There are many factors that are blamed for the recent rise of gluten intolerance and celiac disease in America. Among the most common cited is increased gluten content in wheat as a result of wheat breeding.
To sort this out, the Department of Agriculture commissioned to investigate this issue. (1) Here is what they came up with:
Wheat breeding started about 10,000 years ago when wheat was first domesticated. It is believed that early farmers selected and bred wild wheat to have larger grains for easier picking after threshing. This meant that the original wild wheat – which is thought to have boasted a high protein (gluten) content of somewhere between 16-28% – was bred to have bigger grains and therefore less protein (gluten) and more starch (sugar). (1)
This first domesticated wheat was called einkorn wheat. It was a starchier grain with less protein (gluten) and more sugar, and very likely tasted better than the old fashioned wild wheat.
Then, between 2-5000 years ago, when yeast-fermented bread became popular, farmers began selecting for a higher protein (gluten) grain, which better supported the leavening of bread. (1) Ever since, wheat has actually been bred for a higher protein content (current average in bread: 11-16%), and many believe this to be the reason for the explosion of gluten intolerance today.
Be Careful What You Wish For
According to this report, the original wild wheat, which we all might say had to be a healthier grain, had gluten levels that reached two to three times the amount of gluten in today’s wheat! (1)
This study concluded that, though there has been an increase in celiac-based gluten intolerance in the second half of the 20th century, there is no evidence that this rise is due to the increase of the gluten content in wheat. In fact, according to this study, the gluten content in wheat during the 20th and 21st century has been relatively stable. (1)
The Take Away
While we can argue these facts, based on this study the increase in gluten sensitivity must be due to some factor other than increased gluten content in bread. Here are some other factors to consider:
- Wheat was traditionally harvested once a year in the fall exclusively for winter eating. Maybe we overdid it by eating it every day for years on end!
- The amount of gluten, a hard-to-digest protein, can be excessive when eating an out-of-balance meal, such as a bowl of pasta or a slice of pizza. Perhaps our gluten portions were out of control and did us in.
- Perhaps the combination of stress and excess hard-to-digest foods have weakened our digestive strength making it more difficult to digest a tough protein like gluten.
- Perhaps bad food, pesticides and stress have altered our microbiology – the ecosystem of beneficial bacteria that is responsible for proper digestion and assimilation in our gut – and thus left us unable to digest the gluten and handle its starchy content.
- Perhaps we are sensitive to something else in wheat other than gluten.
Stayed tuned as I dive deeper into these factors in future blogs!
1. J Agric Food Chem. 2013 February 13; 61(6): 1155“1159.
Published online 2013 January 11. doi: 10.1021/jf305122s
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