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Sensi Magazine

Grains of Truth

Aug 19, 2019 07:38PM ● By John Lehndorff
Once upon a time, wheat was the “staff of life,” a staple of diet. Literally, like, civilization resulted from grains. Since the recent keto, Atkins, paleo, and Whole30 anticarb campaigns, wheat and its enabler, gluten are now considered Darth Vader, Cruella DeVille, and Vlad Putin all rolled into one.

Humble carbs are viewed as addictive substances and associated with obesity, diabetes, arthritis,  allergies, cancer, and digestive disorders, not mention the best-selling “wheat belly” and “grain brain.”

It scares me, frankly. Just pondering the possibility of giving up wheat and gluten gives me the shaking heebie jeebies so uncomfortable that even 100 milligrams of CBD won’t touch it.

I heart wheat. I love a Hallelujah Chorus of grain based joys, from croissants, flatbreads, and French boules to pancakes, crackers, and pizza. My toast with jam in the morning is a spiritual experience. As a nationally known pie expert, my idea of a vacation road trip is traveling from bakery to panadería to boulangerie.

However, as a man of a certain age with some nagging ailments, I am forced to consider the possibility that giving up wheat and gluten might significantly improve my quality of life and general level of bliss.

I started talking to nerdy grain people across Colorado who are intent on changing the way we think about grain. Research led me to some incredibly tasty foods and beverages made from local, ancient, and heirloom grains with names like Red Fife, Blue Emmer, and White Sonora. The later wheat variety was hugely popular in the 1700s and 1800s in North America and makes beautiful tortillas.

As was the case with craft beer and cannabis, Colorado is clearly leading the way. In Colorado Springs, the Sourdough Boulangerie uses a 350 year old Italian sourdough starter and organic Einkorn grain in its crusty artisan loaves. At Safta, the acclaimed Israeli eatery in Denver, wood-fired ovens produce fresh pita breads made with heirloom flour. An Alamosa brewery offers farm-to-tap ale made only with wheat, yeast, water, and hops from one farm, and a rare 100-percent-wheat American whiskey is being distilled in Longmont.

My research led me to another undeniable conclusion: I knew squat about wheat, grains, and gluten especially that paper bag of white powder with the “flour” label sitting in my pantry since Thanksgiving.

I also learned that wheat and gluten may not be the real culprit behind our dietary woes.

FOOLING YOURSELF WITH 21-GRAIN BREAD

This may be hard to digest, but Nanna Meyer wants you toss out virtually every grain product in your home…except maybe oatmeal, if it’s fresh, whole, and organic.

The associate professor in Health Sciences at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, is one of the state’s foremost authorities on grain and health. Meyer doesn’t want you to stop eating wheat, bread, or grain products. She just wants you to cease ruining your body with all the refined crap. That directive especially applies to any processed foods shilling themselves as whole grain, 9-grain, or 21-grain.

“Get all of the industrial white four out the pasta, all breakfast cereals, all mixes,” Meyer says. “And then get rid of the whole wheat Pop-Tarts and whole-grain pancake mix.”

That’s because the whole grains involved have been processed to within an inch of being inert. The flour made whenever from wheat from wherever has to be shelf-stable, so it is by definition not fresh. “Even the cereals that look ‘healthy’ have nothing to do with real whole grains,” she says.

The solution is to replace them with whole organically grown grains that are freshly milled. (See “Find Fresh Colorado Grain Flour” on p. 47.) Sourdough bread made from freshly milled ancient and heirloom whole grains is definitely on Meyer’s menu. “Once the flour gets fermented, it is much more digestible. It makes the nutrients more available, and some people who have gut sensitivities can enjoy bread and other grain products,” she says.

Nanna Meyer is no hippy-dippy granola aficionado. She founded the Sport Nutrition Graduate Program at UCCS. An athlete herself, she says she saw the impact eating organic whole grains had on her own performance and that of the Olympic athletes she has advised.

Celiac disease, an immune reaction to eating gluten, affects only about 1 percent of healthy Americans, according to University of Chicago reports, although many are undiagnosed. Several million more of us have sworn off gluten, but a study in the journal Digestion found that 86 percent of those who said they were gluten sensitive could actually tolerate it under the right circumstances.

“We don’t have all the answers yet,” Meyer says. “What we do know is that clearly our diets are deficient in fiber and other nutrients, and that over processed industrial wheat negatively affects our gut health.”

THE FINAL FRONTIER

Meyer preaches “grain literacy” for everyone. She is the guiding force behind the Grain School at UCCS to build support for growing ancient and heritage grains in the Mountain States and has recently helped create a new organization, the Colorado Grain Chain. The members include family businesses producing grain and grain products from heritage, ancient, and locally adapted grain including farmers, millers, bakers, brewers, distillers, and nationally acclaimed chefs.

“Grains are the final frontier of the farm-to-table movement,” says Mona Esposito. The Boulder-based “Grain Lady” became a passionate whole-grain educator, advocate, and consultant while trying to bake the best possible bread for her family for 15 years. She has helped to spearhead the Colorado Grain Chain.

“Think about coffee. There was a time when almost nobody thought about coffee and didn’t know where their ground coffee came from. People just haven’t made the connection with grains, yet,” Esposito says. She offers well-researched information about wheat, grains, and gluten for consumers at her website, THEGRAINLADY.COM.

DOWN ON THE FARM

Meyer knows the farm side of this equation because she is married to Dan Hobbs, owner of the organic Hobbs Family Farm east of Pueblo near Avondale.

“In the late 1800s, there were more than 200 distinct varieties of grains grown in Colorado and New Mexico. Now there is just a handful,” says Hobbs, who teaches at the Grain School. He is three years into testing 20 heirloom and ancient wheat, rye, and barley varieties. “We are trying to find the sweet spot in a variety between yield, nutrition needs, and water use to survive the dry years,” he says.

Hobbs says there are a lot of unanswered questions for Colorado farmers like him, such as whether you will pay more for heirloom grains the way you do for organic cantaloupes. The reality, he says, is that a well-marketed acre of Pueblo chilies can bring in $10,000, while even a premium, 50-bushel-an-acre price for wheat may only yield a farmer $3,000.

FARM TO LOAF TOAST AND GLUTEN-FREE WHISKEY

Chef Kelly Whitaker has had a single-minded focus on milling his own whole grains since he first started cooking.

“Roller mills take all the nutrition out of grains as it grinds them, and then nutrients have to be added back in to the flour. No wonder people feel better when they stop eating it. But our bodies are meant to consume grains,” Whitaker says.

At Dry Storage, Whitaker’s new Boulder café and bakery, eight varieties of grain including heirloom Rouge de Bordeaux wheat and Ryman rye specifically grown for Whitaker are milled into flour almost every day. Whitaker says they are used for pizza at his award winning wood fired Basta and for noodles for Denver’s Wolf’s Tailor. At Dry Storage, he serves a flight of heirloom toast and offers the varietal flours in reusable jars.

Nearby in Longmont, 100 percent Colorado Antero Wheat Whiskey, one of the nation’s only single grain wheat whiskeys is distilled by the singularly local Dry Land Distillers. “We didn’t set out to use heirloom grain. We wanted a grain well-suited to Colorado, and it happened to be heirloom,” said Nels Wroe, co-founder of the Longmont based spirits company.

Antero wheat was developed by Colorado State University to be low water, low maintenance, and relatively high yield. Wroe’s wheat is grown at Arnusch Farms near Keenesburg. “Heirloom varieties are more expensive, and they are really finicky, but it’s worth it. Antero makes gorgeous whiskey. It starts as a silky sweet clear moonshine, and gradually mellows,” Wroe says. And, it is gluten-free, since the offending protein is distilled out.

THE FARMER, THE CHEF, AND THE BAKER

Eric and Jill Skokan own the 425-acre certified organic Black Cat Farm in Niwot that supplies CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) members, their Boulder Farmers Market booth, and the two Boulder restaurants: Black Cat Farm Bistro and Bramble & Hare.

Among the crops being cultivated this year are White Sonora, a Swiss rye that has been cultivated for 1,200 years, and ancient Khorasan wheat. “That’s the ancestor of durum wheat used for pasta, so we’ll make fettuccine served with simple things from the farm, like smoked guanciale from our pigs, English peas, and charred onions,” he says.

“These grains can be delicious and at the same time feed the soil,” Skokan says. “It’s not often that you get to have your cake and eat it too and make the world a slightly better place over time. We can also revive forgotten foods.”

Louisville’s Moxie Bread Co. uses 100 percent organic heirloom wheat milled daily onsite in all its artisan loaves and baked goods. “For too long, we have gotten our grain and flour from unknown places,” says Moxie owner and James Beard Award nominee Andy Clark. “It’s grown and all goes off to the same silo. I wanted to know the wheat farmer just like I know the farmers who grow the vegetables my family eats.”

It’s not as easy as just switching brands of wheat, he explains. “You have to find a supply first or a farmer who will grow it. People think I’m nuts for using heirloom wheat and doing a long, slow fermentation.

“What we’re hoping is that we can start growing and using grains that humans can eat again.”

Other Colorado heirloom treats

GRAIN BOWLS, BREADS, AND BAKED GOODS: Clyde’s gastropub, open to the public at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, features a “food next door” celebrating locally sourced meat, produce, cheese, and grains. UCCS.EDU/DININGSERVICES

WHEATVERLY ALE: Made only with wheat, yeast, water, and hops grown at Colorado Farm Brewery in Alamosa. COFARMBEER.COM

FOUR GRAIN STRAIGHT BOURBON: A.D. Laws Whiskey House in Denver distills a beautiful bourbon from Colorado-grown corn, wheat, rye, and barley. LAWSWHISKEYHOUSE.COM

FUSILLI: Pastaficio in Boulder makes pastas from house-milled emmer, red fife, and einkorn wheats. PASTIFICIOBOULDER.COM

WHOLE WHEAT SANDWICH LOAF from a home “cottage” baker using wild-caught yeast and local stone ground grain milled to order by Wild Things Artisan Baked Goods in Thorton. WILDTHINGSABG.COM

ANCIENT GRAIN LOAF: Nightingale Bread in Colorado Springs house-mills heirloom organic grains for their sourdough breads, pastries, and pizza. NIGHTINGALEBREAD.COM