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The argument against cereal grains II

Posted Mar 11 2010 10:35pm


So to refresh your memory, here is a drawing of a wheat seed (Genus Triticum) that I have lifted from Wikipedia.

I covered some of this at a general level in Part I , but perhaps its well to repeat some of it for emphasis now.

It’s hard to beat up on wheat too much, after all.

To relate the anatomical parts to food, wheat germ is the embryo – the dormant baby-in-waiting of the next generation of this annual grass. Found in the germ is wheat germ agglutinin (WGA), which is a defensive secondary compound known as a “lectin”. WGA binds to such a wide variety of proteins in our bodies that it is used in biological science and laboratory medicine for exactly that purpose – to label proteins. When eaten, WGA has effects (bad effects) on the gut and gut permeability separate from those caused by gluten proteins. Once it leaks through or around the gut barriers, it also seems to diminish leptin sensitivity and bind insulin receptors – both effects that can help make you fat.

The bran is the relatively indigestible hull of the seed, which is supposed to be good for us for exactly that reason, I am told. I don’t doubt we evolved to get a small amount of fiber along with the veggies, primordial fruit and odd tubers we have eaten along our evolutionary path, but I still can’t see the need to refine the inedible parts of plants and eat them on purpose – especially inasmuch as the hulls of grass seeds will have the highest concentrations of the lectins that plants have evolved to be herbivore defenses. As we are not herbivores, nor even descended from them, (even vegetarian-leaning omnivorous chimps do not eat grass seeds) I think it is best to not eat like them. I recommend avoiding wheat bran. Sawdust would be both cheaper and safer. Don’t laugh - some whole wheat breads have been “fortified” with cellulose.

Finally we get to the largest part of the seed by volume, the endosperm. The endosperm plays egg to the seeds embryo, with the endosperm analogous to the yolk and white of a bird egg.

Sidebar: The eggs of birds are the perfect food. Not so the “egg” of a grass plant. Why not? The egg of a vertebrate contains all the proteins, vitamins and minerals necessary to grow a baby vertebrate from a handful of cells to the point where it can peck or bite it’s way out of the shell, and start eating on its own. So that makes it a pretty reliable source of nutrients for vertebrate predators like us. Not so the egg of a grass seed. Besides the antinutrient issue, the complement of amino acids and fat soluble vitamins in the endosperm is not enough to grow or feed a human without supplementation from other sources.

The endosperm stores carbohydrate and a dizzying variety of proteins to be used as the sources of energy and structural growth for the embryo during its germination, when the embryo must grow into enough of a plant to be able to collect energy and nutrients from the environment, and stand on its own plant feet. It is worth reminding ourselves that this assemblage of protein and carbohydrate is meant to serve the structural and fuel needs of the baby plant, and is in no way a gift from the plant to feed us.

Picture a kernel of wheat, along with its mates, attached to the tip of a slender blade of grass whose sole purpose was to stick the seed up high enough for the wind to blow it somewhere and have the whole cycle start over again. Can you see how plants that evolved mechanisms to protect the tiny germ and its vulnerable, metabolically costly bundle of proteins and starch (the endosperm) would have a better chance of survival?

Shall I remind you of the dictum: “Favor food that is defenseless when dead”.

The corollary of this might be “beware food that appears defenseless while alive”.

So the endosperm represents an investment by the grass, a lifetimes’ worth of plant 401-K meant to be passed on to the next plant generation. The hull therefore contains an array of molecules known as secondary compounds, including lectins and other antinutrients, such that, should an opportunistic animal eat the seed, the animal will be induced, to use the vernacular – to have the shits. This state of affairs will give the seed a fighting chance for the seed to be shat out before digestion occurs, and might also serve as a learning opportunity for the animal, to the mutual benefit of both organisms in the future.

Basically there is one class of animal that has fought the evolutionary arms race with grass seeds enough to be evolved to eat a fair amount of them. These animals are called birds.

A lot of people think herbivores are seed eaters. Not really. Herbivores that are ruminants are turning cellulose in the grass stems into fatty acids and are not getting the lion’s share of their nutrition from the seed. See 6s and 3s and the logic of grain avoidance to see why even vegetarian herbivores like cattle are not designed to eat predominantly seeds.

So back to the endosperm. We’ve got a picture of the endosperm as this succulent rich storage depot of protein and starch that the plant has invested its whole life into creating for the benefit of the next generation of the plant.

Sometime in the past (10,000 or 25,000 years ago – who cares exactly – our argument is based first on current medical science, not paleo re-enactment, remember?) after millions of years of no significant caloric contribution from grass seeds in the hominin diet, and only birds being really adapted at all, some homo sapiens hanging around the Levant (middle east) figure out that some of the local grass seeds can be ground up with stone tools, and after soaking with water and cooking, can serve as a source of starch and protein.

In a process of cultural and biological co-evolution, after a few thousand years some of the grasses have been artificially selected to the point where they cannot really reproduce that well naturally without their human cultivators, but the fundamental mechanical operation is the same:

The seed is mechanically crushed, and whether the bran and germ are left in the mix (whole wheat) or separated out (white four) the endosperm contents are made accessible to further processing to make them just edible enough by humans that it enables the founding of what we now call civilization.

So refer back to the pencil illustration. Civilization was founded quite specifically on the bit of the drawing labeled “endosperm”. That is where the nutrition lives, and where two of the three Neolithic agents also are found.

What’s so special (good or bad) about the endosperm of grass seeds like Triticum?

Firstly, to serve as the “egg” and storage depot for the germ, it has to be stable over time without rotting, as the seed may not find itself in a favorable germinating environment for a while. The lectins in the hull discourage consumption by everything from bacteria to molds and herbivores and work so well that grass seeds can still germinate after years of dormancy if supplied with the right conditions. It is this quality – storage of protein and carbohydrate at room temperature- that allowed food to be grown in surplus and stored for later without spoiling. It is this quality – the molecules that make it stable and resistant to rot and predation- that also leads to diseases of civilization as a result of leaky gut, autoimmune diseases via molecular mimicry, and direct effects of lectins like WGA.

As a storage depot to feed the growing grass embryo, the endosperm has a relatively complete complement of proteins and nutrients – not a complete set of amino acids if you are a human, but complete for the plant. So there is a fair amount of protein and carbohydrate in a single package, even if, as we discussed in the sidebar, it is not enough to sustain a healthy life for a vertebrate by itself long-term. So that is good, in the “selfish gene” sense, in that it allows greater fecundity on a population basis. But that is bad, from an individual health perspective, as these seeds have just enough nutrition to keep you alive, but being designed to grow plants, are not ideal sources of nutrition for us.

The fat content in the endosperm is biased heavily toward n-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids – the ratio of 6:3 is an order of magnitude or more higher than found in animal cell membranes. Why is this? I am no botanist, but the predominance of PUFA in plants generally must relate to their needs to store energy. As plants are in most circumstances “cold-blooded”, it would not do to store lipids as saturated fat. Higher energy density with sat fat would be useless if the fat were so solid that it could not be mobilized or accessed.

Sidebar: Of course the exception that proves the rule is tropical plants like coconut and palm, which have indeed evolved the capacity to store fat as saturated. They are still cold-blooded but evolved in warm enough environments to get away with it. In fact, by eating coconut you can avoid excess unsaturates (PUFA) even better than by eating pastured butter (even if you get few n-3s).

So that accounts for the fact that depots of lipid in seeds tend to be PUFA heavy with varying amounts of non-saturated MUFA tossed in. Why this tends to be mostly n-6 rather than n-3 I can only speculate. (Experts on this feel free to chime in) The important point is that if the plant intends to burn it as fuel or beta-oxidize it into two carbon Acetyl-coA units as building blocks for other molecules, the plant does not care that if we eat the seeds or extract the oil it will give us a surfeit of n-6.

That grass-seed endosperm contains concentrations of oils that can be extracted was first good for industry in making industrial oils, paints and lubricants (like the linseed oil that the “food” industry likes to call “flaxseed oil”) for the industrial economy. Then is was good for the post-industrial “food” industry that marketed seed oils that were fobbed off as food, first as a cheap substitute for lard after catalytic hydrogenation (Crisco was so-called because the name is a contraction of “crystallized cottonseed oil”…. As Dave Barry says, I am not making this up) and then as a “healthy” substitute for butter in the wake of that homicidal fraud Ancel Keys and the saturophobia he spawned that we are fighting to this day. That these oils have come to dominate modern lipid consumption to the point where n-6 PUFA alone as a percentage of calories is around 10%, is bad. It is bad because it is totally outside of our evolutionary experience.

Our cells are more or less passively composed with a ratio of n-6 to n-3 based on the ratio of PUFA that we eat. Having never been exposed to artificially extracted n-6 oils in large quantities until less than 100 years ago, we have not had time to evolve a mechanism to regulate the 6:3 ratio at the level of the cell membrane to compensate for this. The result is that excess pro-inflammatory hormone like molecules, with n-6 derived arachidonic acid as a precursor, are produced. This 6:3 imbalance has been linked to increased cancer promotion, disturbed immune function, increased blood clot formation, increased death from coronary atherosclerosis, increased incidence of mental illness, etc. These consequences of artificially extracting and eating the oils found in endosperm of seeds are all bad. Pubmed "Lands" for details.

But the altered 6:3 ratio is only part of the story. Whether “bad” 6s or “good” 3s, there are consequences to consuming a large percentage of dietary calories from PUFA. PUFA are polyunsaturated. This means, unlike saturated fat that has no unsaturated positions, they are unsaturated at two positions. Each site that has a double bond that is not “saturated” with hydrogen atoms, has the potential to react with other molecules, including oxygen. Eating PUFA can therefore lead to consumption of lipids that react with other molecules in your body in ways that cause damage. Excess PUFA can cause damage to the liver, may damage gut integrity and contribute to leaky gut with all of those consequences, and may contribute either directly or via activation of inflammatory cytokines to atherosclerosis with resulting coronary artery disease and strokes.

So you really have two reasons to keep total PUFA low:

1)   Total PUFA of any kind is bad. The EM2 is less than 4%

2)   You need to keep your dietary intake in the range of the EM2, which is around a ratio of 1:2 to 4:1 of n-6:n-3.

If you try to accomplish #2 via megadoses of fish oil to balance eating “healthy oils” like flax and even olive, to get to a 4:1 ratio you will be consuming well over 10% of calories as PUFA, which totally blows out goal #1. We want less than 4%. Hence we first eat ruminants and fish, favor ghee butter coconut and cream as sources of fat, go easy on the nuts, and never eat or cook with extracted plant oils other than coconut.


Don’t cook with non-coconut plant oils, don’t eat fried food in restaurants and don’t eat “food” that comes in a box. Ever.

It is better to eat potatoes, corn and white rice than vegetable oil.

It is better to eat potatoes, corn and white rice than vegetable oil.

That is so important to emphasize I have repeated it.

So my recommendation is to focus on goal one of low total PUFA first, as it accomplishes all of goal #1 and most of goal #2, then add 1- 2 TEASPOONS  of Cod Liver Oil or equivalent. This will give one to two grams of DHA and EPA to optimize your ratio wihout blowing goal #1.

Sidebar Quiz: Although it has corn and wheat as the carbohydrate source, what snack food in a bag is actually still fried in coconut oil rather than industrial vegetable oils?

Answer: Bugles

I have built this indictment of grass seeds on wheat, but I’ve tried to show generally how the endosperm of seeds, sitting at the nexus of technology-wielding man looking for things to eat and the development of diseases of civilization, is the source of two of the three Neolithic agents in the PaNu scheme:


Linoleic Acid

By extension, many of the same arguments can be made for other cereal grains. In some cases, like corn, the oil argument is stronger (we don’t see commercially available wheat oil much, but corn oil is everywhere), the antinutrient argument real but weaker. For legumes, the arguments are about the same on the oil front and mildly weaker on the poison issue (unless you get anaphylaxis with peanuts) Legumes is lower in the “eliminate” scheme of the 12 steps simply because legume consumption in north America is less ubiquitous than wheat flour.

Most seed and legumes will come out somewhere between corn and gluten grains like wheat.

Not worth the effort.


Refs: Healthy Intakes of n-3 and n-6. Lands, WE et al.

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