The Cereal Grains: Some of Their Special Characteristics

By Dr. Royal Lee

Summary: With grains getting a bad rap in some nutrition circles these days, we tend to forget that historically many cultures thrived on diets rich in cereals. The rye eaters of the Swiss Alps, the oat lovers of the Scottish isles, the wheat-heavy Hunza of northern India—all were studied and touted by investigators of the early 1900s for their extraordinary hardiness and freedom from disease. (Of course, their grains were whole, genetically unaltered, grown in healthy soil, and freshly milled before cooking, but that’s another story.) In this 1953 missive, Dr. Royal Lee discusses the nutritional virtues of some of our common grains, commending wheat for its high phosphorus content, rice for the superior biological value of its protein, and oats and rye for their muscle-building effect. He even explains why barley tea—once a household remedy for everything from teething to insomnia—might help keep you free from infectious disease. For anyone questioning the nutritional value of whole grains, Dr. Lee’s words will come as a thought-provoking surprise. Published by the Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research, 1953.

[The following is a transcription of the original Archives document. To view or download the original document, click here.]

The Cereal Grains: Some of Their Special Characteristics[spacer height=”20px”]

Wheat[spacer height=”20px”] Possibly the reason wheat has become so popular is because its protein is best for bread making—other cereals refusing to make a light loaf because their protein has not the proper texture to form gas bubbles. Moreover, wheat will not grow on soil low in phosphorus, so all wheat has a fairly high content of this essential mineral. (The calcium that must be combined with phosphorus to calcify bone may be obtained from hard water; cattle cannot be profitably produced except on land underlaid with limestone to supply the hard water.)

This is a characteristic common to all cereals: they supply only one of the two important bone minerals. Unless the other mineral element is available from other sources, cereal foods fail to properly support bone growth. In general the grasses and leaves of animal feeds help in supplying the calcium and other alkaline elements to complete the nutritional pattern. The ash of cereals, like the ash of the meat foods, is acidic and must be balanced by the alkaline ash of leaf and root vegetables. Hogs and chickens are fed alfalfa-leaf meal for the purpose of neutralizing the acid ash of the cereal foods.

Milk is neutral and cannot correct unbalances.

Rice[spacer height=”20px”] More people live on rice than on wheat. The protein of rice has the highest biological value of all vegetable-source proteins, with the possible exception of potato protein. The oriental rice-eating people are able to maintain a high standard of health on brown rice and a little meat or fish as a  protein supplement. Heart disease, arthritis, and high blood pressure are almost nonexistent in China.

Rye[spacer height=”20px”] Rye, as distinguished from wheat, will grow on any soil. If a farmer has a sand field that will not grow anything else, he plants it in rye. He will get a good crop if it rains, but the grain will be almost devoid of minerals and vitamins. If rye is grown on the same soil as wheat, it is a better food than the wheat. Animal tests have shown that rye develops muscle, while wheat promotes fat formation. This characteristic of rye is shown up in the feats of rye-eating athletes. Finnish competitors walk away at the Olympic Games with ten times their normal share of trophies where endurance is the test. In Reader’s Digest of September 1952 is the account of a sixty-six-year-old bicycle rider who won a 1000 mile race over fifty young contestants in Sweden. His main item of diet seems to have been rye bread.

The Finns live on rye bread, fish, and fruit. Alfred McCann, in his book The Science of Keeping Young (1926), had a chapter on the Finns, calling them the “super-man race”—the only modern nation getting a rational diet. 

Barley[spacer height=”20px”] Barley, because of its adhering husk that must be “pearled” off to make it acceptable in the culinary arts, has not had the recognition its merits demand. Barley water has been a household remedy for many years for the ills of the teething baby and for many other disorders. It seems to allay any irritation due to a lack of available calcium. This includes not only the troubles of the teething baby but allergies in general, low resistance to infection, gastritis, stomach ulcers and colitis, nervous states, even insomnia.

Beer is barley water plus the barley carbohydrates, rendered soluble by the malt enzymes. These sugars offset the possible benefits of the barley extract—beer drinkers being seemingly almost as susceptible to polio as the soft-drink user. Sugar in any form in excess causes the periodic between-meal release of free phosphate radical (from phosphagen turnover), which destroys vital blood bicarbonate of calcium, our defender against viruses. It is probable that no virus could harm us unless we first prepared a welcome for it by permitting this temporary loss of blood calcium bicarbonate. (Calcium lactate or gluconate can form the bicarbonate after ingestion; bone calcium, the phosphate, cannot.)

Our normal source of calcium bicarbonate is in hard water. The city of Des Moines, Iowa, had one of the lowest rates of incidence of polio. After the installation of water-softening equipment at the city water works, the polio incidence went almost to the opposite extreme. Many physicians have discovered the shortcomings of softened water by noting that soft water drinkers have a reduced state of vitality.

Oats[spacer height=”20px”] Oats should rank next to rye as a muscle builder—look at the horse, or the traditionally lean Scotchman. By the way, oats grown in the silt valleys of Scotland sell (in Scotland) for twice the price of English oats, we are informed, because of the superior flavor. No doubt, again, the effect of good soil, as is the case for rye.

The protein content of oats is relatively high, oatmeal usually running 15 percent. (The national average for wheat is 9 percent, the best Deaf Smith County wheat being 16 to 17 percent.)

The best oatmeal to buy is steel-cut meal at a health food store. The packaged cereals are all treated with bug poisons; the flavor alone shows their inferiority.

The general practice of fumigating grains to kill bugs is very unfortunate. It is almost impossible to get unfumigated grains today unless you buy direct from the grower and store it yourself. These fumigating gases are poison and are adsorbed in the grain. (Look up the technique of chromatographic adsorption in analysis if you think there is any doubt of the possibility of this contamination. Starch is one of the best of all chemicals to pick up these poison gases.)

Rolled oat is a poor cereal. Its previous moistening and cooking destroy much of its vitamin value and damage the protein. If you buy rolled oats in a feed store where they sell animal feeds, you will get a better grade. The grocery store kind could not be used as animal feed; chickens will die if fed precooked grains. Feed stores get a different grade, in 100-pound bags, [and they] will sell you 5-pound lots at less than the usual grocery price.

Corn[spacer height=”20px”] Corn has a poor reputation as food for the human family. It is low in protein, and the protein is low in tryptophan—the precursor of niacin—and so it predisposes to pellagra. And, like white rice, it causes beriberi. However, the use of refined corn seems to be the main cause, as all commercial corn meal today has had the germ removed. But where corn is grown on good soil and is ground in the kitchen and prepared Mexican style [i.e., via nixtamalization], the grain seems to compare favorably with any cereal.

Hybrid corn, the only kind now commercially available in this country, is a refined abomination—refined by nature, since it will not reproduce. Its ability to produce more per acre is a direct consequence of its lack of the power plant, the germ, in the seed. Vitamin B12, an important component of natural corn, is totally missing in the hybrid variety. Its feed-corn value is impaired, molasses being commonly used to supply the missing elements. Without the molasses supplement, it is hard to get hogs or cattle to eat it. Popcorn, freshly ground, makes delicious corn cakes or muffins.

Poor food is usually characterized by its lack of normal flavor. In fact it is obvious that our sense of taste is our natural guide to the best food. Makers of counterfeit foods know this. That is why an essence of cultured milk is used in oleo to make it taste like butter, just as you would have to perfume green-dyed shavings with essence of newly mown hay to make it acceptable to a horse. To insult our sense of taste with counterfeit foods is as stupid as to let someone give us “gold bricks” or counterfeit money. We are told that [Kellogg’s] Corn Flakes must be artificially colored and flavored, that otherwise they are as white and tasteless as tissue paper—and as nutritional. Really, they are worse. They add to an already overburdened state of refined carbohydrate excess. If they were paper, they would be indigestible, simply adding useful bulk to the intestinal content. People today are buying methylcellulose, a paper by-product, just for that purpose.


Where recipes call for starch, use tapioca flour, arrowroot, or home-ground corn flour. Tapioca has been found much superior to rice (used as a 25 percent blend, with 75 percent rice) in feeding tests on human subjects, in that nitrogen retention and calcium and phosphorus assimilation were improved (a 50 percent increase in calcium and phosphorus assimilation, as reported in Am. Jol. Clinical Nutrition, vol. 2, No. 6, p. 446).

Arrowroot was once widely used in baby formulas as a superior carbohydrate, experience having shown it agreed with babies better than any other starch or sugar. We now find the reason—it is the only starch product with a calcium ash. Arrowroot only thrives on tidal flats, where the sea minerals are available. Its known health-building properties may be due to trace minerals from the sea as well as from the calcium it gets from the seawater.

Used in ice-cream formulas in place of cornstarch, arrowroot imparts a vanilla-like flavor and a smooth texture. Arrowroot, as it comes to you, is not a refined product; it is simply the dried and powdered root.

There is much evidence to show that polio and other infectious diseases can only invade our bodies after we become depleted in calcium and trace minerals (manganese, cobalt, copper, and iodine). The only successful defense against undulant fever has been the use of these minerals, both for the cow as well as the human. We might call it the automatic punishment for us to have permitted the soil depletion that is now becoming acute.

Pliny the Elder, in his Encyclopedia of Roman Times (published 77 AD), commented that the first 600 years of the Roman Empire were marked by the fact that there were no doctors in the country, and none were needed. (From The Wheel of Health by G.T. Wrench, MD, an absorbing book on food and health: $2.00 post-paid, Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research, Milwaukee 1, Wisconsin. [Note: Order information preserved for historical purposes only.])

By Dr. Royal Lee. Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research, reprint 38B, January 1953.

Reprint No. 38B
Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53201

Note: Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research is a nonprofit, public-service institution, chartered to investigate and disseminate nutritional information. The attached publication is not literature or labeling for any product, not shall it be employed as such by anyone. In accordance with the right of freedom of the press guaranteed to the Foundation by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the attached publication is issued and distributed for informational purposes.


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