Alberta Farmer gets its 15 minutes of fame — and it was pretty weird

A story on critic of the Wheat Belly diet prompts online visits from 
anti-wheat proponents from around the world

It’s a weirdly wired world 

How is it that a small story in a rural Alberta farm paper is suddenly being viewed by people in Panama, Sweden, Lebanon and Croatia, and inundated by commentators who believe wheat is “a pathogen.”

Here’s the story

On Jan. 28, soft-spoken dietitian Christine Lowry stood before a couple of hundred FarmTech attendees in a meeting room at Northlands and made the case that the anti-wheat craze sparked by the book Wheat Belly is not actually based on decades of rigorous scientific research. Rather, this hugely successful food fad is the brainchild of a Milwaukee-based cardiologist named William Davis.

Reporter Alexis Kienlen was there and wrote a story bearing the headline  “Science-based organization fights anti-wheat hysteria.” Within hours of being posted online, nearly 1,000 people had viewed the story.

I know that because of a gizmo called Google Analytics, which also logs the country of the visitors. Nearly 70 per cent were from the U.S., but also from 31 other countries. And “anti-wheat hysteria?” Them’s fightin’ words.

“I don’t need any empirical studies or to ‘look at the science and substantiate it.’ I’ve done my homework… today’s wheat is GARBAGE,” wrote someone (presumably a guy) calling himself Mister Shawn.

“Can you say ‘conflict of interest.’ Only a very dull individual would think a shill for the ‘healthy whole grains’ institute would say anything else,” added J.

Nancy Eure said she spent 60 years believing whole grains were good for her.

“I read Wheat Belly on October 3, 2012, decided to give it two good weeks of my life, and I have never looked back. By eliminating wheat and most other grains I have lost weight, lost all prescription drugs, have lost shortness of breath from asthma-related symptons, (sic) and have gained so much more!”

So how did word of our little story spread faster than a prairie grass fire?

Simple. Wheat Belly author Davis posted a link to it on his hugely popular Facebook page. Immediately the Wheat Belly water cannon of love showered its affection on us. Who are these people anyway?

But what grabbed my attention was the marketing smarts behind it all.

Imagine you’ve created a fad diet and it’s caught the wave. Hundreds and then thousands of people try it and swear it’s a miracle. The wave builds. More people try it and darned if it doesn’t make them feel better, too. They’re energized and because they are, they spend less time slumped on the couch and channel surfing. They get out for walks more often, maybe blow the dust off the old treadmill in their basement. No more “Duck Dynasty” marathons (well, fewer of them, anyway) accompanied by a big package of Oreos (they contain wheat, you know). Fewer trips to fast-food joints (burgers and pizza ditto).

They feel 10 times better. And all they did was stop eating foods made with wheat flour. Amazing.

Then along come the critics. Take Ms. Lowry’s employer. The Healthy Grains Institute is funded by bakers, millers and farm groups such as the Alberta Wheat Commission. It makes no secret that its mission is “to dispel myths around whole grains.”

But it’s a crafty opponent. The institute restricts itself to only providing information vetted by a panel of three independent nutrition experts from the universities of Toronto, Saskatchewan, and St. Catherine (in St. Paul, Minn.).

You might think it would be a wise move to keep your adoring fans away from unbiased scientists who have actually read and understand the scientific papers you claim support your theory. But Dr. Davis does the exact opposite. He brings them, or at least the Healthy Grains Institute, to their attention.

That’s brilliant.

From the Country Guide website: Fat goes free after serving 50 years

Naturally, their fury rains down on Lowry and all of those who question the nutritional foundation for this wonderful diet that has given them all this energy and, incredibly, has them wearing clothes a size or two smaller. And so facts get buried in an avalanche of noise.

Not fair, is it? And it just keeps coming. Wheat Belly, A&W’s so-called ‘Better Beef,’ GM-free Cheerios. The list seems to grow daily.

But there are lessons for farmers here. Three of them.

The first is hard: No matter how well you tell your story and, really, no matter how much evidence you offer to show that you produce food safely, humanely and responsibly, there will be more of this type of thing. Fads — from top hats made from beaver pelts to pet rocks — have always been with us, and always will. Expect wonder diets and calls to “just stop eating this” to be among the most popular.

The only difference today is that the Internet, and especially social media, amplifies the roar of the crowd and sends it around the globe at lightning speed.

The second lesson is: Don’t worry about it. Stand back and what do you see? World wheat consumption going up and up. I suspect that not eating is one fad that will never catch on.

And lesson three is: Don’t paint yourself into a corner like the commentators on this story did.

If a friend of mine went on the Wheat Belly diet — and started being more active and eating less junk food and more fruits and veggies — I’d likely say, “Good for you,” and leave it at that.

But if my friend started going on about how glyphosate or plant breeding had altered the nutritional characteristics of wheat without a single credible scientist noticing, I’d say, “Yeah, and do you know those wheat farmers are also enslaving sasquatches and elves? They’ve put them to work in secret laboratories underneath their grain bins to create even more toxic chemicals.”

That’s just what friends say to friends.

I also believe that if folks like Mister Shawn, J, and Nancy Eure lived in your community, you’d be friendly with them. Nancy especially. I’m glad she’s feeling better.

And consider another current fad — the one of slapping the old British saying, “Stay calm and carry on,” on T-shirts and bumper stickers.

It’s good advice. Keep telling your story. More and more of you are getting really good at it. And by all means, keep looking for ways to improve your food safety protocols, animal welfare practices, and environmental stewardship.

And if one day, thousands of people alight on your Facebook page or blog and fling ill-informed and mean-spirited comments your way, take a breath.

In this new world, it happens to someone every minute of the day.

[email protected]
twitter: @glenncheater

About the author

Editor

Glenn Cheater

Glenn Cheater is a veteran journalist who has covered agriculture for more than two decades. His mission is to showcase the ideas, passions, and stories of Alberta farmers and ranchers.

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