It was in the fertile crescent, comprising modern day Jordan, Syria, Israel, Iraq and Egypt that the first cereal crops were grown and harvested systematically rather than randomly gathered whenever and wherever they happened to grow. Were it not for the dry, hard seeds produced by various grasses – collectively referred to as cereal grains – there would be no such thing as cities, states, society or even civilisation.
The eighteenth century philosopher, Rousseau, laid the blame of our moral corruption fairly and squarely on grain. The business of growing grain to feed expanding populations, he argued, resulted in mankind “fencing off his land,” leading to a collective from of vanity and moral corruption.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century and modern thought may not necessarily blame society’s moral evils on grains per se but they do blame grains for many of the ailments prevalent in developed societies. Those on a paleo diet argue that in a pre-agricultural society human beings consumed nothing other than meat, vegetables and fruit – never grains. Whilst Master in the Kitchen has a lot of sympathy for those wishing to follow a traditional diet, going back to a pre 12 000 BC diet may possibly be stretching the theory too far? Twelve thousand years of grain consumption is not to be sniffed at.
Emmer, rye, spelt and wheat flour have sustained populations in Europe, the Middle East and central and eastern Europe for thousands of years as has rice in Asia. Corn flour has been the staple diet of populations in Latin America for millennia and millet has been consumed by west African populations generation after generation without any deleterious effects on their well being. In fact there is no population, regardless of culture, religion or tradition that have not eaten grains in climates where they could be grown. The worst thing that could happen to any of these populations was the destruction of carefully cultivated grain stocks due to wars, draught, flooding, thievery or all four.
Why have omnivores like ourselves positively cultivated grains for consumption? For all our sophistication and “higher” level of intelligence our bodies have yet to figure out a way to convert the sun’s energy into a nutrient capable of sustaining our bodies day after day.
Plants, on the other hand, have. It’s called photosynthesis and cereal grains have evolved a very useful way of storing the sun’s energy in the endosperm of their seeds. It is these starches that in turn provide human beings with the “energy of life”. Further, the whole wheat berry (bran, germ, endosperm plus starch), contains enough fibre, vitamins, minerals, omega-3, omega-6 oils and glucose to sustain the human body even when there is little else to feast on.
The nutritional benefits of grain aside, one of the main reasons why grain has been such a huge boon to mankind is that the whole berries can be dry-stored for a lengthy period of time before being consumed. As long as the grain is kept in a dark, dry, environment the seed of the cereal plants can lie dormant for a number of years waiting for the day when conditions are right to emerge from their long sleep.
If – and this is a big if – grains are prepared correctly they can sustain populations without recourse to other nutrients for a long period of time. Little wonder, then that soured rye, wheat and spelt bread formed the bulk of the average European’s diet until the rise of the food industry in the nineteenth century. Deny populations grain and you could start a revolution. Literally. Many a ruler has been toppled for failure to respect this cardinal rule.
Modern critics of grain consumption are partially correct though. Prepared incorrectly and grain can be hard to digest and sub-optimal. By way of example phytic acid (present in the bran of all seeds including grain seeds) prevents the release of beneficial minerals as well as binding with minerals such as zinc and iron from other food sources in the gut leading, in the longer-term, to mineral depletion. Those who eat a high proportion of refined grain in their diet may, over time, become mineral deficient as a result.