Like all grains, wheat began as a wild grass, and may in fact have been the very first crop in history. Historians believe the wheat kernel originated in the “cradle of civilization,” the Tigris and Euphrates river valley, near present day Iraq. In their natural state growing in the fields, whole grains begin as a dry, one-kernel seeded fruit. Also known as the”caryopsis” or wheat berry, the kernel is the seed from which a new wheat plant grows. It is also the part we grind to produce flour or semolina. Each kernel contains three distinct, edible parts that are separated during the milling process. The germ, or baby plant, grows into a new wheat plant; bran is the multi-layered outer covering (contains antioxidants, B vitamins and fiber); and the endosperm, the germ’s food supply – and also the source of white flour – is high in carbohydrates and protein. These parts are protected by an outer covering or husk. Wheat kernels vary in texture and color, from white to red and sometimes purple.1
More than 17,000 years ago, humans gathered the seeds of wheat as an important food source. After rubbing off the husk, the kernels were consumed raw, parched or simmered. Today whole grain products still contain the entire kernel of grain. That means they contain all three parts of the seed in the same proportion found in the original kernel. White bread is made from the endosperm. When the other parts are milled out, some nutrients are removed. Modern products have some of these nutrients replaced through enrichment. Enriched white bread has iron, B vitamins and folic acid added.
Grown in 42 states in the US, wheat makes up 75% of all grain products produced in the US. One bushel of wheat weighs about 60 pounds and makes about 42 pounds of white flour or 60 pounds of whole wheat flour. 150 pounds will supply an adult for one year. The thousands of varieties of wheat are organized into six classes: Hard Red Winter, Hard Red Spring, Soft Red Winter, Durum, Hard White and Soft White. Bread flour is a blend of hard red wheat and has a higher gluten protein content. Cake flour is milled from soft wheat and has a higher carbohydrate content and less protein, which keeps cakes and pastries tender and delicate. All purpose flour is white flour milled from hard wheat or a blend of hard and soft wheat. It is usually enriched and can be bleached or unbleached. Bleaching will affect nutrient value. Self-rising flour has levening and salt added.
Flour should be stored in a cool, dry place (less than 60% humidity). All purpose, bread and cake flour can be stored for 6 months to a year at 70ºF and 2 years at 40ºF. Whole wheat flour should be stored refrigerated or frozen to slow the oil breakdown. Wheat grains can be stored in air tight containers for up to 30 years as long as the storage location is cool. Removing air with oxygen absorbers will keep insect eggs from hatching and eating the grain. Stored grain can be ground for flour, popped like popcorn, steamed or cracked and cooked. Wheat grains can also be sprouted for wheat grass, used in specialty breads and juicing.2
Recently, wheat, and the proteins it contains especially gluten, have received intense attention from the media and consumers. There are several reasons for this. First, the incidence of celiac disease (less that 1% of US population) and awareness of it are increasing. Second, gluten sensitivity has been newly identified as a concern affecting a small percentage of people (6% of Americans). Third, a rise in the incidence of asthma and all allergies, including those to wheat, has been suggested. The reasons for the changes in incidence are not clear, but they have become the subject of much research and many theories. It appears that a complex interaction of genetic, gastrointestinal, environmental and dietary issues may be contributing to the observed increases. As a result gluten-free foods and beverage sales are projected to reach $6.6 billion by 2017. If you suspect you may have gluten sensitivity seek guidance from your health care provider.3
We have been encouraged to store wheat as a food source. Often we think only of using it as flour in breads. There are alternatives to grinding wheat for bread. In this month’s recipe collection, we have included ways to use wheat berries in casseroles and salads to make nutritious and satisfying meals (without the need to grind grain into flour) in addition to some basic whole wheat flour recipes. You can find them HERE.
Billie Nicholson, Editor