Is heritage wheat healthier for humans than modern wheat? The answer, although complicated and incomplete, is a qualified yes.
Heritage wheat is the usual name given to wheats being grown and developed in the centuries leading up to the 1920s. Over this time, cultivation and selection methods remained substantially the same. Although heritage wheat has thousands of individual cultivars and significant variance, this group as a whole is nevertheless distinct from modern wheat.
Starting in the 20th century, wheat began to change significantly. First, wheat was bred to be shorter, so that the seed heads could grow bigger without causing the plant to fall over. Shorter wheat can tolerate generous quantities of fertilizer (primarily nitrates and phosphates), to the point that winter wheat yields in the midwest went from 20-30 bushels per acre in the 19th century to 90-100 bushels per acre today. This modern wheat has a greater starch content than older wheat, and the gluten strength has increased by a factor of three. These changes in wheat have had tremendous benefits for the industrial milling and baking business. Modern wheat flour can be processed very quickly, meaning that a factory baking bread, for instance, can make many batches of bread per day.
Since the mid 20th century, the incidence of celiac disease has increased significantly, much faster than could be accounted for by genetic changes in humans. In addition, even more people are suffering from non-celiac wheat sensitivity. Why would a plant that has been eaten for thousands of years suddenly be causing health problems?
Although scientific studies of the differences between heritage and modern wheat are few, some facts have emerged. In the laboratory, it’s clear that wheat proteins in modern wheat are different. The actual proteins are still present, but in noticeably different proportions. The overall protein content in modern wheat is nearly always lower than heritage wheat, having been replaced by starches. Importantly, heritage wheat still contain proteins that are harmful to people with celiac disease.
The laboratory differences, although interesting, do not point to a “smoking gun” where we can see a specific harmful compound in modern wheat. The sheer complexity of wheat is part of the problem researchers face. Wheat has six sets of chromosomes and a whopping 95,000 genes. By comparison, we humans have a mere two sets of chromosomes and about 20,000 genes.
However, clinical studies where human subjects have been asked to eat heritage wheat have consistently shown benefits. When heritage wheat replaces modern wheat in the diet, subjects show increases in antioxidants and decreases in inflammation. A recent paper by Italian researchers summarized 17 separate studies since 2010 where human subjects were fed heritage wheat products. Despite the differences in methodology, overall the researchers were very confident in declaring that “...all doubts disappear and diets based on ancient or heritage cultivars always showed clear advantages in terms of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activities.”1
One final consideration should be noted. Modern wheat is usually roller milled and intensively sifted to remove all traces of wheat germ and wheat bran. This practice means that ordinary white flour out of a modern mill has nearly all fiber and vitamins removed. Years ago it was realized just how unhealthy the consumption of roller-milled white flour is, which is why every bag of white flour sold today in the grocery store says “enriched” on the package. Federal food laws require that certain vitamins be put into the product before sale to restore some of the lost nutrients.
Stone grinding, which is the method that most sellers of heritage wheat use to make flour, by contrast preserves most or all of the nutrients in wheat along with the fiber (bran). As a result, heritage wheat in the marketplace may be healthier just because it is processed differently.
1"Differential Physiological Responses Elicited by Ancient and Heritage Wheat Cultivars Compared to Modern Ones" Enzo Spisni, Veronica Imbesi, Elisabetta Giovanardi, Giovannamaria Petrocelli, Patrizia Alvisi, and Maria Chiara Valerii. Nutrients, EISSN 2072-6643, Published by MDPI AG. https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/11/12/2879/htm