The Great Gluten Panic, Part 2

Reader Contribution by Stan Cox
article image

Click hereto read “The Great Gluten Panic, Part 1.”

The manager of an organic flour mill told me recently that he is seeing huge demand among his customers for flour produced from the grain of a single variety: the heirloom hard red winter wheat ‘Turkey Red.’ That popularity is good for his business, but he was curious about customers’ reason for seeking out Turkey Red flour; some of them, it turns out, believe they are gluten intolerant and they claim that their symptoms go away when they eat only Turkey.

The miller, like anyone who works with wheat, is aware that the kernels of all varieties, including Turkey and other heirlooms, contain high concentrations of gluten proteins. The forms of gluten that are extremely hazardous to people suffering from celiac disease are present in all wheats, and there is no evidence that old-time wheat varieties like Turkey are any less likely than modern ones to hurt people who suffer from allergies or milder forms of gluten intolerance either.

Given the mass confusion over wheat and gluten that has arisen in recent years, it is very likely that the miller’s customers who see benefits when they switch to Turkey are experiencing the kind of placebo effect that I discussed in my previous post.

A rise in the diagnosis of celiac disease in particular has been attributed by some, including William Davis, author of the book Wheat Belly, to an assumed increase in the human population’s exposure to certain partial digestion products of gluten proteins called “epitopes” that have been implicated in celiac disease. One of the known problem peptides, called Glia-α9, was examined in an oft-cited study done in the Netherlands. In it, the authors concluded that modern wheat varieties produce higher concentrations of Glia-α9 than do varieties from earlier in the twentieth century. 

But on closer inspection, the results tell a different story. Grain from all 86 varieties in the study, modern and traditional, contained Glia-α9 and are therefore toxic to celiac patients. On average, the newer varieties contained an estimated 20 percent more Glia-α9 than did older varieties; however, that difference was not analyzed statistically in the paper. When you do a simple such analysis, it shows that the 20-percent difference could easily be the result of mere chance. Indeed, there was wide variation among varieties within both the new and the old groups. And the highest level of Glia-α9 in the entire study was found in one of the old varieties.

Davis has said of modern wheat, “It’s an 18-inch tall plant created by genetic research in the ’60s and ’70s. This thing has many new features nobody told you about, such as there’s a new protein in this thing called gliadin. It’s not gluten.” Nothing in this statement is accurate. Modern wheats grow much taller than 18 inches unless they are under severe water or nutrient stress; the composition of the wheat kernel is unrelated to the plant’s height; gliadin proteins are not new to wheat; and gliadins really do belong a larger category of proteins collectively known as “gluten.”

Robert Graybosch, a wheat geneticist with the US Department of Agriculture in Lincoln, Nebraska, cites numerous studies spanning several decades and showing that all types of wheat new and old—including durum, spelt, emmer and einkorn—contain gliadin and glutenin proteins. And, he adds, “Gliadins and glutenins are highly variable. Every wheat plant contains many different genes encoding both types of protein. A given wheat plant may produce 100-plus gliadin molecules and 50 glutenin subunits.”

Any one of myriad gliadin and glutenin variants is very likely to be found in varieties up and down wheat’s family tree and even in barley and rye. As a result, all species and types of wheat are off-limits to celiac patients. But while wheat can also cause intestinal problems for that other small percentage of people who are non-celiac but gluten-intolerant, there is no evidence that it triggers celiac symptoms in anyone who doesn’t already have celiac disease.

Wheat kernels have contained gliadins for as long as there has been wheat. For example, two purportedly ancient wheat varieties, ‘Kamut’ and ‘Graziella Ra’, have higher gliadin concentrations than modern wheats do, and other old-time wheats are also high in gliadins. According to Graybosch, “It probably is not speculation to say we could actually be consuming less gliadin than great-grandpa did.” And per-capita wheat flour consumption back in 1900, long before the rise in incidence of celiac disease, was 67 percent higher than today’s average consumption.)

Davis’s complete lack of understanding of plant breeding is revealed in a passage from his “Wheat Belly Blog” in which he notes that there is no transgenic (“genetically modified”) wheat on the market (that much is true), but then tells his readers that traditional wheat breeding is even more dangerous than transgenic technology: “By definition, hybridization, backcrossing, and mutation-inducing techniques are difficult to control, unpredictable, and generate plenty of unexpected results. In short, they are worse than genetic modification. Imagine we were to apply similar techniques of hybridization and mutagenesis to mammals–we’d have all manner of bizarre creatures and genetic freaks on our hands.”

Many of Davis’s fans were surely left scratching their heads over his claim that traditional breeding techniques are hazardous. In the real world, people have used hybridization and backcrossing for centuries as they have developed animal breeds and plant varieties. All crop and livestock improvements and nutritional changes brought about by breeding, from the dawn of agriculture to the present day, have resulted from farmers and plant breeders repeatedly interpollinating varieties or species to generate biologically diverse populations and selecting desired plants. And long before there was any plant breeding by humans (in fact, before there were modern humans at all), the evolutionary processes that led to wheat included periodic episodes of natural hybridization between different species. The result was an array of wheat species with chromosome numbers ranging from 14 to 42. As for mutations, they occur naturally all the time, while chemical- or radiation-induced mutation has contributed to the development of very, very few plant varieties.

Amid so much erroneous denigration of wheat, millions of Americans have been diagnosing themselves as gluten intolerant and eliminating wheat products from their diets. Now if you feel better on an elimination diet, no matter whether it’s a physiological or a placebo effect at work, then why not go for it? And it certainly can’t hurt to stop eating refined wheat flour and some of the nutritionally empty ingredients with which it is often combined. But the gap created by wheat-elimination diets is being plugged in large part with those highly processed, often sugar- and fat-heavy foods being churned out by the $4 billion “gluten-free” industry (Meanwhile, an artisan baker I know says some customers are now refusing his whole-grain loaves on the grounds of gluten intolerance, even as they continue to buy croissants and danish—which he’s more than happy to supply.) Alternatively, going all-in on a low-carb diet (as recommended by many, including Davis) has an insupportable ecological impact.

On the other hand, simply switching to whole-grain foods as a replacement for empty-calorie, low-fiber products made from refined flours, sugars, etc. can pay big dividends for most of us. But unfortunately, any such healthful trend will remain stalled until the gluten-free fad has faded away, as fads always do.

Read more on wheat types in Stan’s article from the February/March 2014 issue, “Types of Wheat: What to Grow and How to Use It.”

Read all of Stan’s blog posts here.

Stan Cox is a senior scientist at The Land Institute in Salina, Kan., and author most recently of Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing (The New Press, 2013).