Bob Quinn: Rethinking Modern Wheat

The book "Grain by Grain" by Bob Quinn and Liz Carlisle. Photo by Cassandra Uchida.

A rise in gluten intolerance has led much of America to alternative products, but a few people like Bob Quinn began to question whether America’s wheat had a deeper problem at the production level. 

Robert “Bob” Quinn is the founder of Kamut International, an organic heirloom wheat trademark. In 1971, Quinn began graduate studies at the University of California Davis, but early on while on a field trip, he began questioning a lot of aspects of how food was grown in the US. 

“Our professors wanted us graduate students to see the innovative practices of modern farming firsthand… we visited massive orange groves in Southern California, vegetable operations on the Central Coast, and timber operations in the mountains. But the trip I remember most vividly was our outing to a peach farm in California’s Central Valley… When my fellow students and I arrived at the farm, I stepped off the bus intro a sea of peach trees… I took a deep breath, expecting to be overwhelmed by the scent of ripe peaches. But strangely enough, I couldn’t smell them,” he writes in his book, Grain by Grain. 

A petroleum-based spray developed by the professor had caused the peaches to look ripe even though they were not. This allowed the peaches to be shipped across the country without expense to avoid bruising, so they could be sold cheaper in grocery stores. 

“As a PhD student in plant biochemistry, I knew unripe peaches didn’t have the same nutritional profile as ripe ones. I suspected this petroleum-based spray wasn’t good for the environment, and I wondered what residues might be left on the fruit. Something was wrong with this kind of agriculture and, for that matter, the economy that drove it,” Quinn continues. 

He stayed to finish his degree at UC Davis, and upon graduating, he returned to his family farm in Montana, “determined to do things differently. If I could.” 

Originally, he started growing conventional, high-protein wheat and selling it directly to bakers in California. Then, one of his biggest customers began to ask if he sold organic wheat. Quinn told his customer that he would try his best to find him some, spurring him to begin experimenting with organic models on his own farm. 

Eventually he began experimenting with growing “King Tut’s wheat,” a mysterious wheat variety that he had gotten from a state fair that was allegedly from the Egyptian tombs.  

This grain had turned out to not be related to the pharaohs but rather Khorasan wheat. It is an heirloom variety that is twice the size of modern wheat and thought to have originated in Mesopotamia. 

As Quinn began growing and selling this wheat, a lot of questions arose about gluten intolerance. 

“When we first started showing people it and giving people samples of it, one lady in particular that couldn’t eat any wheat told us that she had no trouble eating it. Not only that she had no trouble but it made her feel better! And that really spurred my research interest to try to understand what was the difference between ancient wheat and modern wheat, and what we’d done to modern wheat that now created a situation where 20% of the population from Montana, well the whole country, can no longer enjoy wheat. As a wheat farmer I took that very seriously,” Quinn said on the podcast Intellectual Agrarian. 

Quinn argues that gluten is not the only problem people have when it comes to digesting wheat-based products, but that it’s connected to a series of problems from farm production to how bread is made in bakeries. 

Much of the nutrition is lost from wheat when the bran and germ is removed to make white flour as opposed to whole grain flour. However, modern wheat has largely been bred to make bran and germ easy to remove rather than breeding it to have better taste and texture. 

“We see bakers over the last fifty, sixty years have demanded stronger gluten so that they can make more bread with less wheat. And the way they do that is to ask the plant breeders to breed for gluten that’s much more elastic and stronger and can hold more air, so they can actually get these wonderful airy bread loaves that Americans are quite used to. And they don’t need as much wheat to make that bread,” Quinn said on Intellectual Agrarian. 

“The unintended consequence of that directly was that for some people that stronger, more elastic gluten was harder to digest… Another problem was that (the bakers) were using fast-rising yeast. The fast-rising yeast caused the bread to rise so fast that it just had time to digest the sugar that they added to the dough, and it didn’t start to break down the gluten or the starch to where longer fermentations did in the past… With longer fermentations you pre-digest the grain, you destroy the gluten, and people who have the gluten sensitivity issues by and large see those issues greatly reduced if not eliminated,” he continued. 

Quinn connects these problems in breeding and food production to the demand for cheap, high yield food. Producing food for quantity and low price subtracts true value in nutrition, taste, smell, and texture. He speculates that this is also connected to a rise in chronic illness. 

“…Heritage and heirloom seeds, they were really selected over the centuries to produce high quality in nutrition and in taste, flavors, and aromas and everything. And we have more or less neglected that for the industrial model of just raising more and more food for cheaper and cheaper costs,” he comments on Intellectual Agrarian. 

“The plant scientists don’t worry too much about flavor, aromas, and tastes and stuff like that because the food scientist says, ‘well don’t worry about that, we can take care of that, we can add back flavors and aromas. Don’t worry about breeding or trying to retain those in your plants.’ But really aromas and flavors are indications of nutrition because most of them are the result of polyphenols and secondary plant metabolites that are found in those grains or foods. And they are very strong antioxidants and also a big contributor to anti-inflammatory properties. So if you eliminate those or if you lose those in your effort to just increase yield, then that’s what we’re talking about as value subtraction,” he continued. 

Kamut International and Bob Quinn have contributed to substantial research through their business and farm, from research on how wheat is digested to how organic-model agriculture can revive rural economies.  

More about Bob Quinn and his projects can be found in his book Grain by Grain, coauthored by Liz Carlisle. He was also featured in the podcast Intellectual Agrarian and in the mini documentary KAMUT Khorasan Wheat – Ancient Grain for Future Farming on YouTube. 

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