Wheat July Grain of the Month
Each month we feature a different whole grain on the Whole Grains Council website, including information on its health benefits, cooking tips and recipes, historical/cultural facts, and more. Click to see the full calendar.
July’s Grain of the Month is Wheat. Worldwide, wheat is the third most-produced grain, trailing only corn (maize) and rice. In the United States, wheat accounts for about two-thirds of all grains consumed. However, much of the wheat we eat is refined (missing its nutritious bran and germ) or enriched (refined grain with just five of the dozens of missing or reduced nutrients added back in). So it’s important to remember that this page celebrates whole grain wheat.
Origins and Kinds of Wheat
Imagine you’re part of a nomadic tribe chasing wild game, and today you’ve come up empty. Nothing to do but chew on a handful of grass seeds to alleviate your hunger. But wait! This grass tastes better than the grass we used to eat… The seeds in question were from a clan of wild grasses known as Triticeae, the early ancestors of wheat, barley and rye. Some of the earliest varieties – einkorn and emmer – are still enjoyed today in the areas where they are thought to have originated: einkorn in Georgia, Armenia, and Turkey, and emmer (farro) in the Central Mediterranean. Early largely-extinct wild wheat varieties had fourteen chromosomes (diploid), ancient-but-extant varieties such as durum wheat and Kamut® have 28 chromosomes (tetraploid), while most modern wheats have forty-two chromosomes (hexaploid).
As agrarian civilization replaced hunters and gatherers, newer varieties of wheat became favorite grains for two main reasons: the seeds were easy to separate from the inedible parts of the grain, and the dough became elastic when mixed with liquid. This meant it was easy to harvest the grain, and to create a wide range of interesting foods, from breads, to porridges, to pastas using wheat.
Today, whole wheat can be enjoyed in a number of different varieties and forms. Emmer and einkorn; spelt and Kamut®; durum; red wheat and white wheat; spring wheat and winter wheat… all of these can be enjoyed in whole wheat form.
From Farm to Fork
Ever wonder how wheat is grown, harvested, and processed in order to bring it to your table? These days, many of us have a heightened interest in understanding where our food comes from. Here are a couple of wonderful tools that we especially like, for connecting you to the story of how our wheat is produced – and by whom.
The Virtual Wheat Field. Here's your opportunity to plant a virtual wheat field of your own (your choice, hard, soft or durum), take it to the mill, bake it, and shop for the finished product (for example, pasta if you plant durum wheat) at the grocery store. An added bonus: for each person who completes the game, the Wheat Foods Council will donate two pounds of flour to OperationHomefront.net, a non-profit organization that provides assistance to needy U.S. troops and their families.
Harvesting Wheat in Kansas. Want to meet some real live wheat farmers and learn more about the harvest? King Arthur Flour Company blogged about their 2009 visit to the Farmer Direct wheat farmers in Kansas who grow wheat to make King Arthur Flour. Photos, text, and videos make the story come alive.
We hope these examples encourage other companies to tell the story of where our food comes from.
Health Benefits of Whole Wheat
Since wheat is by far the most common grain used in breads, pastas and other grain foods eaten in the United States, most U.S. studies of "whole grains" in the aggregate can be considered to attest to the benefits of whole wheat in its common form. These benefits are well established, and include, among others:
- stroke risk reduced 30-36%
- type 2 diabetes risk reduced 21-30%
- heart disease risk reduced 25-28%
- better weight maintenance
- reduced risk of asthma
- healthier blood pressure levels
- reduction of inflammatory disease risk
Rather than focus on these general studies, which are listed on our main Health Studies page, this special report on wheat will focus on some of the unique benefits of certain forms of wheat. Did you know, for instance, that some ancient wheats such as Emmer (Farro) and Einkorn may be much higher in antioxidants and may be digested differently than common wheat? Click here to see some interesting health studies.
Cooking with Wheat
We cook whole wheat at home in four main ways: as flour in baked goods; as wheat berries for side dishes and in casseroles; as bulgur; and as pasta or couscous. We encourage you to check out some of the many wonderful whole grain cookbooks now available, for inspiration. In the meantime, here's a bit of information to get you started.
Flour. Whole wheat flour behaves a bit differently in recipes than refined all-purpose flour. As a rule of thumb, you can generally substitute whole wheat flour for up to half the all-purpose flour in a recipe. To make foods using more whole wheat, we recommend you start with recipes specifically designed to be their most delicious with whole wheat.
In general, whole white wheat flour is milder in flavor and smoother in texture than "regular" whole wheat flour. There are also special flours available that combine whole white wheat flour and all-purpose flour in the same bag, to make it even easier to transition your taste buds over to whole grains.
Wheat Berries. Whole wheat kernels are usually described as "wheat berries." You cook them in water or broth (about 2 1/2 cups liquid for each cup of wheat berries) for about 45-60 minutes. As always when cooking grains, taste a few as cooking progresses. When the grains are soft enough for you, they're done. You can add more liquid and cook longer, or drain extra liquid off if the grains are done to your taste before all the liquid is absorbed.
Bulgur. Bulgur is wheat that's been pre-cooked and broken into pieces, so you can quickly "finish it off" in your kitchen. Generally, you can simply add boiling water or broth to bulgur (about 1 3/4 to 2 cups liquid per cup of bulgur) and let it soak for about 20-25 minutes in a covered pot.
Pasta and couscous: Couscous is not a grain (there is no couscous plant!) – it's more like a small grain-shaped pasta. Whole wheat couscous is so small it can usually be "cooked" simply by soaking in boiling water, while pasta takes about 8 minutes to cook.
Here are some great whole wheat recipes you may want to try:
Fun Facts about Wheat
The state of Kansas is America’s largest wheat producer, with North Dakota a close second. Kansas produces enough wheat in a year to bake 36 billion loaves of bread – about six loaves for each and every person on earth.
One bushel of wheat yields approximately 60 pounds of whole wheat flour, or 42 pounds of refined wheat flour. It takes about a pound of flour to make a standard commercial loaf of bread (24 ounce loaf).
A bushel of wheat contains approximately one million individual kernels.
Wheat is grown commercially in 42 states in the U.S.
Bulgur is thought to have been the first "instant breakfast" – since it's easily reconstituted by simply soaking in hot water.
Wheat stubble – the bits of grain stems left in the field after harvesting – is used to make “strawboard” which is made into ready-to-assemble furniture and other products.
Wheat starch makes paper stronger; U.S. paper manufacturers use about five billion pounds of it each year. Wheat starch is also used as a more eco-friendly substitute for plastic – imagine forks, spoons, knives and chopsticks made largely from wheat!
50% of U.S. wheat is exported; 36% is used for food; 10% for feeding livestock; and 4% for seed.
Wheat weavers make complex and attractive craftworks from wheat straw.
Wheat Montana Farms and Bakery made its way into the Guinness Book of World Records for cutting, milling, making and baking a loaf of bread in just 8 minutes and 13 seconds.
Selected information on this page courtesy of the Wheat Foods Council, the Kansas Wheat Council, Sunnyland Mills, and the Nebraska Wheat Board.