Are You Gluten Free?
By now you’ve probably noticed that going gluten free is all the rage. Gluten is a form of protein found mostly in wheat and a couple of other grains. Many people believe that eating gluten causes various health problems for them. So they’ve chosen to avoid all wheat, barley and rye-containing products. It’s the dietary fad of the moment, and it’s going strong. Just check out your grocery store’s selection of “gluten-free” products next time you’re there. The list is growing, and so are the numbers of people who swear by the gluten-free lifestyle.
But what’s really going on? Can it be that people have suddenly developed an immune response to—or at least an inability to tolerate—a food staple that has served mankind well for thousands of years? After all, bread has been called “the staff of life,” and gluten is the stretchy molecule that gives bread it’s unique texture. Some would even argue that the domestication of wheat allowed civilization to take root.
Proponents of the gluten-free movement claim that modern wheat contains higher concentrations of gliadin—a gluten protein—than the wheat our great grandparents ate regularly. They claim this has occurred due to selective breeding practices over the past few decades. But recent scientific analyses have not substantiated this claim.
To some experts, none of it makes sense. An autoimmune reaction to gluten results in a serious condition called celiac disease. Traditionally, it has been a relatively rare condition, best treated by removing all gluten from the diet. There’s a blood test to detect antibodies to wheat proteins. Very few people who claim gluten intolerance (or gluten sensitivity) show signs of these antibodies.
But even skeptical scientists are beginning to acknowledge that genuine celiac disease and less-well-defined gluten intolerance are on the rise around the world. A 2007 study in Finland, for example, concluded that the prevalence of celiac disease doubled there in just two decades, between 1980 and 2000. The overall prevalence is still low. But it really does seem to be growing. To make things even more confusing, there’s yet another condition called wheat allergy. It’s a type of food allergy, but it’s also quite rare.
So the question remains. What’s really going on? Although modern wheat does not really contain significantly more gliadin than the wheat our forbears consumed, it is possible that we’re consuming more wheat in general. Sometimes, wheat is added to products you would never suspect of containing wheat. Tomorrow, I’ll talk more about the gluten-free movement.
Kasarda DD. Can an increase in celiac disease be attributed to an increase in the gluten content of wheat as a consequence of wheat breeding? J Agric Food Chem. 2013 Feb 13;61(6):1155-9. doi: 10.1021/jf305122s. Epub 2013 Jan 31.
van den Broeck HC, de Jong HC, Salentijn EM, Dekking L, Bosch D, Hamer RJ, et al. Presence of celiac disease epitopes in modern and old hexaploid wheat varieties: wheat breeding may have contributed to increased prevalence of celiac disease. Theor Appl Genet. 2010 Nov;121(8):1527-39. doi: 10.1007/s00122-010-1408-4. Epub 2010 Jul 28.