Did you know that wheat, until it was separated from the rest of its grain family members in 1883 by Joseph Kellogg, was thought to be an animal product?
Yes, people considered wheat a form of meat! The fact is, there are many things about this versatile crop that confound our modern ideas of food categorization.
In this article, we will explore whether wheat should really be classified as a plant or not. We’ll discuss how its nutritional profile compares with other major crops such as rice, corn, soybeans, potatoes, and beans. We’ll also look at why some experts say that wheat could become a new staple crop in Africa and South America where it has been grown for thousands of years without any problems.
Table of Contents
First off let’s take a quick look at the history behind the question “is wheat a vegetable?” Let’s start with the basics. What exactly is wheat? Well, technically speaking, it is a type of grass called Triticum (Triccium) sativum. However, when most people refer to “wheat,” they mean either breads like whole-grain white flour, pastry flour, semolina flour, etc., or anything made with refined flour. In short, wheat can be broken down into two categories:
1.) Whole Grains
2.) White Flour Products.
As you may have guessed, category one contains all parts of the wheat kernel including bran, endosperm and germ while category two refers only to the endosperm.
Let’s talk Nutrition now… When compared to other popular vegetables like carrots and broccoli, wheat actually packs quite a punch nutritionally. It is high on both vitamin A and C. Vitamin B1 (Thiamine), Iron, Riboflavin, Niacin and Pantothenic Acid are present in large quantities too. On top of these vitamins and minerals, wheat can provide us with protein, dietary fiber, calcium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc. Compared to other cereal grains, wheat ranks second only to maize (corn) in terms of total iron content per 100-gram serving.
The mineral magnesium is also found in significant amounts. Overall, wheat is very healthy stuff but keep reading because this doesn’t answer the original question yet.
Should wheat be classed as a vegetable or not?
After doing my own research I’ve come up with three possible answers. First, yes, it can easily be eaten raw without much harm coming to your body. Second, no, it does not belong in the same group as other plants simply because it isn’t green like other plants. Thirdly, maybe, depending on which expert you listen to. So which answer do you think best fits the bill? Here are the facts…
Is wheat a Fruit or Vegetable?
Wheat is considered a grain rather than a fruit or vegetable due to its origins.
When considering wheat’s place among fruits and vegetables, first let’s look at what makes each unique. Fruits are generally sweet whereas vegetables tend to taste bitter. Unlike wheat, neither of these traits apply to the majority of cultivated varieties of wheat. This means that although we eat them fresh and cook them further, we don’t consider them to be part of the same plant family. Another way to put it would be saying that just because something tastes good cooked doesn’t make it a veggie. For example, celery leaves taste fantastic sauteed in butter but they aren’t even remotely close to being a vegetable. They’re just tough fibrous stalks that happen to taste delicious after cooking.
Next let’s look at the differences between grains and vegetables. One difference between the two types of produce is their size. Grains are usually larger than veggies. If you compare the diameter of a carrot versus a grain of rice, then clearly the latter wins out. While small individual seeds of wheat might seem similar in size to those of barley, true comparison shows that wheat is far bigger than barley. Since wheat is composed mostly of starch, this explains why it tends to expand during processing. Also, since it takes longer for carbohydrates to break down into sugar through digestion, a person eating lots of wheat over time ends up storing excess fat due to excessive calories absorbed.
With regards to nutritional value, vegetables typically have higher levels of antioxidants and phytochemicals. These chemicals help protect cells against damage caused by free radicals. Conversely, grains contain little antioxidant activity.
Because of this, health advocates often recommend consuming more servings of leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables rather than grain-based ones. With wheat specifically, it is important to note that unlike its cousin rye, wheat lacks gluten. Gluten is essential for making pasta, pancakes, pizza dough, cookies, cakes and so on. Thus, someone who needs gluten in his/her diet would need to consume less wheat all together.
Although wheat itself won’t cause digestive issues, it can lead to intestinal inflammation. Therefore, it is recommended that anyone diagnosed with Celiac disease avoid consumption altogether. Other conditions that require special attention include dermatitis herpetiformis and nonceliac gluten sensitivity.
So what about Africa and South America? There are several reasons why wheat could potentially replace traditional staples like yams, cassava, cocoyam and millet. Firstly, wheat grows well throughout the continent regardless of soil quality or climate. Secondly, it requires fewer fertilizers than traditional crops. Lastly, wheat produces enough yield to feed millions of African citizens. All in all, it would be beneficial for the continent to adopt this crop fully. Even though it took centuries before Westerners learned to grow wheat themselves, Africans already knew how to process it long ago. Several tribes in Africa practice fermentation prior to grinding the kernels into flour. Aside from increasing shelf life, this technique allows for better nutrition and flavor retention.
Although it seems pretty clear that wheat belongs somewhere else in the world, it still remains debatable where exactly it sits. Some sources claim that wheat should fall under the heading of vegetables while others insist it’s closer to fruits. To find the real answer, let’s examine several other factors.
What is Wheat Used for?
We mentioned earlier that wheat can be broken down into two categories. Category one includes all parts of the wheat kernel including bran, endosperm and germ while category two refers only to the endosperm. By looking closely at the composition of wheat, we see that the endosperm accounts for 90% of the entire mass. Now, if we dig deeper into the matter, we discover that the actual amount of usable nutrients within the endosperm depends largely upon how it is processed. For instance, wheat berries consist mainly of hulls, head, stem, glume, and embryo surrounded by barely any endosperm. Whereas, hard red winter wheat consists of 60 percent endosperm plus 30 percent aleurone layer, 10 percent scutellum, 5 percent embryonic tissue, and 5 percent bran. Aleurones are microscopic structures surrounding the embryo inside the endosperm. Basically, these tiny granules contain various sugars and starches whose function is to nourish the growing seedling. During milling, the outer layers of the wheat are removed leaving only the inner part containing the endosperm. Once milled, however, this component becomes known as white flour. Interestingly, while this flours nutritional qualities differ greatly, its overall characteristics remain consistent across different regions of production. Hence, it is safe to assume that the nutrient profile of white flour produced in North Dakota is going to be roughly comparable to that of flour produced anywhere else in the United States.
As touched upon previously, wheat is primarily utilized for baking purposes in the U.S. Today, most Americans enjoy breads, pastas, cereals, crackers, pies, cookies, cake, and countless other baked goods. But did you know that wheat can also be ground into a fine powder and used as a thickening agent in sauces, soups, gravies, and casseroles? Or perhaps you’d prefer using it for yeast extract or beer brewing? Many countries use wheat as livestock fodder, and it provides a great source of energy.
Finally, wheat is widely used in industry for oil refining, concrete mixing, textiles, papermaking, paints, adhesives, chewing gum, explosives, medicines, detergents, lubricants, printing ink, cosmetics, plastics, pharmaceuticals, insulation materials, construction material, roof tiles, glass manufacturing, biofuels, biodegradables, and fuel additives.
Clearly, wheat plays a vital role in society today. That said, is it a fruit or vegetable? Maybe it’s a bit of both. Its versatility allows it to perform multiple functions. Whether it’s used as a primary ingredient or a supporting player, wheat truly deserves recognition for its contribution to global trade, agriculture, and culture.
Difference between a Grain and a Vegetable?
One final thought remains to be discussed: namely, the difference between a grain and a vegetable. You’d think that the two would be fairly clear cut, but unfortunately, there is plenty of room for debate here too.
To begin with, a seed technically falls into both categories depending on the growth stage. Cereal grasses, sorghum, buckwheat, millet, and hemp are all examples of plants whose mature seeds aren’t commonly eaten raw. On the other hand, the immature kernels found within corn and sweet potato tubers are often referred to as vegetables despite having no resemblance whatsoever to anything resembling actual vegetation.
Furthermore, the term “grain” refers to a type of fruit, whereas “seed” describes the end product of photosynthesis. While both refer to reproductive organs, the former is technically speaking a form of plant tissue—not just a single item. Finally, grains tend to be rich in complex carbohydrates, whereas vegetables favor simple carbohydrates.
In conclusion, I hope that my arguments above have helped shed light onto the topic of whether wheat is a vegetable. Although I wouldn’t go as far as calling it a true member of the family, I believe that it belongs somewhere close to the top of the pile. We live in strange times indeed, when a seemingly innocuous piece of toast can cause a heated argument amongst otherwise rational adults.
For future reference: No, I am not vegan. Yes, I eat eggs because I enjoy eating them.