Grains of Sad

By R. D. Flavin


     Runners do their carbo-loading before a race, Italian actress Sophia Loren credited her voluptuousness to eating spaghetti, fad-diets alternate between no carbs (Westman 2002) and lots of carbs, and we've been in a whole wheat craze for at least a couple of decades (now, any and all whole grains),  Yet, the cereal grains we know and love may not be the necessary staple that holds us all together.  Well, at least for some...   In many ways these grains of sad have done much harm.  Sure, bread and water has become a dietary prison to the incarcerated and the impoverished, wheat and/or rice is all that prevents death by starvation for too much of the world, but the cost has been significant and we should be actively pursuing alternatives.

     The “invention” of agriculture, the so-called “Farming Revolution” which began approximately 7000-5000 BCE was an epochal combination of independent invention and diffusion.  Many theories as to the why, how, and when are still debated, but consensus generally agrees that the transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one of sedentary agriculturalist (with the beginning of towns and villages) occurred when it was observed that gathered seeds would occasionally sprout and grow.  So, those few seeds that fell accidentally in the backyard provided food after a few months, which then led to purposely dropping the seeds closer to home and the origin(s) of farming.  And, as with most humans and all animals, where there's lots of food, there's population increase.

     Cultural anthropologists have always regarded the introduction of farming as a positive game-changer.  Archaeologists, on the other hand, have long taught that with the rise of agriculture there occurs profound changes in the physiological skeletal remains of the ancients.  With farming we find widespread tooth decay from bits of sand (rock, actually) that remain in the ground grain (var. flour) that grinds the teeth down horrifically.  Also, a sharp increase in degenerative spinal conditions (osteoarthritis and such) and folks got noticeably shorter from the “back-breaking” hard work in the field (the average height of men in ancient Greece fell from 5'9” to 5'3”).

[Note: With the ongoing question as to what came first, bread or beer, I've previously argued that instead of sweating in the fields for months just to get something to eat, it would be far easier just to go hunting and kill something, but if there was a case of beer to be had, cave-dudes would gladly do whatever it takes.  Seriously, we know from archaeology and extant cuneiform tablets that the Sumerians used a twice-baked hard bread (which stored well for many months) called bippur to make their beer - toss a loaf of bippur in a large container, add water, wait a month or so, and presto!  Before that, during the Neolithic, a “soaking technology” was used to soften the grains and form a gruel or porridge.  Further evidence for the “soaking technology” comes from discovered caches of legumes (peas and beans) in France dated to 9000 BCE.  Legumes are too hard to chew in their naturally dry state, so they had/have to be soaked before consumption.  The same may applied to grains.   At some point a long, long time ago, an airborne natural yeast combined with some unattended gruel, began bubbling with fermentation, and some brave (or crazy) cave-dude took a sip.  Beer!  I believe beer came before bread, though grinding grains to form flour is equally ancient.]

     Dated last year, but actually published a few weeks ago, an important study demonstrated an additional cause for tooth decay associated with the Neolithic or Farming Revolution, namely, an aggressive bacteria, Streptococcus mutans (Adler et al. 2012).  With the consumption of cereal grains into the diet of the early farmers, a starchy (and with saliva, sugary) plaque formed which provided a wonderful opportunity for S. mutans to exploit.  Skinny: hunter-gatherer teeth were robust and healthy, early farmer teeth were nominally attacked by several weak strains of bacteria and then along came S. mutans and an extreme rise in cavities and gum disease.  Nature is always opportunistic and competitive, and S. mutans quickly overpowered the other bacteria becoming first in line to dine (with P. gingivalis a close second).  The study also showed an almost complete domination of oral microbiota by S. mutans with the coming of the Industrial Revolution and the easy availability of processed sugar and flour.  Ah, farming!  Those “amber waves of grain” may be beautiful, but ultimately not that good for us.

     While there's a current anti-wheat craze gaining adherents (, there's also new research which suggests that carbohydrates may act as a “hormone” in some people, that is, have different effects on different individuals.  As a macronutrient, carbohydrates (as well as proteins and lipids or fat) are digested and processed by the body (gut) and the derived nutrient substrates promote (or cause) intercellular signaling.  Activating cell-surface nuclear receptors and regulating metabolic health through gene transcription varies with the person and their particular diet.   As “pushing the buttons” of one person isn't the same as another, weight-loss or weight-gain may be quite variable.  A recent report (Ryan & Seeley 2013) suggests that all diets are crap, individuals and their diets need to be analyzed separately, and nutritionists should think outside the pyramid (or MyPlate).  With our recent recognition of obesity as a major problem, many have blamed sugar (Mayor Bloomberg) and fat (FAFP), however, macronutrients such as carbohydrates are sending out chemical messages which are “read” differently by different people.  Gee, cereal grains as a nutritional The Manchurian Candidate...  Who would have thunk it?

     In the '70s there was the The Stone Age Diet (Voegtlin 1975) which became the Paleothic and Hunter-Gatherer diets.  Lately, there's been an attempt at reviving the concept, but most can't give up their grains and sugars and other 'modern' food-stuffs.  Well, from The Twilight Zone we get an argument that wolves became domesticated into Canis lupus familiaris around the time of the Farming Revolution ca. 10,000 BCE because they developed the ability to handle starch digestion easily (Axelsson et al. 2013).  Really?  The “Hush Puppy” legend of Union troops tossing cornbread fried in bacon grease to Confederate dogs to shut them up before an attack is probably up there with the tall tales of Paul Bunyan, but to propose that Neolithic dogs stayed home because of cereal grains is preposterous!  They were dogs who could wander into the brush or woods, kill some little thing and eat it.  Besides, dog domestication occurred thousands of years earlier.  Dogs (and the bottle gourd) were introduced to North America as early as 15,000 BCE.  Sure, modern dog-biscuits are cut with grains, but feeding bread to early canines seems surreal.

     Being from the Midwest, there's Quaker Oats headquartered in Chicago and Kellogg's in Battle Creek, Michigan (when I lived in Michigan from 1972-1976, the supermarket 5lb. bags of sugar were made from local beets).  And, many remember Anthony Hopkins as the eccentric Dr. John Harvey Kellogg in 1994's The Road to Wellville...  As far as grains and carbohydrates go, I'm going to have to stick with the standard “all things in moderation” approach.  I may be a Raisin Bran guy for the last couple of decades, but I still fondly remember my Cocoa Krispies and how it would turn the milk into chocolate milk.   I kinda-sorta miss Wonder Bread too.   All diets are sad after a fashion, yet I suppose it's good to have order instead of anarchy.

Adler et al. 2012. “Ancient DNA records the impacts of the Neolithic and Industrial revolutions on human oral microbiota and disease.” By C. J. Adler, K. Dobney, L. Weyrich, J. Kaidonis, A. W. Walker, W. Haak, C. J. A. Bradshaw, G. Townsend, A. Soltysiak, K. W. Alt, J. Parkhill, & Alan Cooper. Nature Genetics. Online journal publication. DOI: 10.1038/ng.2536. See also: Dobney, K. & Don Brothwell. 1987. “A Method for Evaluating the Amount of Dental Calculus on Teeth from Archaeological Sites.” Journal of Archaeological Science. 14, 4: 343-351.

Axelsson et al. 2013. “The genomic signature of dog domestication reveals adaptation to a starch-rich diet.” By Erik Axelsson, Abhirami Ratnakumar, Maja-Louise Arendt, Khurram Maqbool, Matthew T. Webster, Michele Perloski, Olof Liberg, Jon M. Arnemo, Åke Hedhammar & Kerstin Lindblad-Toh. Nature. Online journal publication. DOI:10.1038/nature11837. See The Washington Post article here.

Ryan, Karen K. & Randy J. Seeley. 2013. "Food as a Hormone." Science. 339: 918-919.

Voegtlin, Walter L. 1975. The Stone Age Diet: Based on In-Depth Studies of Human Ecology and the Diet of Man. New York: Vantage Press.

Westman, Eric C. 2002. “Is dietary carbohydrate essential for human nutrition?” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 75, 5: 951-953.

Glad that Twinkies are back,

Return to