Gluten, Zea and the ancient Greeks.

Celiac disease and other forms of gluten intolerance are considered to be one of the major hidden epicemics in modern society. Research conducted by Dr. Alessio Fasano, medical director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Celiac Research, and Dr. Peter Green, director of the Celiac Disease Center (1) indicates that between 5% and 10% of many populations may suffer from a gluten sensitivity of some form.

A common, but not the only condition associated with gluten intolerance is 'Celiac Disease', which is again responsible for a whole array of health problems. According to numerous studies at various respected universities around the world, „more than one of every ten individuals with celiac disease (more than 10%) may develop Arthritis, Ataxia, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Lactose Intolerance, Liver Disease, Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, Peripheral Neuropathy, Obesity, Osteomalacia, Thyroid and Pancreatic Disorders, Type I Diabetes, Anemia, Dermatitis, Migraines, and/or Osteoporosis and people with untreated celiac disease have an increased risk of developing some form of gastrointestinal cancer (some studies suggest they are more than 50 times likely to develop a GI cancer). (2)

As a consequence of all this, a strong "Gluten-free" movement is spreading from the US around the globe, advocating a low gluten or gluten-free diet whenever possible. Food stores, bakeries and restaurants discover these people as an intersting group of customers.
But what is Gluten? In the simplest terms, gluten is a protein composite, meaning it is a substance made up of several different proteins. It is found in wheat and related grains of the triticeae family of grassy grains or cereal grains. These include barley, bulgur wheat, durum, einkorn, farro, graham, kamut, rye, semolina, spelt, triticale and wheat. When you try to avoid it, you find that it has an important role in food preparation: In all baking, it is needed as a 'glue' that keeps your bread, cookies or whatever from falling into crumbs. And gluten-free pasta also seem to be softer, nearly dissolving in the water in which you cook them.

And the ancient Greeks? What do they have to do with it? Well, it is interesting to note that already the eraly Egyptian knew an used the grain and in Ancient Greece people actaully avoided wheat and related products. Instead they grew and ate a grain called ZEA (Triticum Dicoccum for scientific reference). As Maria Korologou (3) reports: 'It is possible that ancient Greeks were so clever because they did not eat wheat which contains gluten, a substance which sticks the nerve endings and doesn’t leave the brain free to think and create.' So 'in classical Greek literature, we find references to a grain called zea or zeia (as distinct from the more common sitos for wheat) which may hark back to these earlier wheat varieties. For Homer, zea was a byword for fertility: the epithet zeidoros, meaning 'zea-gifting', is used in the Iliad to describe fertile land.' (4) This ancient grain, today also known as Emer, Spelt or - in Italy - Farro, (although these are not always really the true triticum dicoccum) is known to have been cultivated for human nutrition for over 12.000 years. Historic reports suggest that Alexander the Great fed his soldiers with a special Zea preparation to make the strong and energetic. According to other reports, the ancient Egyptians are said to have fed wheat to their cattle, while only Zea was considered good enough for human consumption.

Zea is highly nutritious and contains important nutrients, which make it superior to other cereals: Zea is two times richer in dietary fibre than wheat, a fact that makes it a good choice for people suffering from diabetes. It is also twice as in protein than wheat and it features a high content of the amino acid lysine as well as the vitamins A, B, C and E. Lysine is that particular component of proteins that increases their digestibility, boosts the immune system and is a key element for the brain’s biochemical functioning. Another advantage of Zea is its high content in magnesium, up to 40% higher in comparison with other cereals. And, of course Zea is very low in gluten, which makes it an important alternative for wheat if you have to or want to follow a a gluten free diet.

Actually, Zea was a a widely grown crop in Greece up until the 1930ies, when it was pushed off the market by cheaper, higher-yielding grain varieties - above all wheat. Often repeated reports that it was 'banned" could not be confirmed, though.
But since the 1980ies Zea is having a strong comeback in Greece. This seems to have been started primarily by two farmers, Damianos Pachopoulos in Pieria (northern Greece) and Antonopoulos Farm in Larissa (central Greece). Antonopoulos Farm has been involved in the organic farming of local cereal varieties since 1985. They claim their family had kept old zea seeds predating 1928, and the company has had a significant impact in promoting and protecting the quality of zea.

So: Yes, Greece has a very valuable contribution it can make towards the health of modern day diets, for celiac patients, gluten intolerance patients and just people who are looking for a healthier grain.

And the good news is, that at least some Zea products can be obtained even in the Mani. At Kathrina’s Supermarket in Stoupa they sell Zea flour, at least at two bakeries in Kalamata delicious Zea bread is available and another bakery has Zea Kritsinia.
Hopefully more is coming, to help us be as clever as the ancient Greeks.

(1) Celiac Disease (Revised and Updated Edition): A Hidden Epidemic, 2010, byPeter H.R., M.D. Green &Rory Jones
(2) Gluten intolerance School
(3) Greek Reporter
(4) Georgia Nakou


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