These days it is impossible to step into a grocery store without seeing the words “gluten free” plastered everywhere and equally difficult to meet a group of friends and not hear that at least some of them are gluten intolerant. So I had to find out, where is this coming from? After all humans have been growing and eating for centuries, how is intolerance showing up now? Maybe something changed along the way…
To start at the very beginning, wheat, according to the FAO , was one of the first crops to be domesticated, has been a part of the diet in many parts of the world for 8,000 years and is more widely grown today than any other crop including rice, potatoes and corn. In fact, it provides 20 per cent of all calories consumed by humans which leads to some worry about how to increase wheat yields to keep up with the growing population. This study, for instance, shows that wheat yields worldwide are leveling off in most of the developed nations.
Researchers are working on this , using the best tools we have, and hopefully solutions will be found. The crucial place of wheat at meals all over the globe was thrown into sharp focus by the events of 2007-08 when sharp spikes in wheat prices brought protesting people to the street.
So where does the impetus for a gluten free diet with no wheat come from? Why are so many people convinced that wheat is at the root of all their health problems? The answer came in this documentary “The War on Wheat”, which profiled an influential book that many people are reading: “Wheat Belly” and its author Dr. William Davis. It is not long and well worth the time involved, here are my notes from viewing:
1. There is no scientific evidence to prove the assertion that wheat is damaging to health, the author simply recounts anecdotes: people stop eating wheat, they lose weight so wheat must be a bad thing.
2. He rattles of a long list of diseases and medical conditions which sounds really scary , but none of these have been proven to be caused by wheat, it is simply his assertion.
3. The basis of these assertions is that modern wheat is genetically modified , “Frankenfood” as Dr Davis calls i;t which is strange because there is no GMO wheat grown commercially anywhere in the world. Certainly, there have been improvements made to wheat by regular breeding which , as part of the Green Revolution, saved people from starvation. To hear that referred to as “garbage” is really offensive.
4. This belief is disproved by the peer reviewed work of Dr. Chibber and others, included in the program, showed that there is no difference between the wheat grown in 1861 and today.
5. People do not trust trained professionals but they are lured by hope of magical cures and claims made by celebrities. This move to cut out wheat is not supported by any scientific or medical bodies but people have greater trust in the celebrities who advocate it.
I support people making their own food choices but what we have here is a blind belief not based on facts. And while the lady in this video can enrich her wheat free diet with organic chicken and heaps of vegetables, what about those who do not have those options? Because the real worry is that this fear spread quickly: a few years ago “gluten intolerant” was not a common phrase in India, today people are writing cookbooks devoted to just this subject. If wheat is shut out from the food system, what will happen to the poorest sections of society who need the calories it provides to survive? The world is home both to people whose main preoccupation is weight loss, and also those for whom hunger is a constant factor and an effective food system must incorporate both needs. So, if wheat is not suitable for you, do not eat it. Spreading baseless fears which will impact other’s choices, specially those whose voices are often not heard, is irresponsible in the extreme.
(Image Courtesy: Serge Bertiasus Photography at freedigitalphotos.net)
One of the claims the author makes is that gliadin (a protein found in wheat he says is new since Green Revolution) breaks down into polypeptides that bind to opioid receptors in the brain. He extrapolates from there to claim that modern wheat turns people into opiate addicts:
The USDA has a document available that addresses some of his claims, including that one (PDF):
Click to access Wheat__Improvement-Myth_Versus_FactFINAL.pdf
Thank you for that link. It is startling (to me, at least) how so many claims can be made with no basis in fact. Good to have a solid resource to understand this better.