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Wheat isn't a GMO, but still raises questions

Wheat has been cross-bred in a multitude of ways but does not contain genetically modified organisms. (

By Scott Scanlon – Refresh Editor

Nowhere is it more clear to me that healthy eating is an individual choice than in my girlfriend’s kitchen.

I want to eat nutritious foods that can help me look and feel good.

She is downright religious about it.

When I became WNY Refresh editor earlier this year, Karen Gelia decided it was time to ramp up the pressure on me to eat better.

Extra doses of preaching started immediately.

I needed to eat more vegetables, fewer snacks, smaller portions.

“No more regular peanut butter, only natural,” I was told. Less beer, more wine. Ditch the margarine.

“Even Olivio?,” I asked. “Yes,” I heard. “Coconut oil is better.”

And did I mention I was ordered to eat more vegetables? Yuck, but more on that in a future blog.

I have stood my ground at wheat – and chosen to ignore Karen when I hear that virtually all wheat on the market these days is genetically modified.

I jettisoned white breads and most processed food years ago after a health scare, but whole wheat and pumpernickel remain staples of my diet. Was I to understand that wheat was now a GMO, a genetically modified organism?

That’s what I was hearing. What did it mean?

Understand, Karen is a nutrition book junkie, and the closest thing to her food bible is “Wheat Belly,” Dr. William Davis, a cardiologist who writes that he put 2,000 of his at-risk patients on a wheat-free diet and watched patient after patient free themselves from chronic health conditions that had dogged them for years.

Davis hates wheat.

Karen and several of her friends are among his nutritional disciples. They rarely, if ever, eat breads, baked goods, even wraps, of any kind, unless they’re made of Ezekiel bread from ancient times.

So I got excited while researching the GMO package today in WNY Refresh, when Jane Andrews, Wegmans nutrition and product labeling manager, told me that wheat is not a GMO.

An estimated 75 percent, or more, of foods in most grocery stores contain GMOs, but Andrews told me wheat is not among them.

Really? You mean Karen is wrong?

I left work with a smile, and a new confidence that I would finally win a food argument with my girlfriend of eight years.

Andrews told me wheat farmers tested GMO wheat about a dozen years ago, but decided they couldn’t afford to lose the lucrative European market, which had banned the organisms. Cross-breeding is different, she explained, and wheat has been changed in that way.

“Wheat was a whole different animal 4,000 years ago,” Andrews said. “Through human intervention, human manipulation and cross-breeding, it’s come to a modern, cultivated wheat, but not with a specific (GMO) trait being added.”

That could change, she said, “but not yet.”

She added that “more folks are finding that they can’t tolerate gluten” in wheat. Wegmans, Tops and other retailers have responded by adding more gluten-free products.

I came to Karen with this news several days ago.

She was unmoved, although I joyfully had been eating wheat products in front of her since.

Until Friday morning.

That’s when she grabbed her copy of “Wheat Belly” and showed me several excerpts, including this one from the cover jacket:

“No longer the sturdy staple our forebears ground into their daily bread, today’s wheat has been genetically altered to provide processed-food manufacturers the greatest yield at the lowest cost; consequently, this once benign grain has been transformed into a nutritionally bankrupt yet ubiquitous ingredient that causes blood sugar to spike more rapidly than eating pure table sugar and has addictive properties that cause us to ride a roller coaster of hunger, overeating, and fatigue.”

This struck me, as I currently am reading a book called “Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Moss, a reporter with the New York Times.

In it, Moss writes that big food companies began to hire legions of scientists starting in the 1960s to find chemicals and plant ingredients that could be combined in different combinations for all kinds of foods that could turn on the pleasure centers of our brains and turn off the switch that tells us we’re full.

Salt, sugar and fat are the most common ingredients, and this food manipulation, Moss reports, has driven corporate food profits, and U.S. obesity rates, to unparalleled heights.

A couple more excerpts from “Wheat Belly” sounded the same tone:

“Can you blame farmers for preferring high-yield dwarf hybrid strains? After all, many small farmers struggle financially,” Davis writes. “If they can increase yield-per-acre up to tenfold, with a shorter growing season and easier harvest, why wouldn’t they?”

Davis also writes of an international outcry when GMOs first were introduced in the mid-1990s, one that occurred with little fanfare in the U.S., but heightened concerns elsewhere. He continues:

“But no such outcry was raised years earlier as farmers and geneticists carried out tens of thousands of hybridization experiments. There is no question that unexpected genetic rearrangements that might generate some desirable property, such as greater drought resistance or better dough properties, can be accompanied by changes in proteins that are not evident to the eye, nose, or tongue, but little effort has focused on these side effects.

“Hybridization efforts continue, breeding new ‘synthetic’ wheat. While hybridization falls short of the precision of gene modification techniques, it still possesses the potential to inadvertently ‘turn on’ or ‘turn off’ genes unrelated to the intended effect, generating unique characteristics, not all of which are presently identifiable.”

So wheat does not contain GMOs. So what?, Davis maintains.

It’s also clear both these authors point out that something doesn’t have to be a GMO to raise concerns about food manufacturing, nutrition and health.

It also helps explain why those I spoke with for the GMO story say it’s up to all of us as individuals to educate ourselves when it comes proper nutrition, and make healthy choices we can live with – and afford, financially and wellness-wise.

Meanwhile, and don’t tell her I said this, I fear my girlfriend might be right about wheat.


Twitter: @BNrefresh

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About The Refresh Buffalo Blog

Scott Scanlon

Scott Scanlon

Scott Scanlon is an award-winning reporter and editor who has covered various topics in his quarter-century as a journalist in South Florida, Syracuse and Buffalo. He is aiming to pass along what he is learning these days about health, fitness, nutrition and family life.

@BNRefresh |