What Causes Celiac Disease and is Genetically Modified Wheat to Blame?
So what really causes celiac disease? Some argue that, after cross-breeding wheat, the gluten content increased and subsequently triggered an increase in gluten intolerance. Dr. Donald Kasarda, who authored a 2013 report on gluten content in wheat during the 20th century, concluded that this is not the case and says that, instead, Americans are simply eating more wheat and processed foods, such as ketchup and mustard, where gluten is typically added as a thickener. William Davis, MD, a cardiologist and author of Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health, argues that significant changes in the protein structure of the wheat itself are responsible.
There is also a faction of people who believe that this increase is primarily due to genetically modified, or GM, wheat, which is not the same as the cross-bred variety of wheat we currently consume. How is genetic modification different from hybridization? ‘Hybrid’ means cross-breeding from two parent plants. Essentially, plant breeders steer the process of crossing two varieties in the field using low-tech methods.
Genetic modification refers to plants that have been altered in the laboratory using complex technology to enhance desired traits, such as resistance to pesticides. GM plants can include genes from several species, something that rarely, if ever, occurs in nature. Corn and soybeans, two of the most widely grown GM crops in the U.S., are approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and were introduced in the ‘90s by Monsanto, one of the biggest agricultural companies in the world.
For our purpose, though, the bottom line is that GM wheat is not currently on the market and, therefore, cannot be responsible for the increased incidence of gluten intolerance. Will GM wheat ever be approved by the USDA? Monsanto tested GM wheat across the U.S. for several years and, in 2002, submitted an application to the USDA for approval. Two years later, the company withdrew the application because farmers feared that wheat grown from GM seeds would not be purchased by large markets in Europe and Asia.
As fate would have it, American wheat exports have decreased by approximately 85% due to GM contamination. On May 29th of 2013, the USDA announced publicly that genetically engineered wheat was found growing on a farm in Oregon. Subsequently, South Korea and Japan, the biggest buyer of U.S. wheat behind Mexico, cancelled their contracts to purchase wheat. The European Union also began testing shipments of U.S. wheat and blocked those containing GM wheat.
It is also notable that the type of seeds found on the Oregonian farm were Roundup Ready, which means they are genetically modified to be resistant to Roundup (which you may use to kill weeds in your yard). Plants grown from Roundup Ready seeds will grow even when sprayed with Roundup and the surrounding weeds die. Recently, however, ‘superweeds’ have sprouted in farmers’ fields that are resistant to Roundup and Dow AgroSciences is now testing seeds that are resistant to a stronger pesticide, 2,4-D (a component of Agent Orange that was used in the Vietnam war).
What does all of this mean for us? It’s difficult to say and no one really knows for sure, but are GM foods in your grocery store? You bet. Some estimate that more than 70% of processed foods, such as cookies and cereals, contain GM ingredients. Fresh fruits and veggies are GM-free as are meat, fish, and poultry, however, feed for livestock and fish is derived from GM corn and alfalfa.
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 4 – The Final Verdict: If You Can Tolerate Gluten, Should You Go Gluten-Free?
– Holly J. Hough, PhD
References: U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health; United States Department of Agriculture; Rodale News; Dr. William Davis, Wheat Belly Blog; Mother Earth News (Hybrid Seeds vs GMOs); The Huffington Post (Top 7 Genetically Modified Crops); GMO Compass; Genetic Literacy Project; Scientific American; The New York Times (Modified Wheat in Oregon); Reuters; Collective Evolution; The New York Times (As Patent Ends, A Seed’s Use Will Survive); The Huffington Post (USDA May Deregulate Corn and Soybean Seeds); Mother Jones (5 Surprising Genetically Modified Foods)
Image by SARE Outreach, via CC