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Gluten sensitivity has been blamed by many on the theory that modern wheat has significantly more gluten than ancient wheat, and that we lack the genetics to digest these increased levels of gluten. The history of wheat genetics, however, doesn’t support these claims.
Wheat Was Originally Hybridized For LESS Gluten, Not More
Early wild wheat had thin, needle-like grains that were difficult to recover after threshing – which was a process of beating the wheat on the ground to remove the seed grain. (1)
Early farmers selected strains that had larger grains that were easier to thresh. In doing so, they inadvertently increased the starch content relative to protein content. As a result, the relative percentage of protein and gluten in the early domesticated wheat actually decreased. Some experts claim that the health of humans began to deteriorate after the domestication of wheat due to gluten, but this domesticated wheat had less gluten – not more. (1) So, we are left wondering how the grain with less gluten could be the cause of all our gluten sensitivities.
Ancient Wheat Had Way More Gluten
The early wild wheat had significantly more protein and gluten than early domesticated wheat and modern wheat. The early wild wheat had a protein content between the ranges of 16-28%. Today, modern wheat average about 11% protein. (1) These finding suggests that wild wheat – before domestication or hybridization – had as much as twice the amount of gluten than modern wheat.
In one study, Kamut, a recently rediscovered ancient grain, was compared with modern semi-whole wheat varieties for its effects over an 8 week period and blood samples were taken afterward. Researchers found that the Kamut replacement diet showed a significant reduction in 6 known biomarkers for inflammation, compared to only 2 biomarkers with a semi-whole wheat diet. In addition, the Kamut diet resulted in a significant reduction in both total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, while the semi-whole wheat diet had no significant effect. (2)
These are amazing results, but even more so when you consider that Kamut wheat has double the total gluten and a-gliadins of a typical modern wheat varietal. (3) The question that is begging for an answer is, “How could wheat with double the gluten be so much healthier than the wheat with less gluten?”
The answer points to what I like to call the great digestive breakdown, which resulted from a 60-year diet of processed foods that has compromised our ability to digest hard-to-digest proteins, such as those found in wheat and dairy. The good news is that this is reversible!
We have the Genetics to Digest Modern Wheat
The earliest wheat emerged from earlier grasses, some 2.5-4.5 million years ago, which are considered the early ancestors of the domesticated einkorn wheat. These were diploid wheat that had just 2 sets of chromosomes. (4) This fits with the recent findings of gluten in the teeth of early humans some 3.4 to 4 million years ago, suggesting that early humans have been eating wheat for millions of years. (5)
Studies suggest that these early diploid wheat were the ancestors of the early emmer wheat, which is tetraploid wheat with 4 sets of chromosomes that appeared some 300,000 to 500,000 years ago. (4)
Modern wheat or hexaploid wheat, which has 6 sets of chromosomes, was formed from the domestication of both early diploid (einkorn) and early tetraploid (emmer) wheat about 10,000 years ago. (4) We have been eating mostly hexaploid and tetraploid wheat ever since.
Some experts suggest that the wheat we have been eating for the past 10,000 years was altered so significantly from earlier strains that we have not yet genetically adapted to fully digest it.
This concept is challenged by a well-established human genetic adaptation that allowed us to digest dairy as adults in much less than 10,000 years. This genetic change is called lactase persistence. This genetic alteration allowed Northern Europeans to continue to make the lactase enzyme necessary to break down milk sugar as adults, rather than losing that ability after weaning as most mammals do. This is an indisputable food-related genetic adaptation that humans have made as a result of a dietary change.
Since science tells us we have been genetically adapting to digesting wheat for some 3.4 million years, it seems that in the past 10,000 years it would be easy to develop the ability to digest a hybridized version of it. New science is providing evidence of just that: In one 19-year study at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, researchers compared the genetics of ancient and modern strains of wheat and found NO genetic change. (10)
There are numerous microbes throughout the digestive tract that produce specific wheat-digesting enzymes to break down the hard-to-digest gluten and a-gliadins. These enzymes are found in the mouth, esophagus, stomach, and small and large intestines, which suggests that the entire digestive tract has “geared up” to properly utilize these new wheat varietals. (6-9)