Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Wheat Lesson

We really like our whole wheat bread around here.  We like using whole wheat in our cakes, cookies, and cinnamon rolls, too.  Unfortunately, it has become apparent in the last year or so that while all of us like whole wheat, whole wheat does not like all of us!  More accurately, whole wheat likes all but one of us.  Poor little Isaak...he's the only boy, he's the youngest, he's the only red-head, and now, he's the only one with a wheat (and barley and rye) allergy!

In January, I finally made the connection between his allergic reaction (involving pain, welts, blisters, and blood) after he ate Grape Nuts and the same reaction he had after he ate some whole grain Wasa crackers.  Barley flour was the common ingredient!  I was a little confused, though, that he would also have the reaction even after he had eaten no barley flour.  So I started paying closer attention to what he ate and when he reacted.

He reacted after eating whole wheat cake (made with store-bought flour), but not after eating fast food white buns.
He reacted after eating whole wheat bread (made with freshly-ground flour), but not after eating whole wheat pasta, and oatmeal never bothered him.
It made no sense!

First I did some poking around on the Mayo Clinic's website and confirmed that he really was having an allergic reaction.  Then I dug in and began researching wheat.  I read up on barley and rye, too, but since I don't use a lot of either in my kitchen, I focused on wheat.

Those little wheat kernels have a lot going on in them!  I had already learned that within 24 hours of grinding wheat into flour, up to 40% of the nutrients (proteins, germ oils etc.) have become rancid, and within 72 hours, up to 80% have oxidized and turned rancid.  Freshly ground whole wheat can be a natural source of protein, retains all of its natural nutrients, and tastes really good!  (That's why I bought my grain mill.)  

There are (at least) four different proteins in each grain; albumin, globulin, gliadin, and gluten.  Gluten, I thought, could possibly be the culprit (which could mean Celiac Disease), until I remembered that Isaak does fine with oatmeal, whole wheat pasta, and white bread.  Maybe it was one of the other three proteins he was allergic to, then.  That had to be it, I reasoned, because oatmeal was still okay, and all the proteins are essentially (mostly) dead in white bread...but that didn't explain why he could still eat whole wheat pasta.

So I researched the flour that our whole wheat pasta is made of, and discovered that durum semolina flour is made using only the endosperm of the durum wheat kernel.  (See a visual aid of the anatomy of a wheat kernel here.)  I had narrowed it down to either the germ or the bran that was the problem.  The same morning that I made this discovery, I inadvertently tested my new theory out on Isaak when I gave him Cranberry Muesli for breakfast, which has wheat germ in it, followed by peanut butter "candy" for snack, which also has wheat germ in it.  He didn't react to the accidental double exposure to wheat germ at all!

My conclusion:  Isaak is allergic to the bran found in the tribe Triticeae, which includes wheat, barley, and rye.  The fact that I had reached a conclusion didn't mean that I was done experimenting on him, though.  (Poor kid...)  

A few weeks ago, my friend made us a rhubarb cake, using whole wheat, and I didn't even think about keeping it away from Isaak until after he had already eaten his share.  Sure enough, he reacted. I wanted to try the recipe myself, to see if it would work to replace the brown sugar with honey, so last week I made it again, but this time I soaked the whole wheat flour in the buttermilk called for in the recipe for over 12 hours before I mixed up the batter.  (Lindsay at has written an excellent blog article about soaking grains.  If you're interested, you can read it here.)

Drumroll, please...

Isaak did not have an allergic reaction to the whole wheat after I soaked it!

After a little bit more research, now I know exactly why:
Phosphorus in the bran of whole grains is tied up in a substance called phytic acid.  Phytic acid combines with iron, calcium, magnesium, copper and zinc in the intestinal tract, blocking their absorption.  Whole grains also contain enzyme inhibitors that can interfere with digestion.  Traditional societies usually soak or ferment their grains before eating them, processes that neutralize phytates and enzyme inhibitors and, in effect, predigest grains so that all their nutrients are more available.  (Sally Fallon, Nourishing Traditions, p. 25)
She goes on to add that soaking or fermenting grains prior to consuming them has allowed many people who are allergic to certain grains to tolerate them well.

So, there you have it.  While Isaak is allergic to wheat bran, if I soak the whole wheat before I use it, he can eat it anyway.  He will still have to be careful what he eats away from home, but my otherwise healthy, happy boy can still have his cake... and bread... and cinnamon rolls... and pizza crust... and tortillas... and eat them, too!