What’s With Wheat? A Comparative Study of Heritage and Modern Wheat By Amrita Khalsa (BA Food Studies student)

Aug. 22, 2022

Wheat is one of the most widely eaten foods in the world. Through a semester-long capstone project, I researched the vast topic of wheat and its impact on human health and the environment. My research explores the differences between heritage wheat varieties cultivated over millennia with that of modern wheat, which has been highly altered through industrialized agriculture. I analyze how heritage wheat varieties can benefit biodiverse ecosystems as well as human health. I consider the accessibility and usability of heritage wheat varieties and its possible benefits compared to the modern wheat flour most common in grocery stores. 

I built a website to summarize my research. The site displays data of the local wheat economy of Tucson, Arizona, includes quotes from my interviews with Brian Wong of BKW Farm, and Yadi Wang of Oatman Farm, and pictures from my time at BKW farm. It utilizes information from the BKW, Oatman, and Barrio Bread websites, as well as quotes from previous interviews with James Beard Award Winner, Don Guerra, owner and baker of Barrio Bread. The aim of this blog site is to provide a visual representation of my research comparing modern and heritage wheat varieties. Visit the site herehttps://akhalsa7.wixsite.com/my-site-1

Much of the current literature on wheat farming and consumption discusses the use of ancient and heritage wheat in comparison to common bread wheat. As most of the wheat farmed and consumed today is considered modern bread wheat, there is much literature on its use in agriculture as it is bred for high yields to feed growing global populations. Much research about the farming methods of modern wheat suggest that these practices lead to a loss of nutrients within the wheat itself and a loss of agrobiodiversity and contribute to sterile soil and negative human health impacts. Evidence indicates growing support from small farmers and consumers who want environmentally sustainable, biodiverse, and flavor-rich wheat, which includes heritage wheat varieties such as white Sonoran wheat, Einkorn, emmer, Khorasan/KAMUT and spelt.

As I examined the differences between modern wheat with that of heritage wheat varieties, I began to better understand what possible environmental and health benefits there might be with the use of heritage wheat compared with modern wheat in sustainable agriculture practices and human consumption. Research comparing modern wheat with that of heritage wheat varieties, demonstrates that although a growing number of individuals are moving away from consuming wheat-based products toward gluten-free options, there is inconclusive evidence regarding the effects of modern wheat on individuals’ health. Further research is needed.

Studies show that current agriculture practices of high-input monocultures such as wheat, contribute to agrobiodiversity loss, seed diversity loss, and food security challenges amid a changing climate. Nevertheless, to create a more beneficial, sustainable food system, further support for reintroducing and cultivating heritage wheat varieties can be beneficial in establishing and sustaining biodiverse ecosystems for our future. This will in turn aid in dietary diversity and food security. From farmers to bakers and consumers, utilizing heritage wheat varieties can not only help create more sustainable ecosystems, and strong local grain economies, but also produce delectable wheat-based foods for a diversity of individuals to enjoy.

Author Bio:

Amrita Khalsa is a senior in the BA in Food Studies at the University of Arizona. She has a background in baking and a degree as a pastry chef. She has a love for the craft and is fascinated by the upward trend of individuals consuming less wheat-based products with celiac disease or other wheat sensitivities. As a baker with her own gut health issues, she is curious about the growing array of alternative flours found in grocery stores today and the ways in which their production and consumption is related to the environment, health, diversity, and accessibility.