Bread has a certain spiritual connection to it. Observe as it accidentally falls to the floor: people are mortified, and someone rushes to pick it up, kiss it, and set it aside. “I seek God’s forgiveness” abounds. Bread is brought last to the table, as it is the most honored of foods. In Egypt, they call bread ‘aish, meaning “life,” “subsistence,” or “livelihood.” The word “grain” is mentioned thirteen times in the Quran, calling mankind’s attention to God’s blessings in His provisions for us on the Earth.
“And grain having husks and scented plants.” (Quran 55:12)
Grain refers to wheat as well as rice, barley, lentils, and so on. It is interesting how God mentions the husk specifically as one of His blessings. The process of threshing and winnowing by hand to remove the husk was hard work before machinery, and God reminds us of its great benefit. It protects the grain from pests, sunlight, disease, and water. It is also fodder for our animals, from which we get transportation, meat, and milk. All are reminders to show God our gratitude.
In the chapter of Joseph (Peace Be Upon Him [PBUH]) in the Quran, the grain mentioned is likely wheat or barley, which are crops of ancient Egypt. Joseph (PBUH) advised that the grain should be kept in its spikes for preservation in storage: [Joseph] said, “You will plant for seven years consecutively; and what you harvest leave in its spikes, except a little from which you will eat.” (Quran 12:47)
In the Hadith, you will find wheat mentioned with regards to trade, gratitude, and asceticism. It’s often cited as a sort of luxury item in comparison with barley. Imam Malik reported that Jesus (PBUH) used to say, “O Bani Israil! You must drink pure water and the green things of the land and barley bread. Beware of wheat bread, for you will not be grateful enough for it.”—Muwatta Imam Malik Hadith 1700. In another narration, bread is tied to the asceticism of the family of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). “The family of Muhammad (PBUH) never ate to their fill of wheat bread for three consecutive nights, ever since they had come to Madina, until he passed away.”—Sahih al-Bukhari Hadith 6089.
Depending on the soil it’s grown in, whole grain wheat is a good source of fiber and other nutrients such as selenium, copper, folate, manganese, and phosphorous. It also contains other plant compounds like the antioxidants ferulic acid, alkylresorcinols, lignans, and lutein, which may improve eye health. Whole grain wheat may lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and even colorectal cancer. Some newer studies have shown that Khorasan wheat, commercially known in America as Kamut, may be more nutritious, easier to digest, and disease-fighting than other common wheat strands. Refined flour removes the germ and bran, losing fiber and nutrients, with iron and B-vitamins added back in.
Sprouted grains have been growing in popularity for years. The germinating process breaks down phytate, an antinutrient that otherwise decreases the absorption of vitamins and minerals. It also breaks down some of the starch, which makes it easier to digest and increases the percentage of nutrients such as folate, iron, vitamins C and E, beta carotene, zinc, magnesium, and protein. Note that it is important to refrigerate raw sprouts.
Gluten has been getting more attention in the past decade. People with celiac disease have an autoimmune response affecting the small intestine, causing intense symptoms, like diarrhea, gas, bloating, constipation, weight loss, and fatigue. Others are gluten sensitive or intolerant and have milder symptoms from eating wheat. A simple test is to remove gluten from your diet and observe for improvement.
A gluten-free option is buckwheat, which is unrelated to wheat. It’s a seed of a flowering fruit related to rhubarb and sorrel, and it is naturally gluten-free. It is also richer in antioxidants than many other common cereal grains, including D-chiro-inositol, which is shown to improve insulin sensitivity.
Some travelers have found that wheat in Europe does not aggravate their gluten symptoms and that they can even eat wheat products there freely, until returning to the United States. European wheat strands are of a mostly soft variety, and American strands are mostly hard red wheat. Hard wheat has more gluten than soft wheat, and the gluten it contains is stronger. The tough gluten found in hard wheat is great for making that fluffy, soft bread we find in the United States. It is worth noting that wheat in America is not genetically modified but has been bred to cultivate higher gluten content for a fluffier loaf.
Types of Wheat
Wheat is the third-largest crop grown in the United States after corn and beans. Different types are grown in different regions, classified by color (red or white), hardness (hard or soft), and growing season (spring or winter). There are six different classes of wheat grown in the United States (agclassroom.org):
There are many kinds of wheat flours, the most common being all-purpose flour. All-purpose flour is a refined flour made from a blend of hard and soft wheat. It is versatile, the “pantry essential,” and is used in a wide range of products. Bread flour is also refined, but with a higher protein content of about 12.7 percent versus 11.7 percent in all-purpose flour. Whole wheat flour is made from hard red wheat with about 14 percent protein, great for sandwich bread, and baked goods. You may think the higher protein content would make it rise highest of all, but the bran has sharp edges that can cut the gluten strands forming in the dough, resulting in a shorter, denser bread. Adding more liquid can soften the bran and help it perform more like a white flour. Some folks mix it 50/50 with refined flour. White whole wheat flour is made from hard white spring wheat, which is 13 percent protein and performs like all-purpose flour, getting the best of both worlds. Cake flour is low in protein and fine-textured, used in baked goods like cookies, crackers, quick bread, and (you guessed it) cakes.
Wheat finds its way into many food products, like bread, porridge, crackers, biscuits, muesli, pancakes, pasta and noodles, pies, pastries, pizza, polenta and semolina, cakes, cookies, muffins, rolls, doughnuts, gravy, breakfast cereals, and sauces. You will also find it in veggie burgers, soy sauces, condiments, salad dressings, and chicken broth. In non-food products, different parts of the wheatgrass are used in wood for kitchen cabinets, paper, hair conditioners, the sticky adhesive on postage stamps, medical swabs, and charcoal.
Storing wheat in sealed containers can help prolong freshness and seal out weevils, which are harmless little flour pests with long snouts. Whole wheat bread contains the germ, which has an oil that can go rancid; thus, it has a shorter shelf life. Refrigeration or freezing can prolong shelf life, and freezing a few days can kill weevils and their eggs. Whole grain flour can last three months in the pantry or six months in the freezer. All-purpose flour lasts up to eight months in the pantry, one year if refrigerated, and two years in the freezer.
Greg Carr is a Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist and NASM-certified personal trainer. Check out his free nutrition resources at www.GregCarrNutrition.com.