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Spelt: The new wheat

MagazineApril 2009 (Vol. 20 Issue 1)Spelt: The new wheat

We're growing up allergic to wheat

We're growing up allergic to wheat. Coeliac disease (an inherited allergy to gluten) now affects one in 33 of 6000 children, according to one study (J Pediatr, 2000; 136: 86-90).

Spelt, Kamuttm and other 'new grains' are promoted as safe, wheat-free alternatives for people with aller-gies and wheat intolerance. But is spelt a true alternative to wheat for the millions who can't eat ordinary wheat?

The common belief is that spelt is the ancient grand-uncle of wheat, and so has been less manipulated and is, therefore, better tolerated. But the origins of spelt are largely unknown. It's thought to have originated in Iran and southwest Europe, and was widely eaten in the Bronze Age (4000-1000 bc). Today, spelt has been largely superseded by mass-produced wheat, although it remains a major crop in Germany and Switzerland.

All gluten-containing grains are members of the grass family, and the alpha-gliadin proteins (gluten) from some of these plants appear to cause the biggest problems for coeliacs and those intolerant of wheat.

According to Donald D. Kasarda, a former research chemist for the US Department of Agriculture and an authority on the effects of grain pro-teins on coeliacs, all members of the wheat (Triticum aestivum) family are likely to cause problems in coeliacs. Spelt (T. spelta) shares the same genus, as do Kamut and Polish wheat, einkorn and small spelt. Interestingly, both rye (Secale cereale) and barley (Hordeum vulgare) also affect coeliac sufferers, despite being more distant relatives of wheat than spelt is.

Also, says Kasarda, on examining spelt by gel electrophoresis, its pro-teins appear to be almost identical to those of certain varieties of wheat. Furthermore, gluten proteins can be found in spelt by both protein and DNA analyses.

Kasarda believes that the reports of success in tolerating spelt have to do with the improvement that most people experience after eliminating all wheat proteins from their diet. Even when ordinary wheat is reintroduced, it is often months or even years before new reactions arise.

Kasarda tried his own informal test on a woman with a wheat allergy who claimed she could tolerate spelt. The woman suffered respiratory distress, skin wheals and a rash when she ate wheat, but didn't have coeliac disease. Kasarda created a blinded experiment with her cooperation, which involved his making six protein extracts-three from different spelt varieties and three from wholewheat flour.

The woman was given each of the six samples in turn once a month, and her reactions noted. When Kasarda studied the results, the times that she reacted were split roughly evenly between spelt and wheat, with the strongest reaction-requiring a shot of adrenaline (epinephrine) to calm the response-was to an extract froma variety of spelt.

On the other hand, a study examining the antibodies in blood exposed to wheat and spelt found that each produced a different reactivity, and that the largest reactions were with processed samples, suggesting that processing is as much a culprit as the protein (see box below) (Food Agr Immunol, 2001; 13: 171-81).

The safest alternatives to wheat may be other grasses less related to wheat such as rice and corn (maize), and other grains that resemble them, including millet, sorghum, teff, ragi and Job's tears.

Other possibilities are the species referred to collectively as 'dicots'. These very distant relatives of grasses include buckwheat, amaranth and quinoa, and their grains are likely to be easily tolerated by those who ordinarily can't take wheat.

If you can tolerate wheat, there are lots of alternatives to the storebought varieties. Make your own bread from wholewheat berries, or use stone-ground flour that has been organically or biodynamically grown. You might also consider buying or making breads that have been sprouted or leavened by sourdough, which helps to make the proteins more readily digestible.

Lynne McTaggart

Why else we're allergic

Modern wheat undergoes a battery of manipulation, including:

- fungicides and insecticides as seeds

- a plethora of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides such as disulphoton (Di-Syston) while growing

- plant-growth regulators to speed up germination time and the plant's strength. Currently, farmers use natural or synthetic hormones such as Cycocel

- more insecticides in the collection bins

- 'protectants'-chlorpyrifos-methyl and pyrethrins-added to grain externally as well as deep inside the grain to protect it against moths and other insects

- fumigation in the form of methyl bromide, aluminium phosphide and mag-nesium phosphide during storage and as the grains are being treated

- overheating, which denatures and often 'cooks' the protein

- high-speed milling processes to remove the germ and bran-the most nutritious parts-to be fed to animals

- dough conditioners and preservatives, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and toxic soy flour

- chemical preservatives to extend shelf life far beyond the few days it would take to naturally spoil.


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