Any hope that a person living adjacent to major wheat-producing regions would be immune to and even antagonistic about some of the more egregious insults cast at modern-day wheat, bread and other grain-based foods is quickly dashed by the frequency of awful allegations. Hopes for a change are rebuffed by listening carefully to casual conversations or reading the letters that often appear in local newspapers. Such a letter, headed “Franken-foods,” recently ran in our local newspaper, and its contents are so grossly negative about wheat-based foods that it demands attention through the public arena as well as spurring wheat interests to understand how this sort of thinking threatens the well-being of the industry.
With a tenor too often dismissed as blissfully ignorant, this letter reflects a version of some of the criticisms recently aimed at wheat in publications like The New York Times. Here’s the second sentence: “Gluten is an inflammatory, and genetically modified wheat contains 90 per cent more gluten than wheat grown decades ago.” Indeed, the thrust is to decry genetic modification of wheat, which has never happened and some believe is quite unlikely in the future. The person writing the letter acknowledges that she is not celiac prone, only that the cessation of eating wheat foods brought her relief to a number of physical disabilities. Indeed, she says she is not allergic to gluten, “just sensitive to it because of my genetic makeup.” She hails being “reborn” by removing gluten from her diet.
Attacking gluten as the cause of her own medical travails is not enough for this letter writer. She pursues her erroneous belief that wheat has been changed over the years by the application of genetic modification. She asserts as a bit of far-out reaching that genetic modification has added fish and animal proteins to some foods where they were not present before. At no point does she point out that gluten in wheat, which has never been genetically modified, provides essential protein content to hundreds of millions of people around the world. Instead, she notes that “Many European nations have banned genetically modified organisms,” closing with, “Shouldn’t we?”
“Hell, no,” is the best and easiest answer to that question. Were it only enough! This letter, along with similar diatribes based on ignorance or a shaky awareness of the facts, have increasingly plagued wheat and wheat foods markets, mainly in the developed nations but also in some other less developed parts of the world.
Wheat growers in the United States have awakened to the harm that such beliefs can cause. Even while wheat flour consumption in the United States has held stable in total and has declined a trifle on a per capita basis, that is not the sort of market that wheat producers want or wheat foods merit. Innovations in product quality and in content have been the answers largely undertaken by the baking industry that is arguably the first line of defense against such unsound attacks. It is unimaginable that the “gluten-free” label will find its way into more than a very narrow segment of baking where production has always sought quality gluten, varying by protein content to meet what makes the best appearing and most appealing consumer product.
Standing up to defend the great qualities of wheat, including its modern manifestations that appear to be a subject of attack, has to be the prime focus of industry policies and programs — supported by growers, millers and bakers — regardless of where they operate. This level of ignorance about such a basic food threatens not only the well-being of the industry itself but the health of large parts of global population dependent on wheat for a major part of food intake. These blows are coming too quickly to be disregarded by an industry that ought to be creating the counter-attack necessary to delete these misconceptions not just from media but from peoples’ minds.