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This article is part of a series on the Word of Wisdom. To view all the articles in this series, see Discovering the Word of Wisdom.
In Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord tells us that He ordained three specific foods for our use. In Three Foods Ordained by God, I explored what it might mean for a food to be ordained of God. In the next two articles, I examined the first two foods the Lord ordained for our use. In a third article, I examined whether fish should be included as one of the flesh foods the Lord ordained:
This week, I’ll be exploring grains, the last of the three foods the Lord ordained for our use.
Wholesome Herbs and Fruit Include Grains
In verses 10–11 of Section 89, the Lord states that He ordained “wholesome herbs” and “every fruit” for our use. We generally suppose herbs refer specifically to vegetables such as carrots, peas, and squash and fruit refers to foods like apples, oranges, and berries. However in the early 19th century the word herb had a broader meaning, referring to all plants that are used for culinary purposes (see also the footnote to D&C 89:10, which defines herbs as plants). Likewise the word fruit had a broader meaning, referring to “the produce of a tree or other plant . . . the seed of plants, or the part that contains the seeds; as wheat, rye, oats, apples, quinces, pears, cherries, acorns, melons, [etc.].”
Based on these definitions, herbs and fruit would include grains, legumes, nuts, and even edible fungus, like mushrooms. It appears that between wholesome herbs and fruit, the Lord has likely included all the edible parts of all the wholesome plants that humans eat. He tells us that these are the foods that are ordained for our “constitution, nature, and use” (D&C 89:10).
Grain Ordained as the Staff of Life
Understanding the foods ordained by God in verses 10–11 is helpful as we turn to verses 14–17 which describe the role of grains in the human diet. Since God has already told us that wholesome grains are ordained for our use, what additional point is He trying to make in the following verse?
All grain is ordained for the use of man . . . to be the staff of life. (D&C 89:14)
The “staff of life” means the staple food. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, staple means “having the chief place among the articles of production or consumption.” Traditionally, every population of people throughout history has relied on a limited number of staple foods that provided the bulk (well over 50%) of the calories that people consumed. Typically these foods have been grains. As the Lord describes it, these staple foods are the staff of life.
Here are some staple grains from around the world:
- Africa: millet, sorghum, teff
- Asia: rice, buckwheat, millet
- Central American: maize (corn)
- Europe: barley, wheat, rye
- Mediterranean: wheat, oats
- Near East: wheat, barley, rye
Why Are Grains Staple Foods?
Of all the wholesome plants ordained by God for our use, why did He specifically set aside certain foods to serve as the staple foods, the staff of life? And what is it about grains that enable them to serve this role? Here are four considerations:
- The first thing to note about whole grains is that they are health promoting. They provide—
- Lots of vitamins & minerals
- Plenty of phytonutrients
- Healthy/safe levels of protein and fats
- High levels of fiber
Research consistently shows that whole grains are highly correlated with positive health benefits. Nutrition experts around the world are united in advocacy for the vital role grains play in the human diet.
- Second, grains are high in starch and thus provide significantly more calories per serving than the typical fruit or vegetable. This is important because calories are the most important reason to consume food, and whole grains provide plenty of wholesome calories.
- Third, grains are cheap and easy to grow in abundance, making their per calorie cost the cheapest of any source of food. In contrast, fruits and vegetables are more expensive to grow and provide fewer calories. (Animal foods also provide a lot of calories, but they are much more expensive to produce and are correlated with negative health consequences.)
- Last, grains are important because these foods can be easily stored for use in times of famine and excess of hunger (think of Joseph of Egypt storing grain against the seven years of famine).
The world’s largest land mammals (elephants, giraffes, rhinos, hippopotamuses, and water buffalo) are herbivores (they eat only plants), but in order to consume enough calories, many of them must spend much of their day eating. If we humans did that, we would have little time for education, the arts, or even religious practice. The cultivation of grains through agriculture, therefore, is the foundation of civilization in the history of the human race. Human civilization is simply not possible without the cultivation of grain. Grains are, indeed, the staff of life. Food expert Harold McGee writes:
It would be hard to overestimate the importance of grains and legumes in the life of our species . . . [They] have played a crucial role in human nutrition and cultural evolution. . . . The culture of the fields made possible the culture of the mind.
Grains Play an Important Role in the Plan of Salvation
When God ordained grains to serve as the staff of life for His children, He declared that these plant foods would play a central role in the Plan of Salvation. How is that? We know that obtaining a physical body and having a mortal experience is central to the Great Plan of Happiness. To fulfill the Plan of Salvation, billions of our Father’s children needed (and still need) to come to this earth to receive a mortal body and experience mortality.
Food plays a critical role in having a body and experiencing mortality. In order to provide a home for billions of His Spirit children, it is clear that God needed to create an earth that can feed billions of people. Of all the sources of food this planet produces, only grains can supply an adequate source of calories for billions of people. Grains are the only source of calories that this earth can grow in enough abundance to feed all of God’s many children.
Today it is popular to claim that grains are harmful to the human body, that they are not part of the natural human diet, and to assert that humans made a mistake when they starting growing grains. Yet even those who criticize grains can’t deny the important role they play in the human diet. For example, one of the leading critics of grains says:
The starchy foods of the Agricultural Revolution are the world’s cheap foods. Grains, legumes, and tubers are the starchy foods that have let our planet’s population balloon to more than 6 billion. . . . Without them, the world could probably support one-tenth or less of our present population; without agriculture’s cheap starchy staples, it is no exaggeration to say that billions of people worldwide would starve.
To those who are critical of the use of grains, the fact that “billions of people worldwide would starve” without grains is simply an unfortunate result of the random forces of evolution. To those who understand the Great Plan of Happiness, however, this is a clue that the Lord spoke with understanding when He declared that grains are ordained as “the staff of life.”
What are the Staple Foods?
When we think of grains, we typically think of cereal grasses such as wheat, rice, corn, and barley. These grasses are the largest source of staple foods, but they are not the only staple foods on this planet. Legumes (beans, peas, and lentils) are sometimes used as staple foods. Interestingly, legumes can also be classified as grains. There are also so-called pseudograins, such as amaranth, buckwheat, and quinoa. Unlike cereal grains, which are the seeds of grasses, pseudograins are the seeds non-grasses, like broadleaf plants.
There are a few more foods we do not call grains that can also serve as staple foods. These include roots and tubers like potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, cassava, and taro. In addition, winter squashes (like acorn, butternut, and pumpkin) have served as staple foods for Native American Indians for thousands of years and were also important for the early American colonists. Plantains (a type of cooking banana) and breadfruit are also staple foods for some populations. Like the typical cereal grains, all of the foods that serve as staple foods are relatively high in starch and have many of the advantages of cereal grains. They are—
- Wholesome and nutritious
- Compared to typical fruits and vegetables, higher in calories
- Easy and inexpensive to grow
- Easier to store long-term than typical fruits and vegetates
Of course cereal grains are much better for long-term storage than tubers, winter squash, or starchy fruits, but then some of the non-grass staples have the advantage of providing more essential nutrients (like Vitamin A and C) than cereal grains.
Grains as a Principle
Does the Lord’s use of the word grain in the Word of Wisdom include pseudograins like quinoa and buckwheat? Does it include starchy fruits and vegetables like plantains, potatoes, taro, and cassava? If so, this may continue a pattern we’ve seen throughout this series on Doctrines, Principles, and Applications. Recall that the four prohibitions of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea are examples of substances that are not for our consumption, but there are many more substances that are not specifically identified that are likewise harmful (like cocaine and LSD). When we focus on the doctrine and principles of the Word of Wisdom, it becomes obvious we should likewise abstain from other harmful substances.
Likewise, when we looked carefully at the flesh of beasts and fowls of the air, it seemed reasonable to consider that the use of these two types of meat might be serving as examples of other similar foods that may also be best for us to use sparingly (at best). If we find these arguments persuasive, similar foods we may also want to largely avoid may include fish, dairy, and eggs.
Using this same pattern, the word grain in the Word of Wisdom may be used as representative of all the types of foods that serve the same role that grains serve. This would include pseudograins, tubers, and starchy fruits and vegetables. Interestingly, the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary defines the word grain as—
the fruit of certain plants which constitutes the chief food of man and beast, as wheat, rye, barley, oats and maiz [corn].
In other words, in the early 19th century, the word grain referred to staple foods (“the chief food of man”). By this definition, any plant that serves as a staple food for a population would by this definition be the grain food for that population.
Here are a few of the locations where foods other than the typical cereal grains serve as staple foods:
- Africa: yam, plantains, soy beans
- Asia: sweet potatoes
- Central American: potato, squash
- India: beans, lentils, and chickpeas
- Indonesia: yam
- South American: potatoes, cassava, sweet potato, plantains, quinoa
What About People Who Can’t Eat Grains?
Anti-grain rhetoric is currently very high in the Western world. This would be incomprehensible to people of past generations who relied on grains as the staff of life, the very foods that kept them from starvation. While much of this rhetoric is (hopefully) a passing fad, there are clearly some people who can’t tolerate certain grains. The most obvious example are people with Celiac Disease who must avoid gluten-containing grains (wheat, barley, and rye). In addition, there are others (albeit a very small percentage of people) who feel they do better when they avoid certain grains or other starchy vegetables.
Here is where the discussion of the wide range of foods that can be classified as “grains” is helpful. No one is limited to wheat, barley, or rye. There are dozens of other cereal grasses, rice being the most popular. In addition, there are many other staple foods, like roots and tubers, starchy fruits and vegetables, and psuedograins. (For a fairly complete list see: Starch Staples.)
How should we understand the Lord’s counsel to make grain the staff of life in light of people who have trouble with certain grains? Consider how some people may have become ill-adapted to these foods. This has likely occurred as a result of a few generations of our ancestors eating a diet that is relatively low in fiber and increasingly high in animal and processed foods. As I explored in the series on the human microbiome, the foods we eat have a tremendous impact on the bacteria and other microbes in our microbiome that play an essential role in the digestion and utilization of our foods. While it is true that all foods have changed somewhat over time, the changes in the foods we grow are relatively small compared to the changes to our microbiome that are a result of the changes in our diets. These alterations in our microbiome have likely made some of us less able to handle traditional starchy foods.
Fortunately, our microbiome responds quickly to a change in our diet. While switching to high fiber foods can feel uncomfortable at first (if our bodies are not used to these foods), as our microbiome changes, our bodies become better able to handle starchy foods.
If any of us find it hard to digest certain starchy foods, we may do well to choose ones that work better for us. Sweet potatoes and rice are two starch foods that work relatively well for most people. If needed, we can even begin to increase the amount of whole grains slowly (for example, mixing white rice with a small amount of brown rice and slowly increasing the ratio of brown rice over time). (See also: Adjusting to Increased Fiber).
Let’s Be Champions of Whole Grains
A quick search of the topic of grains on the Internet reveals a flood of anti-grain rhetoric. This rhetoric is not limited to grains; it includes the many other starch foods that serve as staple foods. We Mormons are used to the world attacking doctrines and principles revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith. While there are many people outside of the Church who support the principles of the Word of Wisdom, we should not be surprised that there is a very organized attack against many of the key principles in this great revelation.
Of course, we should be sensitive to anyone who has problems digesting certain grains. The Lord does not require us to consume foods that cause us pain, and He can help us as individuals know how to apply the principles of the Word of Wisdom. Being pro-grain does not give us license to condemn others who choose a different path. On the other hand, being pro-Word of Wisdom may suggest that we not join the bandwagon that demonizes the grains that the Lord has ordained for the staff of life of His children. Let’s be champions of the Lord’s counsel. Let’s be champions of grains!
Next Time in Discovering the Word of Wisdom
So far in this series on “Doctrines, Principles, and Applications,” I’ve examined the doctrine and principles of the Word of Wisdom. Next time, I’ll be examining the applications of the Word of Wisdom.
One healthy way of eating in harmony with the Word of Wisdom is a whole food, plant-based diet. For more information, see: “Getting Started.”
Jane Birch is the author of Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective and many articles on the Word of Wisdom. She can be contacted on her website, Discovering the Word of Wisdom. Watch the video “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: A Short Film.”
 I discuss definitions of the word herb in “The Wholesome Herbs Ordained by God,” Meridian Magazine (October 24, 2016).
 “Fruit, noun,” Webster’s Dictionary 1828 – Online Edition.
 The 1828 Webster’s Dictionary defines mushroom and other fungus as plants, although today this is not the technical definition.
 Note that the phrase staff of life is an idiom. It does not have the same meaning as the word staff. This idiom means bread or similar staple food. See: “The Staff of Life” (D&C 89:˚14).
 John A. McDougall, “Introduction to New McDougall Book—The Starch Solution,” McDougall Newsletter (February 2009).
 Here is one of many scientific studies that show how powerful whole grains are: Geng Zong, Alisa Gao, Frank B. Hu and Qi Sun, “Whole Grain Intake and Mortality From All Causes, Cardiovascular Disease, and Cancer,” Circulation Volume 133, Issue 24 (June 13, 2016). See also studies cited in Jane Birch, “Gluten, Wheat, Grain (and other food sensitivities).”
 The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has complied a list of official Food-based Dietary Guidelines for 86 countries, all of which feature the importance of grains, particularly whole grains.
 Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1984), 226.
 Loren Cordain, The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Foods You Were Designed to Eat, Revised Edition (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2011), 215.
 For research on this topic, see the series of ten articles I wrote for Meridian Magazine on the microbiome. Search for the word ” microbiome” on this site: Meridian Magazine – “Discovering the Word of Wisdom” series by Jane Birch.