Two hundred years ago, Reverend Sylvester Graham was treated by the scientific community as a nut because he claimed that white flour, meat and alcohol were poisons and that obesity was a sin. He inspired the development of graham flour, graham bread and graham crackers, vegetarian diets and prohibition of alcohol. He had no knowledge of nutrition, and vitamins had not even been discovered, so he was really a prophet. Today we know that the B vitamins (thiamin, niacin, riboflavin and folic acid) are found in wheat germ and that removing the germ when wheat was ground into flour caused epidemics of beriberi and pellagra, which killed more people in North America from 1700 to 1900 than any other cause. Today we are also advised to:
• Restrict or avoid meat, even though Graham did not know of its association with heart attacks, strokes and certain cancers
• Restrict or avoid alcohol, which is now known to be associated with liver damage and heart attacks
• Avoid being obese, which is associated with increased risk for heart attacks, certain cancers and premature death
Early Life and Ministry
Sylvester Graham was born in 1794, one of 17 children of a 70 year old minister. At age two, Sylvester became an orphan and a ward of charity. At age 32 he enrolled at Amherst College in Massachusetts to become a minister, but he had a nervous breakdown and was kicked out. He married his nurse, Miss Sara Eads, and she soon became pregnant so he had to support a family. He went to a Presbyterian Church in New Jersey and begged them to make him a minister. He was such a convincing speaker that he became famous as a fire-breathing minister who warned about the dangers of alcohol, white flour, meat, gluttony, obesity and body odor. Graham became an ardent vegetarian, convinced that God did not want people to kill animals. He became very interested in health and believed that people died because they had unhealthy bowels, caused by lack of bulk in the diet.
Graham was also very concerned about the breakdown of families. At that time, most breads were made by small “ma and pa” mills that ground their own whole grains into flour that they would sell locally. Graham believed that white flour would allow companies to build huge mills that would grind flour that would be sold to large bakeries. These bakeries would be able to sell bread so cheaply that the small mills would not be able to compete, which would put the “ma and pa” mills out of business and would break up their families.
Why Millers Made White Flour
If you grind whole grains into flour and do not cook them within a few days, the fat in the wheat germ turns rancid. A whole grain looks like a tiny egg. On the outside, it has a tough coat called the hull. At the base of the grain is the germ, which is the part of the seed that forms a new plant. The rest of the grain is the endosperm, which is the starchy food that the seed uses as a source for energy for the baby plant before it can lay down roots and leaves to extract its own food from the air and soil.
When you grind whole grains into flour, you break up the germ which contains a lot of fat. The fat turns rancid quickly so the flour cannot be stored for a long time. Millers learned that they could produce flour that could be kept a very long time just by removing the germ from the grains before they were ground into flour.
When Graham preached against white flour, he did not know that removing the germ was removing most of the vitamins and virtually all of the minerals and phytochemicals. Audiences at his church services would hear that the rise of large corporations and the demise of small companies will break up families. Without small bakeries and mills, men would have less incentive to marry and the family structure would be destroyed.
Beriberi and Pellagra
The rise of the large flour mills meant that most bread was made without the B vitamins, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin and folic acid, which led to an epidemic of beriberi and pellagra.
• Lack of niacin causes pellagra, which makes people crazy and gives them diarrhea and skin rashes before they die of heart failure.
• Lack of thiamin causes beriberi in which people swell up like balloons, lose feeling in their arms and legs and die of heart failure.
• Lack of riboflavin is associated with swelling and fissuring of the lips, ulceration and cracking of the angles of the mouth, oily, scaly skin, rashes on the genitals and between the nose and lips, swelling of the tongue, red, itchy eyes, numbness of hands, and decreased sensitivity to touch, temperature or vibration.
• Lack of folic acid causes heart attacks and, in pregnant women, causes their babies to suffer spina bifida in which the spine is deformed.
Graham’s followers created a cracker that was named after him, made with coarsely ground whole wheat and molasses. Graham believed that he was on a mission from God for the sake of humanity, and he never profited from the Graham cracker or any of his followers’ other products. He died in poverty at age 55.
In 1878, a quarter century after his death, one of his followers, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, started selling cereal that he called “granola.” Then he produced “corn flakes” which started the North American breakfast cereal industry.
In 1931, the National Biscuit Company, which became Nabisco, introduced its Graham Crackers. Sylvester Graham would turn over in his grave if he knew that today’s Graham Crackers are made with refined flour and loaded with sugar, both of which increase risk for obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, certain cancers and premature death.
Enriching Flour Saved Lives, but Flour Still Kills
In the 1930s the U. S. government made it illegal to sell flour unless the miller added back thiamin, niacin and riboflavin. This brought an end to the epidemics of beriberi and pellagra. However, the heart attack rates kept rising until 1994, when the government required adding folic acid back into all flour. Since then, the rate of heart attacks declined dramatically.
However, today fortified flour is a major factor in the epidemic of diabetes that affects 40 percent of all North American adults and is the third leading killer. Whole grains are seeds of grass. These tiny pellets have a thick capsule that your body breaks down only very slowly, so blood sugar rises very slowly after you eat unground whole grains. Once you grind whole grains into flour, the capsule is gone and blood sugar levels rise very high after you eat foods made from flour, such as bread, spaghetti and most dry breakfast cereals.
A high rise in blood sugar can damage every cell in your body. When blood sugar levels rise too high, your liver converts sugar to triglycerides which are rapidly funneled into, and stored in, the liver to cause a fatty liver that is the major cause of diabetes today. When you store extra fat in your liver, your liver cannot do its job of lowering high blood sugar levels. When blood sugar levels rise, your pancreas releases insulin into the bloodstream and insulin lowers high blood sugar levels by driving sugar from the bloodstream into the liver. A liver full of fat does not accept sugar to raise blood sugar levels even higher to cause diabetes.
Two hundred years ago, Graham preached that white flour, meat, alcohol and obesity were sins. Today we know that these factors are associated with increased risk for some of the leading causes of death each year in the United States (CDC, Mortality in the United States, December 2021):
• Heart disease, 696,962 deaths/year
• Cancers, 602,350 deaths/year
• Stroke, 160,264 deaths/year
• Diabetes, 102,188 deaths/year
To help protect yourself from these diseases, I recommend that you listen to Sylvester Graham and restrict meat, sugar-added foods, all drinks with sugar in them, alcohol, and all refined carbohydrates such as foods made from ground up whole grains (flour) — bread, pasta, most dry breakfast cereals and so forth.