWIC) and other wheat research centers set