Tag Archives: Cereals

Charred grains.

Earliest evidence of beer brewing in Scandinavia hails from the Iron Age

New evidence shows that Swedes were producing beer on an industrial scale even since the Iron Age.

Charred grains.

Carbonized germinated grains found at Uppåkra, Sweden.
Image credits M. Larsson, A. Svensson, J. Apel, 2018, Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

Humans have had a very long relationship with beer. Legal documents and images recovered by archaeologists show that people in Mesopotamia produced the brew as early as 4000 BCE. There is also evidence of beer-making in China around 3000 BCE. Beer seems to have played an important part in these ancient cultures and economies, and it’s possible that the earliest permanent settlements were founded just so we could grow more grains and make more beer.

New findings from the Lund University, Sweeden, shows that northerners were also joining in the fun as early as the Iron Age.

Let there be ale!

Archaeologists from Lund report finding the carbonized remains of germinated grains in Uppåkra, southern Sweden. The findings show that malting processes were carried out here as early as the Iron Age — and where there’s malt, there’s beer. The scale of the operation and its position in the settlement indicates an industrial-level approach to brewing.

“We found carbonised malt in an area with low-temperature ovens located in a separate part of the settlement. The findings are from the 400-600s, making them one of the earliest evidence of beer brewing in Sweden,” says first author Mikael Larsson, who specialises in archaeobotany, the archaeology of human-plant interactions.

Finding cereals on archaeological sites is far from uncommon. However, there’s rarely any way to link these grains to certain processes, meaning we can’t tell what the people of old were planning to do with the seeds. The particularities of the malting process, however, allowed the team to identify the intended purpose of these grains.

It takes two key processes to brew beer. The first, malting, requires wetting grain with water to induce germination. During the process of germination, enzymes in the seeds break down proteins and starches into sugars. After enough sugar is formed, the second part of the process begins: the grains are dried in an oven to halt germination. The charring on the seeds discovered in Uppåkra, as well as the presence of ovens in the area, suggests that the grains were involved in this drying process.

Ovens.

Excavation of the kiln structure. a) During removal of clay base of oven. b) Stone packing exposed at the base of the kiln. c) Removal of stone packing and wall foundation of oven. d) Oven removed, excavation of trench cut in progress.
Image credits M. Larsson, A. Svensson, J. Apel, 2018, Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

Uppåkra is currently the largest Iron Age settlements in southern Scandinavia. From 100s BCE to the 1000s CE, it was a densely populated political and religious center. Imported luxuries such as jewelry and glass bowls were found in impressive quantities in the settlement, suggesting that it was an important and rich trading center. It’s not far-fetched, then, to assume that a local brewing industry might have thrived here — and evidence on the ground also supports this.

“Because the investigated oven and carbonised grain was situated in an area on the site with several similar ovens, but absent of remains to indicate a living quarter, it is likely that large-scale production of malt was allocated to a specific area on the settlement, intended for feasting and/or trading,” explains Mikael Larsson.

We’ve previously only found evidence of beer brewing in the Nordic region in two other places: one location in Denmark from around 100 CE, and one in Eketorp on Öland from around 500 CE. This would make the present findings the earliest evidence of beer production in the area.

The paper “Botanical evidence of malt for beer production in fifth–seventh century Uppåkra, Sweden” has been published in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

Barley’s full genome sequenced after decade-long research effort

After more than a decade of work, an international team consisting of over 70 researchers is poised to make your beer fuller and your Scotch neater — they have successfully sequenced the complete genome of barley, a major crop and key ingredient in the two brews.

Barley.

Image credits Hans Braxmeier.

We’ve got a long and alcohol-imbibed history with barley. It has been a staple crop for us and animal feed as well as underpinned breweries ever since the agricultural revolution. Today, barley is a major component in all-purpose flour for bread and pastries, graces breakfast tables as an ingredient in cereals, is the prime ingredient in single malt Scotch, lends beer its color, body, the protein to form a good head, and the natural sugars needed for its fermentation.

Selective breeding has allowed farmers to develop tastier, more nutritious barley with a greater yield over that time – but there’s still room for improvement, as the crop’s genome was barley known, limiting the effectiveness of breeding efforts.

Now, the International Barley Genome Sequencing Consortium (IBSC) a team of 77 researchers from around the world report that they’ve successfully sequenced the full genome of barley families heavily relied on for malting processes. This allowed them to pinpoint the bits of code that formed “genetic bottlenecks” during domestication, and further breeding efforts focus on increasing diversity in these areas and make the crops even better. It should also help scientists working with other crops in the grass family such as rice, wheat, or oats.

It may not sound like a huge accomplishment until you consider that barley’s genome is almost double the size of a human’s, and large swathes of it (around 80%) is composed of highly repetitive sequences, which made it incredibly hard for the team to focus on specific locations in the genome. The team had to make major advances in and sequencing technology, algorithmic design, and computing for the task at hand. Their findings provide knowledge of more than 39,000 barley genes.

“This takes the level of completeness of the barley genome up a huge notch,” said Timothy Close, a professor of genetics at UC Riverside and co-author of the paper.

“It makes it much easier for researchers working with barley to be focused on attainable objectives, ranging from new variety development through breeding to mechanistic studies of genes.”

One finding, in particular, surprised the scientists, and it has to do with the malting process. This involves germinating and then crushing the grains and is a key step in brewing. During germination, seeds produce amylase, a protein which breaks down their store of starch into simple sugars – which will ferment into alcohol. The team’s sequencing efforts revealed there was much more variability than expected in the genes encoding the amylase.

The full paper “A chromosome conformation capture ordered sequence of the barley genome” has been published in the journal Nature.

Wheat.

What is gluten and why some people have gluten intolerance

“Gluten” is an umbrella term used to denote the mix of storage protein compounds found in all species and hybrids of wheat and its related grains (barley, rye, etc). Not a single substance but rather a mixture of various kinds of protein, gluten is, simply put, the way these cereals store building materials for the future.

Wheat.

*gluten intensifies*
Image credits Hans Braxmeier.

Owing to proteins’ tendency to bunch up or string together, gluten lends elasticity and texture to baked goods, making them either chewy or crunchy — “gluten” is actually the Latin word for “glue”. It’s also the object of many a fad diet and legitimate dietary concerns (primarily in the shape of allergies or intolerances), and a cool compound to use in making DIY playdough.

What is gluten made of

So right off the bat, gluten doesn’t have a set chemical structure. Its composition varies depending on the species in question and the exact percentages very likely differ from individual to individual. But in a general sense, gluten is a mixture of prolamins and glutelins.

Prolamins are a family of storage proteins used to stockpile (mainly) proline and glutamine, two amino acids which underpin protein synthesis for plants. Each crop produces and stores a different brand of prolamin — gliadin in wheat, hordein for barley, secalin in rye, zein in corn, kafirin in sorghum, and avenin (minor protein) in oats. Glutelins do basically the same thing as prolamins in chemically-different combinations and shapes. They’re rich in amino acids, particularly glutenin (wheat), though to a lesser overall degree than prolamins.

Proline&Glutamine.

The two amino acids gluten mainly stores.

All plants use protein stores of one kind or another, mostly concentrated in fruits in the case of endosperms, earmarked to supply budding plants during germination. The term gluten is sometimes extended to these stores as well (especially for corn or rice as they’re also cereals) but true gluten (with prolamins and glutelins) is only found in wheat, its related grains, and their species and hybrids. Some other gluten-free grains you’re likely to bump or bite into are quinoa, amaranth, and oats — although this last one is usually not recommended by dietitians, as it’s usually processed through the same channels as wheat-related grains, which can contaminate it with gluten.

Why gluten is good

Proline is considered to be a non-essential amino acid in the human body (the need can be covered by internal synthesis), while glutamine plays a non-essential/conditionally essential role (it is usually supplied by the body’s own synthesis processes, but must be supplemented by diet in certain stressful conditions). Glutamine has the distinction of being the most abundant free amino acid in the bloodstream.

So while they do have nutritional value, for the most part, our bodies don’t really need these amino acids. But gluten plays a central part in how we process and then consume grains. It accounts for the lion’s share of proteins in bread — anywhere between 75 to 80% — so to understand what it does, let’s take a quick look at how these behave.

Bread.

Those stretch-like marks are made by gluten holding the dough together during yeast fermentation.
Image credits Lebensmittelfotos.

Proteins are essentially long chains of amino acids strewn together and folded into certain shapes. They do all sorts of stuff in living bodies, such as pumping compounds in and out of cells or moving things around. But the thing we’re interested in right now is that they are also the go-to compounds when mechanical resilience and stiffness are required. Your nails are so hard compared to your skin because they’re rich in keratin. Your nose never breaks because elastin strands hold the cartilage together, just like the iron rods do in reinforced concrete. Cells keep their shape because tiny filaments of protein run from wall to wall and prop them up.

And that’s what gluten does in pretty much any foodstuff made from flour. By kneading it with water, bakers “weave” gluten into long elastic strands which act similarly to those of a polymer. These strands are made up of glutenin molecules which criss-cross into a microscopic net-like pattern along with gliadin (wheat glutenin) molecules, making the dough hold together, feel a bit rubbery, and stretchable. Heat treatment such as baking or boiling breaks the folding in gluten and makes it coagulate, which, along with starch, gives bread its mechanical properties. Gluten has also been identified as playing a part in the staling of bread, likely by binding atmospheric water molecules.

To get an idea of the physical properties of gluten and how it ties food together, you can play around with a lump of pure gluten. It’s quite fun — keep your hands clean and (most of) you can eat it afterward, too. If you don’t have any lying around, tofu is a similar product (soy/plant proteins but with a higher % of fat mixed in) which is more widely available.

What is gluten intolerance

Now, my reaction to hearing about a new fad diet is a wide smile and a knowing, paternal chuckle. And a big part of the demand for gluten-free products comes down to just that — a fad. To each his own (wallet) but, considering a number of foodstuffs that have gluten and their nutritional value, going gluten-free without any medical reason isn’t the best of ideas as it could end up making your diet way worse overall.

At least some people have a sense of humor about it.
Image credits William Murphy / Flickr.

That being said, some people who are gluten-sensitive or gluten-intolerant can’t eat gluten. There are several gluten-related disorders: celiac disease (CD) is the most common form of intolerance, then there’s the still-debated-on non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), and a slew of other nasty reactions from dermatitis herpetiformis and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) to gluten ataxia and wheat allergy. People suffering from CD see their bodies produce an abnormal immune response when digesting gluten, making their digestive tract unable to absorb nutrients. About 18 million Americans have gluten sensitivity, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. Those with NCGS exhibit many of the same symptoms, due to poor digestion or a placebo effect, still under debate. So why does this happen?

The first thing you have to keep in mind is that while humans are omnivores, our bodies just aren’t geared to eating absolutely everything out there — but we’re very good at adapting. Certain populations overcome diet limitations over time through contact with traditional types of food.

For example, Western society as a whole is much less lactose intolerant than the rest of, well, mammals, since in nature milk is reliably on the menu only before weaning — after that, it’s highly unlikely to pop up, so mammalian bodies don’t maintain a stock of lactase because it doesn’t make economic sense for them to do so. But most westerners today have acquired lactose resistance through (relatively few) generations of natural selection for the ability to eat dairy, as milk was an important source of nutrients here. Writing in the New York time on this subject, Moises Velasquez-Manoff said:

“Few Scandinavian hunter-gatherers living 5,400 years ago had lactase persistence genes, for example. Today, most Scandinavians do.”

The “we’re not yet adapted to it” approach has a lot of support, and there may be some limited validity to that point of view in certain cases. We know of grain consumption even before agriculture, albeit on a reduced scale. It’s also likely that those cereals were poorer in gluten or might not have employed it all together (such as is the case with wild oats), meaning there was no reason to adapt to eating a lot of grains by that time. There is evidence tying CD to genetic factors. However, I’d say that adaptation similar to the one above led to a greater digestibility of gluten and likely worked up a natural tolerance for the majority of humans — else people wouldn’t have eaten it for like 23,000 years.

One other factor cited to play a hand in gluten intolerance is that selective breeding of wheat and related crops up to modern times led to increasing levels of ATIs (-α-amylase/trypsin inhibitors), which the plants use to fight off insects but also interfere with the digestive tract’s processing of gluten, and our bodies are still catching up to that. But research doesn’t point to any increase in ATIs.

One final factor may be more modern — after the transition to agriculture, the genes which cause autoimmune disorders may have provided an evolutionary advantage by keeping people extra-safe in the crowded, pathogen-rich environments of early settlements. And we’re seeing an overall increase in autoimmune disorders of every kind recently as more of the slack is taken away from our immune systems by drugs, making it liable to react out of proportion to perceived threats.

The bottom line is that we don’t really know where gluten intolerance stems from yet.

As for the other disorders, their causes vary quite a lot and may not even be understood or still debated in some cases. If you think you may have a form of gluten sensibility, speaking to a physician is your best way of getting more information.

Cool stuff gluten can do for you

You can still have some fun with gluten, even if you can’t eat it. Candia on Instructables has a nice guide set up so you can make some at home. The cream of tartar will make the dough more elastic, but even if you take it our of the mix the gluten is strong enough to keep the play-dough in one piece no matter how you stretch it. It’s basically dough so you don’t have to worry about the kids (or yourself) sneaking a bite out of it — but be mindful of intolerance.

If you’d rather feel like gluing your kids to the wall (I don’t judge), Wheatglue can come in handy. It’s as easy as mixing flour and water, as Instructabler theRIAA shows. It’s one of the oldest glues ever, used since antiquity to bind books and in the more modern art of plastering posters. Plus, it’s biodegradable so the little ones will come off on their own after some time.

This is not chicken — seriously. It’s seitan, which is basically gluten. The broccoli is just broccoli. Image credits: John / Flickr.

You can use gluten as an alternative to tofu (seitan) and will likely appreciate its more robust texture and stronger aroma compared to the subtle soy product. And as a bonus for vegetarians, you’ll finally have a go-to answer for when people ask where you get your protein from. It even looks a lot like meat, and it’s much healthier than tofu.

So is gluten right for you? Well, statistically speaking, probably yes.