Picking On Grain Is Easy

When I chose to pick on grains, I found it exceptionally easy. There is no shortage of warts, scars, and defects in this class of plants co-opted into the service of the human diet.

I chose to pick on wheat first, as it is the worst of grains with more complex genetics and thereby a greater panel of unique proteins; it is among the most changed by the efforts of geneticists and agribusiness; and it plays such a dominant role in the human diet, comprising 20% of all calories worldwide, as much as 50% or more of calories for many people.

But just because other grains are not wheat does not make them good. After all, all grains are the seeds of grasses, grasses from the biological family Poaceae, relatives of the Kentucky bluegrass or rye grass that grow in your back yard.

Let’s talk about corn. Just as wheat consumption began around 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent when desperate humans wondered whether they could consume einkorn wheat that grew wild, so did inhabitants of Mesoamerica (now Mexico) wonder whether they could consume the teosinte grass that grew wild. Teosinte looks like a grass, as the mutation of a large seed head — “cob” — had not yet appeared. Domestication and cultivation of teosinte led to maize. Over time, farmers chose plants with larger seeds and seed heads that eventuated in something closer to the huge cob we all recognize today. Corn has the advantage of being very prolific: high yields. As strains with large seeds and cobs were chosen, yield in calories increased even more. Today, corn exceeds even wheat in millions of acres planted worldwide.

Teosinte plants. Image courtesy Univ. Missouri

Teosinte plants. Image courtesy Univ. Missouri

So what are the effects of consuming the seeds of another grass, the seeds of the corn plant, on humans? Let me list a few of the most prominent:

  1. Just as the gliadin protein of wheat, rye, and barley triggers inflammatory reactions via several different mechanisms, so does the zein protein in corn. For instance, gliadin protein exposure has been associated with causing pancreatic beta cell autoimmunity, i.e., type 1 diabetes in children. So has the zein protein of corn. The zein protein can also recreate the response of celiac disease, though not quite as powerfully, even though corn is included in most “gluten-free” products. Corn can be gluten-free, but it is not free of proteins that act just like gluten (gliadin) or cross-react immunologically with it.
  2. While many of the proteins of the seeds of grasses are indigestible, there is an exceptionally well digested component: amylopectin A. This is the carbohydrate of grains that is responsible for sending blood sugars sky-high. Problem: Most corn is not consumed as intact kernels, but as ground corn flour or cornmeal, reducing size to granules and increasing surface area for digestion exponentially. This is why, even though wheat raises blood sugar to high levels, cornstarch raises blood sugar even higher — the highest of any food. Modern corn strains are often chose for their higher amylopectin content–“sweet corn”–thereby containing higher levels of this blood sugar raising component.
  3. What happens when corn plays a dominant role in diet, as it does in parts of South America and formerly did in the southern U.S. and Europe? People develop the “4 D’s”: diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia, and death, otherwise known as pellagra. Because corn products lack niacin and the amino acid tryptophan, over-reliance on corn as a calorie source makes people very ill.
  4. Corn has been genetically-modified, GM. Recall that modern wheat is not the product of GM, but of methods that predate GM (though not necessarily benign — remember mutagenesis?) 90% of corn sold today is GM corn: glyphosate-resistant, Bt toxin inoculated, or “stacked,” i.e., containing both. Emerging data suggest that neither GM nor glyphosate nor Bt toxin ingested by humans are benign and exert unanticipated effects, including endocrine disruption and cancer.
  5. Allergy — Seen in its most exaggerated form in people who work with corn products, such as people who work in the pharmaceutical industry involved in pill production, a process that often includes cornstarch. As many as 90% of these people, over time, develop corn allergies. As in wheat, allergies are typically due to alpha amylase and trypsin inhibitors, as well as other proteins, many of them changed via hybridizations and GM.

That’s just a sample — I could go on. The point is that finding fault with the seeds of grasses is so darned easy. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a stalk of einkorn wheat or of teosinte. The problems started 10,000 years ago — 0.4% of our time on earth as the Homo species — when humans tried to consume something that never belonged in the human diet in the first place, now made worse by the manipulations of agribusiness.

And, oh yes: We are told to eat more of it by our own USDA and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.