Wheat as a Food

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Wheat as a Food

The development of civilization may be directly connected to the cultivation of wheat. When humans no longer needed to roam the land to find animals, wild berries, and grains, villages arose. People could grow wheat in the warm months, store it throughout the winter for food, and set some aside for planting the next spring. It is not certain when civilization and the cultivation of wheat began, but anthropologists speculate it may have started in the Fertile Crescent of western Asia around 60008000 b.c.e. or earlier. This area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers is home to modern-day Iraq.

History of Wheat as a Food

In about 17,000 b.c.e., human ancestors' consumption of wheat consisted of chewing the hard kernels for sustenance. Eventually, they doubtless soaked whole or cracked wheat in water until it softened and swelled, making a porridge of sorts or providing the basis for a mixed dish much like tabbouleh salads. Pastes made from flour and water or milk were most likely one of the first staples of the early human diet. In about 10,000 b.c.e., the earliest recipe for a type of flat bread was invented: "pound wheat into flour, add water and bake." Similar flat breads are still made in India (chapati), Mexico (tortillas), and in the Middle East (pita bread).

Einkorn, an ancient relative of wheat, was eventually domesticated and was popular until about 4000 b.c.e. There is evidence that more emmer (a wheat cousin) than wheat was grown at that time; emmer can still be raised in poor-quality soil in France, Italy, Turkey, and Yugoslavia. Einkorn and emmer were most likely eaten as a porridge before bread making was developed. After bread making became increasingly important, Triticum vulgare, another type of wheat, replaced einkorn and emmer. Kamut, which was found in King Tut's tomb and is thus nicknamed "King Tut's wheat," was also cultivated in the Fertile Crescent area. It is still grown in limited quantities in the United States and is a registered trademark. Kamut is an ancient Egyptian word meaning "wheat."

Egyptians are credited with having invented leavened bread. Archaeologists discovered what might be one of the oldest bakeries in the Giza Plateau of Egypt, dating back to around 4500 b.c.e. In his article "The Lost City of the Pyramids," Mark Lehner speculates that such bakeries might have served workers building the pyramids. Honey was eventually added to bread for sweetening, and other flavorings such as salt, herbs, and seeds were also added. A form of this traditional bread recipe is often used to make sourdough breads either by airborne yeast or by adding yogurt with live active cultures.

The Romans discovered leavened bread long after the Egyptians. During the Second Punic War (218201 b.c.e.) wheat was imported to Italy, and in the first century b.c.e. public bakeries were common. Wealthy Romans ate bread made from very finely ground flour, while the common people and soldiers survived on very coarse flour that was usually blended with other grains and broad bean flour.

Religious Significance of Wheat

There are more than twenty references to bread in the Old Testament and over thirty in the New Testament. The first Biblical reference to wheat appears in Genesis 18: when three angels visit Abraham, he runs to his tent to ask his wife, Sarah, to make "cakes" of "fine meal." (Fine meal probably referred to wheat flour that had been finely ground between stones.) Grinding stones have been found throughout the Middle East, as have sieves made from horsehair. References to wheat and bread also appear in sacred texts of Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam.

The Jewish people celebrate the eight days of Passover with unleavened bread, in the form of matzoh, to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt when they took only unleavened dough in their haste to flee. The Haggadah (a Jewish prayer manual) instructs its followers to declare: "This is poor man's bread; the bread our fore-fathers ate when they were enslaved in Egypt." During the rest of the year, every Jew is required to eat three meals on Shabbos, or the Sabbath: one on the night when Shabbos begins and two the following day, each of which must contain bread over which a specific blessing called the motzi is made. The traditional bread used at Shabbos is challah, an egg-enriched braided loaf (Fohrman, personal correspondence).

The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches usually use unleavened bread and wafers for the sacrament of Holy Communion; however, some churches (such as the Greek Orthodox Church) use leavened bread. In Islam, although they are not required by the Qur'an, the bulgur wheat-based soups Jary and Shorobat Il-Jereesh are traditionally used to break the fast during the observation of Ramadan (Solley).

Worldwide Consumption of Wheat

Wheat is the most consumed grain in the world, with rice being a close second. China is the world's largest producer of wheat. Almost every country in the world has some form of wheat-based bread, soup, or mixed dish in its culture. Numerous products overlap various countries and cultures because of migration. The following is by no means a complete list of all wheat-based foods that are available, rather it is a list of only some of the more well-known wheat products.

Asia. Chapati, a tortilla look-alike, is common in northern India and is usually made from whole-wheat flour and cooked on a tava, which resembles a grill. Naan is also an Indian bread that can be found in the Middle East and surrounding countries. It is a very soft round bread that is often coated with flour.

Asian noodles are often made from wheat, although they can also be made from buckwheat and rice as well. They do not contain egg and can be broadly divided into Japanese and Chinese types. Japanese noodles use regular salt whereas Chinese noodles use alkaline salt. Pot stickers are a popular Japanese dish whose base is wheat flour. They are small envelopes containing minced meats and vegetables and are fried or steamed.

Europe. Bagels originally came from Austria in 1683. Folklore says a baker was grateful to the King of Poland for saving Austria from invading Turks. He reshaped a local bread into the shape of the king's stirrup and called it a beugel, derived from the German word for stirrup, Bügel. As bagels were brought to America, the word was changed to bagel.

Cookies came from the Dutch word koekje, meaning 'little cake'. The British adopted them in the nineteenth century and call them biscuits. Cookies eventually became a favorite in American diets.

English muffins are flat rounds of yeast-raised breads that are chewy with air pockets. One of its ancestors may have come from tenth-century Wales, called bara maen. English muffins are now popular throughout the Western world.

Gyro bread is a Greek pita bread that is wrapped around meats and vegetables to make the popular gyro sandwiches.

Pasta is an Italian word meaning paste, since it is made from durum wheat and water. The dough is then put through a variety of shaped sieves (there are over four hundred shapes worldwide) and cooked until dry. It can be served fairly plain with butter or olive oil or have any numbers of sauces piled on top. It can also be made into soups or casserole dishes such as lasagna. There is some controversy in regard to where pasta originated. Some have credited Marco Polo with bringing pasta back from China in 1255 C.E.; however, there is evidence that it was a staple in Italy before that time. Thomas Jefferson brought pasta to America, where it has also become a staple, in the late eighteenth century.

Pizza may have originally come from Italy, but it is no longer a strictly Italian product. Italian pizzas are much simpler than those found in the British Isles, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. While traditional Italian pizza is not much more than a crust, tomato sauce, and sometimes cheese, the rest of the world heaps numerous meats, vegetables, and a variety of cheeses on their pizza crust.

Rye bread is a popular product in Northern and Eastern Europe. Rye crispbread is an essential part of Finnish army life and family diet even today. Soft, round, flat loaves with a hole in the middle, which in the old days were stored on horizontal poles under the ceiling in farmhouses, are made from rye through a fermentation process. The specialties of southwestern Finland and the archipelago are the soursweet loaf and malt bread. Island-baked bread is dark in color, and its northern counterpart may also have animal blood as an ingredient.

The Middle East. A variety of flat breads and bulgur soups are commonly eaten in the Middle Eastern countries. Bulgur (bulgar) is cracked, pre-cooked wheat that has about 5 percent of bran removed in processing. However, bulgur is still considered a whole grain product. It is the basis for tabbouleh salad and many stews and soups, and it can be eaten as a breakfast cereal. Bulgur can also be added to breads and muffins for extra texture and nutrition.

Fatayer are small bread-dough pies filled with meat, spinach, cheese, tomato, or onion. These are made especially for parties (Abourezk, p. 26). Fettoush was originally created to use up stale pita bread, but is now made from fresh, toasted pita bread. It is a salad of lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, radishes, onions, squares of pita bread, olive oil, lemon juice, and several spices (Abourezk, p. 59).

Lagymat is a sweet mixture of flour, oil, leavening, yogurt, spices, and water. The batter is fermented and then spoonful portions are deep-fried. The golden brown products are cooled and dipped into syrup, which is usually flavored with cardamom and saffron.

Pita bread is a yeast-leavened flat bread that contains an internal pocket formed when steam puffs the bread up and then collapses before baking. Pita is often used as a "scoop" for dips or for stuffing with vegetables and/or meats as a sandwich.

Tabbouleh is a popular salad in the Middle East that has found a home in the Western world. It contains cooked bulgur, tomatoes, parsley, onions, and spices. Tabbouleh is often made as a social group activity as it requires a lot of chopping.

Africa. Couscous is very common in northern Africa but is not usually eaten in the rest of the continent. Couscous is a small, round product made from the same ingredients as pasta: semolina and water. It is precooked and needs only soaking in hot water to be ready to eat. Its bland flavor is often enhanced with spices and vegetables. It can be eaten as a breakfast cereal. Couscous is also becoming quite popular in North American restaurants.

Kishk (kashk ) is often eaten in northern Africa and in the Middle East. It is a dried mixture of ground wheat and a heavily fermented dairy product. It is added to a variety of meals for taste and flavor. Moroccan whole-wheat bread is yeast leavened and actually is part white flour and is made into a round, flat bread.

North America. Biscuits were originally made in Europe and were twice-cooked, hard cakes that were the staple of sailors and soldiers for centuries. They are now a popular staple throughout southern United States and are light and flaky because of the fat content and the air beaten into the dough.

Cakes are popular sweet desserts and are used in traditional celebrations of birthdays and anniversaries. There are two basic types of cakes: those with fat (butter cakes) and those without (foam cakes). Angel food cake is the most common foam cake, whereas there are numerous popular butter cakes: chocolate, carrot, layered, and even some that contain frozen ice cream.

Corn bread is a favorite in the southern United States and Mexico. It usually contains some wheat flour as well as the cornmeal for volume and texture. It is often cooked in a hot iron skillet or corn bread mold for a darker, crisper crust.

Fry bread is a Native American bread that is still eaten in various parts of the country. The yeast-leavened bread dough is cut into squares and fried in hot oil and served with butter and sometimes honey.

Pancakes are thin flat cakes made from a batter of water, flour, eggs, and leavening (usually baking powder or soda or a combination of the two). Pancakes are usually eaten for breakfast and sometimes called flapjacks, wheatcakes, or griddlecakes. Some form of pancakes can be found in most cultures.

Pies are a favorite dessert and come in all sizes and flavors. Fruit pies, such as apple, peach, and cherry are made in a pastry flour crust. They are usually eight inches in diameter and baked in a pie pan in the oven. Cream pies such as chocolate, coconut or banana are generally made in a flour crust or graham cracker crust.

Quick breads, such as zucchini, carrot, and banana breads, are sweet loaves that are leavened with baking powder and/or soda and appear to be native to the United States. Muffins are also considered a quick bread although they are made in individual muffin pans or paper cups for single servings.

Sourdough became a staple for the gold miners and other pioneers in the west and northern parts of North America. These individuals could carry a "starter" of yeast, flour, and water from camp to camp and then add water and warmth at the next campsite to make bread. From each batch they would save a starter for the next batch. This practice earned miners, sheepherders, and mountain dwellers the nickname "Sourdoughs."

Tortillas are probably the fastest growing wheat product in North America. The original unleavened flat bread was made from corn in Mexico and Central and South America. Wheat tortillas are now the largest category sold in the United States. The word tortilla comes from the Spanish word torta, which means 'round cake'.

White pan bread, hamburger, and hot dog buns are the major wheat products sold in North America. One hundred percent whole-wheat products consist of less than five percent of sales, but sales of whole wheat and partial whole grain products are growing faster than white breads.

Australia and New Zealand. In this part of the world, wheat flour is used in the production of many Western products in addition to their unique meat pies and sausage rolls. Meat pies are usually about three to four inches in diameter, may be square or round, and consist of a pastry base and cover that encloses a filling of cooked minced meat (often beef) and gravy. Sausage rolls are usually about four inches long and about one-and-a-half inches wide and consist of seasoned sausage filling that is rolled in flaky pastry and then baked.

South America. Alfajores are desserts popular in Peru and Chili. They are made from wheat flour and vegetable shortening and baked. When served, they are layered with manjar blanco and topped with confectioner's sugar. Manjar blanco is condensed milk that is slowly cooked until it thickens and becomes brown.

Empanadas are baked or fried and filled with a variety of meats, cheeses and vegetables. Empanada literally means 'wrapped in bread', although it is often a pastry dough rather than a bread dough.

The South American paneton is similar to the Italian Christmas cake. It is a wheat bread containing pieces of citron and sugar-glazed on top. In Peru, it is eaten on Christmas Eve with hot chocolate beverages.

Classes of Wheat

A variety of wheat classes are grown throughout the world, but six major varieties are grown in the United States. They are:

Hard red winter wheat
This is primarily grown in the "bread basket," the Midwestern states of Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, and Wyoming. South Dakota and Minnesota also raise some hard red winter wheat. It is primarily used for breads and all-purpose flour.
Hard red spring wheat
This type of wheat is grown mostly in the upper, colder states such as North Dakota, Minnesota, and Montana. It is primarily used for breads and croissants.
Durum wheat
Durum wheat is grown primarily in North Dakota, with additional supplies coming from Montana, South Dakota, and Minnesota. Arizona and California grow a desert durum variety. Durum is used primarily for pasta.
Hard white wheat
This is the newest class of wheat grown in the United States. It is raised to some extent in all of the major wheat states and is used for breads and Oriental noodles.
Soft white wheat
This wheat is grown primarily in the northwest states of Washington, Idaho, and Oregon. This wheat is used for pastries, crackers, cereal, cakes, cookies, and Oriental noodles.
Soft red wheat
Soft red wheat is grown in eastern parts of the United States, it is used in cakes, cookies, and crackers.

Kinds of Wheat Flours

Commercial bakers require several types of flours to be milled to specification for use in the end products they will produce. Home bakers are most likely to use all-purpose, cake, bread, and whole-wheat flour. Serious bakers will even use pastry and semolina in their baking.

All-purpose flour
This is the finely ground endosperm of the wheat kernel and is often a blend of hard and soft wheat that produces a flour suitable for many types of products. All-purpose flour is usually bleached, which does not affect the nutritional value, but it does improve the baking qualities for cakes and cookies.
Bread flour
This flour comes from hard wheat, because of its strong gluten strength that will hold the framework of a loaf of bread. Bread flour is usually unbleached.
Cake flour
Cake flour is the finely ground endosperm of soft white and soft red wheat. It is usually bleached and is used for cakes, cookies, crackers, quick breads, and some pastries. It has a lower gluten content, which makes the products more tender.
Durum flour
The finely ground endosperm of durum wheat, durum flour is usually found in specialty sections of supermarkets or health food stores. It is used primarily for making noodles.
Gluten flour
Gluten flour is milled from hard wheat and is a high-protein (gluten) flour. It contains about 45 percent protein, whereas bread flour is usually about 1214 percent protein. Gluten flour is added in small amounts, one tablespoon per one pound loaf, when making bread at home. Commercial bakeries use it to strengthen their bread flour if necessary.
Pastry flour
This type of flour is not as common for the home baker as it is for the wholesale baker. It also is made from soft wheat to make a tender, fluffy pastry crust.
Self-rising flour
Self-rising flour originated in the southern part of the United States and is the oldest "mix" found in America. It is an all-purpose flour with appropriate amounts of leavening and salt added to make quick breads. A cup contains one-and-a-half teaspoons of baking powder and a half-teaspoon of salt.
Semolina is a coarsely ground endosperm of the highest quality durum wheat and is used for making pasta, although it can be used for making bread because of its high gluten quality.
Whole-wheat flour
Whole-wheat flour is also called graham flour and stone-ground flour. Whole-wheat flour is ground from the entire kernel containing the bran, germ, and endosperm.

Nutritional Value of Wheat

Wheat is the most consumed grain in the world, providing both calories and nutrients for the growing population. Wheat is a significant source of complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, plant protein, phytochemicals, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. On a per-capita basis in 1995, Germans consumed 187 pounds of bread, while U.S. citizens ate only 53 pounds each. Many countries consume a considerable amount of wheat each year. The United States eats about 150 pounds of wheat flour per person annually, whereas Chile consumes 214 pounds; Pakistan consumes 334 pounds; the European Union averages 160 pounds; the East Africa region eats about 250 pounds; and China consumes an average of 221 pounds per person annually.

Whole-wheat products such as cereals, breads, pastas, tortillas, English muffins, and other products are extremely healthy. The American Dietetic Association recommends consuming three servings a day of whole-grain product foods (wheat, barley, oats, corn, rye, etc.).

In July 2000, the following whole-grain health claim was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition: "Diets rich in whole grain foods and other plant foods low in fat, saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers." In addition to helping to prevent heart disease and some cancers, preliminary research shows that whole grains might also help prevent the onset of type II diabetes.

In some countries throughout the world, refined grains are offered to the consumer without any nutrient enrichment. This is a disservice to the public since the product, in that state, has fewer nutrients to offer. In some countries, however, vitamin A is added to help prevent blindness in children. In several Western countries, three B vitaminsthiamine, riboflavin, and niacinand iron are added in the same amounts found in whole-wheat flour. In 1998, the United States required that enriched grains also be fortified with folic acid, a B vitamin that (among other benefits) may reduce the chances of certain birth defects. Between 1998 and 2001, after the mandatory fortification of wheat was put into effect, neural tube birth defects dropped 19 percent in the United States (Honein et al.). Preliminary studies have also shown that folic acid is effective in reducing homo-cysteine levels in the blood. High levels of homocysteine are believed to contribute to heart disease, strokes, and Alzheimer's disease. Although more research must be done, there is positive indication that folic acid may also be effective in helping to prevent cleft lip and palate, Down's syndrome, and several cancers.

Enriched flours are often bleached for two reasons: to lighten the flour and to improve baking qualities. Bleaching oxidizes the gluten slightly and therefore makes cakes and pastries more tender. Breads, on the other hand, need strong gluten, so bread flour and gluten flour are rarely, if ever, bleached. When flour is bleached, it is exposed to chlorine gas and benzoyl peroxide. No residues of these substances are left in the flour, however, so there is no nutritional difference between unbleached and bleached flour.

A small percentage of people cannot tolerate the gluten (protein) in wheat because they lack the enzymes to digest it. This disease is known as non-tropical celiac sprue, and those who have it cannot eat wheat, rye, or barley. Some experts recommend they eliminate oats also; however, the latest thinking is that oats may be safe.

Biotechnology and Wheat

As of the start of the twenty-first century, no genetically engineered wheat was available on the market, but such products were in development. The first genetically engineered wheat would primarily benefit the farmer and the consumer by using fewer pesticides during the growing period.

See also Bagel ; Bread ; Noodle in Asia ; Noodle in Northern Europe ; Pasta ; Pastry .


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Judi Adams

The Roman goddess, Ceres, who was deemed protector of the grain, gave grains their common name todaycereal.


The Chinese are more likely to steam or boil wheat foods rather than bake them. Steamed breads, pao, cakes, dumplings, and noodles are prepared in steam-ers or boilers rather than ovens.


Even though airborne yeast was used as the leavening agent for thousands of years, it was not until the 1800s that yeast was actually identified as the organism that provided the leavening.


A bushel of wheat weighs about 60 pounds (27 kg) and contains approximately one million individual kernels.