Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Red Fife wheat for people with gluten intolerance

I remember as a boy picking a head of ripe whet, rolling it in my hands to thresh out the kernels, then popping the kernels into my mouth and chewing them.  Pretty soon I would have a gummy wad in my mouth, somewhat like chewing gum.  This was the gluten in the wheat kernels.

Gluten is the major component of the protein in wheat and this gummy characteristic is what makes bread rise.  The fermenting yeast in bread dough produces small bubbles of carbon dioxide which are trapped by the gluten.

In perhaps the last forty years it has become evident that about 1% of people have a problem digesting gluten.  There is even a scare campaign being spread today that says gluten is bad for all of us.  If that is so, why didn’t gluten cause as much problems in past generations?

There does appear to be a problem with gluten, but not with all gluten.  Gluten is actually a compound of two proteins, gliadin and glutenin.  In old varieties of wheat, such as Red Fife and Marquis, the gluten is roughly 1/3 gliadin and 2/3 glutenin.  These grains do not appear to cause celiac disease, also known as gluten intolerance.  Modern bread wheat varieties may contain up to 80% gliadin.

There in a nutshell is the problem.  It is not necessary to avoid bread altogether, or to use exotic flour substitutes, just go back to the old varieties if you have a problem with bread made from the newer wheat varieties.

Red Fife wheat is once again being grown in all parts of Canada, not in huge quantities, but it is available.  Marc Loiselle of Vonda, Saskatchewan is a major producer and promoter of Red Fife.  Two bakeries in Saskatoon make bread from the Red Fife wheat grown on his farm.  The Loiselle farm website lists other bakeries from Whitehorse, Yukon to Chapel Hill, North Carolina and from Sooke, BC to Skohegan, Maine.  The Loiselle farm is also beginning to grow a selected strain of Marquis wheat.

There is considerable gluten research going on today.  Wheat varieties have been “improved” to boost yield and disease resistance.  In the process, flavour has been lost.  Now it is becoming evident that we cannot tamper with the proportions of gliadin and glutenin in the gluten without causing suffering to at least some people.

I do not believe that we need to be too radical in seeking a solution to this.  There is no need to abandon bread, when there is flour and bread available from varieties like Red Fife and Marquis.  Nevertheless, gluten is added to a wide variety of other foods and it would be well to read the labels carefully when we go grocery shopping.

One kernel of wheat

How many people can be fed with one kernel of wheat?  David Fife fed millions.

The Fife family came to Canada from Scotland in 1820 when David was 15.  They settled in Otanabee township, east of Peterborough, Ontario .  When David was 20, he married Jane Becket and they began to farm on their own.  Farmers in this area were growing a winter wheat variety known as Siberian.  It did survive the cold winters, but was low yielding and susceptible to rust, a fungal disease that weakened the plant.

David Fife wrote to a friend in Glasgow asking for a sample of a better wheat.  His friend found a ship in the harbour, unloading wheat that had been loaded at Danzig and had probably been grown in Ukraine.  He managed to obtain a few kernels and sent them to David Fife.

The package of wheat kernels arrived just before seeding time in 1842.  Neither David Fife nor his friend knew if they were winter wheat or spring wheat.  David Fife planted half of the seeds in spring, planning to sow the rest in fall.  It must have been winter wheat, as the spring seeded grain did not mature — except for one plant which produced three heads of ripe grain.  David Fife planted the seeds from those three heads the next spring and continued to multiply the seed, until he harvested 240 bushels in 1848.  By then he knew that he had a variety of wheat that yielded much better than Siberian, matured early and was not susceptible to rust.   In addition, it had excellent milling and baking properties.

David Fife began to make this wheat available to his neighbours and by 1860 it had supplanted all other varieties of wheat grown in Canada.  Since the kernels were red and the variety was introduced by David Fife, it was given the name of Red Fife.  By the end of the nineteenth century Red Fife wheat had the reputation of being the world’s best spring wheat.

When the prairies began to be settled the first wheat grown was Red Fife.  The Prairies growing season was a little too short, though.  Charles Saunders crossed Red Fife and Hard Red Calcutta and selected the best cultivars to develop Marquis wheat, which made the western prairies a bread basket.  These varieties have been supplanted over the years, but are now making a small comeback, for reasons I will discuss in my next post.

It all started with a single kernel of wheat.  No one knows if that kernel of wheat came from a naturally occurring variant of the other wheat on that shipload, or if there were mixed varieties in that load.  Because of David Fife’s careful work in multiplying the wheat grown from that single kernel, that kernel has provided nourishment to millions of people.

Never think that the little bit that you have to offer is too insignificant to bother with.  ” For who hath despised the day of small beginnings?”  (Zechariah4:10, as it is in French translations of the Bible).

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