Monday, November 26, 2012

Why Are Food Allergies on the Rise? Part 2: Modern Wheat

In this second installment of my food allergy series, I want to focus on wheat specifically.  As you may know, celiac disease is a destructive disease caused by an immune reaction to gluten, a protein in wheat.  In recent years, the prevalence of celiac has been rising; today it is about four times more common than it had been in the 1950s.  According to recent estimates, about 1% of the population suffers from this disease, many of which are still undiagnosed (1, 2).  But still more people suffer from something called gluten sensitivity.  While not a true allergy, gluten sensitivity can manifest in a variety of ways... chronic migraines, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), fibromyalgia... you know, all those pesky, seemingly random conditions that you're told you have when your symptoms don't fit neatly into a real disease.  According to the Center for Celiac Research at the University of Maryland, gluten sensitivity affects 7% of Americans (3).  But some estimates have been as high as 15-20%.  Researchers and practitioners agree that gluten sensitivity is far more common today than ever before. 

Very likely about 1 in 10 Americans have some adverse, acute reaction to eating wheat.  So what gives?  Why the sudden problem?

The story of modern wheat is a fascinating one.  It's something I've never seen discussed in any mainstream media outlet, but the reasons for that will become clear later.  Quite frankly, I didn't believe it when I first read about it in "Wheat Belly", mostly because it's a horribly biased book based on scientific fairy tales.  I dislike it so much I won't even link to it.  Don't bother.  But a recent Mark's Daily Apple article has convinced me that it's true... The wheat and flour products we eat today are distinctly different than what we've eaten in the past.

The wheat we eat today is known as dwarf wheat, a variety developed in the 1960s by Norman Borlaug.  Despite being shorter in stature (hence "dwarf"), this variety of wheat was more disease-resistant and yielded far more per acre than the older varieties.  Dr. Borlaug was praised for his discovery and heralded as "the man who saved a billion lives"; his discovery was instrumental in allowing us to feed the growing world population.  But as is common when we find new ways to feed a greater population (ie. agriculture), we inevitably sacrifice our health in the process.  Here's what we know about modern wheat...

It's more damaging to those with celiac disease
Have you ever seen the TV show Cake Boss?  Have you ever wondered how pastry chefs are able to create such extravagant-looking treats?  Or why the bread today is just so soft and chewy?  Well you have dwarf wheat (in part) to thank.  Because of the structure of the gluten proteins in dwarf wheat, it's more conducive to being molded and baked into delicious, succulent treats.  It wasn't always this way.  The bread of the past was far less palatable.  But it may be this difference in protein structure that makes dwarf wheat more problematic.  There is some evidence that the proteins in modern wheat are responsible for the increase in celiac disease (4). And on the flip side, older varieties of wheat like einkorn are significantly less damaging to those with celiac disease (5). 

It's less nutrient-dense
Beginning in 1843, agronomists in England began what is known as the Broadbalk Winter Wheat Experiment.  One of the longest-running continuous agronomic studies in the world, generations of scientists have studied wheat in just about every way possible... different types of wheat, different farming methods, soil mineral content, etc.  Between 1843 and the mid-1960s, the mineral content of wheat (zinc, magnesium, iron, etc.) had remained stable.  Interestingly, its mineral content began to decline after this time, coinciding with the development of dwarf wheat (6).  Turns out, modern dwarf wheat sports a shorter root system than ancient wheat, meaning that it can't extract the minerals from soil as efficiently (7).  This explains why, according to the Broadbalk Experiment, modern wheat contains fewer minerals despite the slight increase in soil mineral content over time.

It's prepared differently
It's something we don't often think about, but for most of our wheat-eating-history as humans, we've been soaking and fermenting flour before we use it.  This is the traditional way we prepared the stuff, as evidenced by the work of Weston A. Price.  Essentially, fermentation allows bacteria to break down some of the undesirable components of wheat, like phytic acid and gluten, for easier digestion and absorption.  And we have evidence that fermentation can break down gluten to the point where even celiacs can tolerate it (8).  Pretty impressive, no?  I know very few people have time these days to soak and ferment their flour, but it's important to mention nonetheless, just to emphasize how our wheat-eating habits have changed.

So I ask you, with all of this information in mind, do you think modern wheat has something to do with the increase in wheat intolerance?  I'd say the evidence is strong.  But just as we're stuck with agriculture as a means of food production, despite the decline in health that followed, we're stuck with dwarf wheat as well.  Quantity is indeed the enemy of quality... but what are we to do?  If you ask me, dwarf wheat has done far more good than harm for the human race, but that doesn't mean that we should ignore the negatives it presents.  I may eat it from time to time (let's be real, there's some yummy shit made from wheat), but I wouldn't recommend you make it a staple of your diet, especially if you're suffering from fibromyalgia, migraines, IBS, and the like.  Or if you've got an autoimmune condition.  Or if you're pregnant, planning on being pregnant, or nursing (don't take your chances).  But play around with it; go gluten-free for a month.  If you feel better without it, then you're probably gluten-sensitive.  There are no side effects, and you just might get rid of those nagging migraines :)

Let me know what you think in the comments, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the topic.  Has anyone tried any of the ancient varieties of wheat, like emmer or einkorn?  Until next time... Burn, out.


  1. This is interesting! I kind of just thought wheat was the devil but it is interesting to know how wheat has evolved. It does not surprise me that we chose the type of wheat that is disease resistant and with a greater yield. I wish things didn't have to be about quantity but oh well. Great article! I look forwarding to reading more!

  2. Really interesting post... It was all worth reading it. Keep up the good work.