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In the past year, we’ve discussed organic meats, dairy, produce, sugar, chocolate, coffee, body products, and more. Today, we’re going to take a look at one of the largest parts of the standard American diet…grains.
The USDA recommends that about 30% of your diet should be grains, half of that being whole grains. Whether you agree with that recommendation or not, grains are a pretty big staple in the standard American diet. We’re going to take a look at the top three grains produced and consumed worldwide: corn, rice, and wheat.
[First, a little disclaimer: this is a HUGE topic. We could spend weeks discussing the pros and cons of grains alone, but we won’t. :) I’ll leave that research to you. What we will discuss are the differences between the conventionally and organically grown grains. We’ll dive in this journey by taking a look at wheat today.]
How is Wheat Grown?
Wheat is a great crop. It grows relatively quickly (100-150 days), and it’s infinitely useful. Once the wheat berries have been separated from the plant, they will store indefinitely, maintaining all their nutritional value! A sample of ancient wheat was found in an Egyptian tomb and was brought to the US and cultivated in the 1950’s. Today, you can buy this “ancient” wheat under the brand name Kamut. It’s so different from today’s modern wheat that some people with wheat sensitivities have no reaction to Kamut.
Farmers have grown wheat for centuries, but advances in technology (machines, fertilizers, pesticides, radiation, genetics, etc) have made the wheat business more profitable and changed the crop. (Let’s take a minute to let that sink in: changes in farming practices over time have CHANGED wheat.)
-Size: Wheat used to grow about four feet tall. Today, it grows about two feet tall and has a huge seed head.
-Nutritional Composition: Thanks to its physical changes, modern wheat has a shallower root system and shorter stalks, which causes less mineral absorption and less exposure to the sun = less vitamins and minerals in the wheat.
-Radiation: Wheat is exposed to high levels of gamma radiation to help scramble the wheat’s genetic information to produce new traits. It’s also used to prevent infestation and sprouting in wheat stores. Supposedly, there is no residual radiation on the wheat, but this study (feeding malnourished children irradiated wheat?!?) from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that the kids developed abnormal cells after eating the irradiated wheat. Oddly, despite the genetic changes, irradiated wheat is not considered a GMO (genetically modified organism), because it’s not altering or splicing the wheat’s DNA, just mixing up what’s already in there.
-Pesticides: There are over 16 chemical pesticides typically used on conventionally produced wheat. The most common is malathion (same medication used to get rid of head lice). On its own, malathion is only mildly toxic…unless you ingest it…or it gets chlorinated during water treatment. Then it morphs into the highly toxic malaoxon. Another study on children showed that kids with this pesticide residue in their system were 55-75% more likely to have ADD/ADHD.
-Dependent: Modern wheat can’t grow in the wild without the assistance of fertilizers or pesticides. Industrialized wheat has been domesticated to the point that it’s dependent on the farmer’s intervention to survive.
-GMO (genetically modified organism): Some wheat crops are genetically modified to be more resistant to insects and resistant to weedkillers with the goal of making the crop more profitable. As of now, GMO-wheat is not approved for use in the US, although it is being tested. In fact, last year some GMO-wheat popped up randomly in a field in Oregon. Although it isn’t supposed it be out there, GMO wheat is possibly sneaking into our supply.
How is Organic Wheat Different?
Although organic, modern wheat isn’t the same as “ancient” wheat, it does have some benefits over conventional, modern wheat.
-No synthetic pesticides
-No synthetic fertilizers
-No irrigation with repurposed run-off water
-Organic food products are not genetically modified and must be certified GMO-free by a third party
-Produced by smaller farms
One of the first things I do when I’m trying to decide between an organic product and a conventional product is compare the prices. So let’s see what kind of a price difference we’re dealing with here.
-Conventional Flour (5 lb bag): $2 – $5 (store brand $ – name brand $)
-Organic Flour (5 lb bag): $4 – $12 (store brand $ – name brand $)
We’re looking at a 2-3x price increase in choosing organic flour over conventional flour. If you frequently compare organic vs. conventional products, you might recognize this is a big price difference! Typically, the organic product will cost 25-75% more. Is there a reason for wheat’s big price gap? Just how different is organic flour to justify this increased cost?
(Before you get too much sticker shock, we’re going to find out how to get organic whole wheat for as little as $0.84 per pound!)
Although the cost difference can be attributed to lots of different factors (small scale vs. large scale production, more labor, smaller yields) the biggest factor is federal subsidization. The US government subsidizes farms that produce some of the country’s staple crops such as wheat. Unfortunately, this subsidy rarely extends to organic farms.
How Can You Keep Organic Wheat in Your Budget?
-Home-make a lot of food products you’d normally buy pre-made: bread, cereals, cookies, etc. A loaf of store-bought organic bread can cost about $5-7. Make it at home and cut that cost in half or more.
-Shop around. Although specialty stores like Whole Foods may seem more expensive over-all, they can offer competitive prices on organic staples. The price of organic at a specialty store may be similar to the cost of conventional at a regular store.
-Buy organic in bulk. You can buy a 25-lb bag of stone-ground, organic flour for $22 – $28 (use Amazon subscribe and save for the lowest price). $0.88 – $1.12 per pound is pretty budget-friendly.
-Start with the whole grain and make your own flour at home. You can buy whole wheat in bulk and mill your own flour at home. When you buy in bulk, this comes out to about $0.84 per pound. You could make a loaf of organic, whole grain bread for about $1.
Next week, we’re going to talk more about the differences between freshly milled flour and store-bought flour and the logistics involved with home-milling.
-Is it really budget-friendly?
-Are there any nutritional benefits?
-How time consuming is it?
-Is the flour different?
The is part of an Organic Living Journey Guest Post Series now written by Mariana who has a mother’s heart and scientist’s brain.