I had no idea that wheat was such a controversial topic until I began doing research in preparation for writing this blog series. After much reading and sifting through articles, I believe that, to really get to the heart of whether a gluten-free diet is appropriate for those of us that don’t have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, the discussion must become global and include some history as well as a few details on farming, biotechnology, and economic trading. There is a multitude of information on the Internet and, in my opinion, more to this issue than simply considering whether to include gluten in your diet. I have done my best to present all sides (in the following three parts) and provide, well, food for thought. Read the first part of the series here.
Part 2 – Your Wheat is Not Your Grandmother’s Wheat
You may be surprised to know that other parts of the world are way ahead of the U.S. when it comes to gluten-free eating. Argentina recently initiated a national program for the detection and control of celiac disease and, for residents, health insurance companies “must cover the cost of alternative flours and gluten-free mixes” for celiac patients. Both Irish and Canadian citizens receive tax deductions for the extra cost of gluten-free foods and in the United Kingdom, people with celiac receive gluten-free products as part of their health plan benefits. In Italy, all children are tested for celiac disease by age six and any Italian over age ten diagnosed with celiac receives a monthly stipend of 140 euros for gluten-free foods.
Even though celiac disease has been around for centuries, it was once considered very rare in the U.S. Joseph Murray, MD, a gastroenterologist at Mayo Clinic, saw frequent cases of celiac disease as a medical student in Ireland during the 1970s. When he moved to the U.S. in 1988, Dr. Murray saw one patient per year with gluten intolerance and by 1997, his celiac cases numbered 100 annually. He decided to investigate the phenomenon and compared celiac incidence in blood samples taken from 50 Air Force recruits in the 1950s with blood taken from young men living in Minnesota. The present-day men were 4.5 times more likely to have celiac disease, which means something in the environment has changed.
Enter wheat. No one really knows why celiac disease is affecting more people, but many believe that the transformation of wheat is to blame. Wheat products sold today are very different than wheat that was consumed in the early 20th century all the way back to Biblical times and, indeed, it seems that the incidence of celiac disease increased at about the same time as the changes in wheat.
So how has wheat transformed? And why? In the 1950s, Norman Borlaug, an American biologist, took an agricultural research position in Mexico and cross-bred wheat that resulted in high-yield, disease-resistant varieties that were cheaper to grow. By 1963, Mexico not only fed its own growing population but was also exporting wheat. At this time, large numbers of people were starving in both India and Pakistan; however, by 1970, thanks to the new cross-bred variety, wheat yields nearly doubled in these countries. Borlaug also gave China and parts of South America the ability to feed their burgeoning populations and is often credited with saving hundreds of millions people across the globe from starvation. (He is one of three Americans who won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal.)
Plant researchers have discovered, however, that Borlaug’s wheat had fewer nutrients than before and became a refined wheat that raised blood sugar levels very quickly. Additionally, bread preparation is not at all similar to what it was at the turn of the century. Grains “…were soaked, sprouted, and fermented, and bread was baked using a slow-rise yeast.” Today, manufacturers bleach flour with agents like benzoyl peroxide (typically used to treat acne) and bake bread with quick-rise yeast, which results in bread with little nutritional value.
It turns out that Grandma’s bread was baked with more than love!
Please consult your doctor if you suspect that you have celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, or a wheat allergy, or before making significant changes to your diet.
UP NEXT – Part 3 – What Really Causes Celiac Disease and is Genetically Modified Wheat to Blame?
– Holly Hough, PhD
Images from Flickr users Dace Kirspile and kochtopf, via CC