For years, I thought I was doing my body good by eating whole wheat breads, pastas, and grains. I struggled with a variety of health issues during my adolescence and early adulthood, but I thought, doggedly, that if I just kept eating my whole grains and vegetables, all problems would eventually be resolved. So it came as no small shock that the very grains I was consuming for their much-touted “health properties” might actually have been making me sick.
The wheat on the market today is a new breed, different from grains consumed by Americans in the early decades of the 20th century. And more and more research suggests these new strains might not be as healthy as they’re cracked up to be, leading to exponential increases in gluten sensitivities among other potential human health issues.
Wait, Wheat? — The Need-to-Know
Modern wheat differs from its origins as the result of intense cross-breeding programs, which have turned the crop into something neither physically nor genetically like its old self. While the classic plants grew over four feet tall, modern wheat (grown in 99 percent of the world’s wheat fields) is now derisively dubbed “dwarf wheat,” standing just two feet in height with an abnormally large seed head balanced atop its stocky stem. These dramatic physical changes are paralleled by genetic shifts, the result of crossing wheat with non-wheat grasses and inducing genetic mutations through irradiation and exposure to toxins. (It should be noted that these processes are not the same as genetic engineering.)
The Role of Gluten
The compositional changes of wheat have very real impacts for the humans who consume it. Crossbreeding programs have changed the structure of wheat’s gluten proteins, providing a possible explanation for why the prevalence of celiac disease and gluten intolerance has increased dramatically in the United States over the last 50 years Increased prevalence and mortality in undiagnosed celiac disease. Rubio-Tapia, A., Kyle, RA, Kaplan, EL, et al. Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Mayo Clinic. Gastroenterology, 2009 Jul;137(1):88-93. Epub 2009 Apr 10 Presence of celiac disease epitopes in modern and old hexaploid wheat varieties: wheat breeding may have contributed to increased prevalence of celiac disease. Van den Broeck, HC, de Jong, HC, Salentijn, EM, et al. Plant Research International, Wageningen, The Netherlands. Theoretical and Applied Genetics, 2010 Nov;121(8):1527-39. Epub 2010 Jul 28 . Today, approximately one in every 133 Americans has celiac disease.
An increase in celiac diagnoses can be partly attributed to heightened awareness of the disease (it’s also possible this incidence rate is exaggerated, as the phenomenon isn’t yet observed in other parts of the “developed” world). But as occurrences of celiac disease have escalated, so too has the prevalence of gluten sensitivity — which researchers now define as a separate clinical entity, similar to (and perhaps even more widespread than) celiac Divergence of gut permeability and mucosal immune gene expression in two gluten-associated conditions: celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. Sapone, A., Lammers, KM, Casolaro, V., et al. Mucosal Biology Research Center, University of Maryland School of Medicine. BMC Medicine, 2011 Mar 9;9:23 . Gluten (found in most wheat, rye, barley, spelt, and, through contamination, various other products) has been linked with varying degrees of certainty to nutritional deficiencies, skin problems, irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes, autism, heart disease, cancer, and mood and digestive disorders in people with sensitivities Effects of wheat germ agglutinin on human gastrointestinal epithelium: insights from an experimental model of immune/epithelial cell interaction. Dalla Pellegrina, C., Perbellini, O., Scupoli, MT, et al. Department of Biotechnology, University of Verona, Italy. Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, 2009 Jun 1;237(2):146-53. Epub 2009 Mar 28 Celiac disease: from gluten to autoimmunity. Briani, C., Samaroo, D., Alaedini, A. Department of Neurosciences, University of Padova, Italy. Autoimmunity Reviews, 2008 Sep;7(8):644-50. Epub 2008 Jun 25 Increased prevalence and mortality in undiagnosed celiac disease. Rubio-Tapia, A., Kyle, RA, Kaplan, EL, et al. Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Mayo Clinic. Gastroenterology, 2009 Jul;137(1):88-93. Epub 2009 Apr 10 Small-intestinal histopathology and mortality risk in celiac disease. Ludvigsson, JF, Montgomery, SM, Ekbom, A., et al. Department of Pediatrics, Orebro University Hospital. Journal of the American Medical Association, 2009 Sep 16;302(11):1171-8 . As of now, there’s a clear association between gluten and these health issues — but researchers can’t yet say with certainty that gluten is the direct cause.
When it comes to modern wheat, gluten is quickly becoming the most famous “protein of interest.” But wheat’s composition has changed in other ways that are raising eyebrows.
Some critics of modern wheat cite health risks associated with its high levels of the starch Amylopectin A, which has been linked to the development of insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes, heart disease, and weight gain) in rats Amylopectin starch promotes the development of insulin resistance in rats. Byrnes, SE, Miller, JC, Denyer, GS. Human Nutrition Unit, University of Sydney, Australia. Journal of Nutrition, 1995 Jun;125(6):1430-7 . However, studies on the starch are few and far between, and those that do exist are typically at least a decade old.
Also under suspicion are modern wheat’s polypeptides, chains of amino acids that make up the protein gliadin in the plants. Wheat critics accuse these polypeptides (also called “exorphins”) of acting like endorphins in the body, making people feel “high” after eating wheat-laden carbs — and prompting them to crave more. However, there’s no definitive proof of this direct link between gliadin and addictive behavior. As with Amylopectin A, few contemporary studies address the question of whether or how much polypeptides might affect people’s health. In short, more research is needed to confirm whether or not modern wheat’s polypeptides pose a risk to human health.
Whither Wheat? — The Takeaway
The verdict is still out on whether modern wheat’s high starch content and exorphins are of serious concern for the average wheat consumer. What is certain is that modern wheat has changed distinctly from its historical composition, and the modified gluten protein might be a culprit in the striking rise in both celiac disease and gluten sensitivity.
For my own part, I’ve been gluten-free for going on ten months. Some, but not all, of my health issues have begun to resolve — enough so that I’m committed to remaining gluten-free. The elimination of gluten from a person’s diet is a matter of individual choice and medical needs. But the increased prevalence of gluten sensitivities is a strong call for more research into the new world of wheat.
Are you worried about modern wheat? Do you think critics are getting too worked up over too little evidence? Share in comments below or get in touch with the author on Twitter @LauraNewc.