Did you know that:
1) The delicious bagels, doughnuts, Challah bread, and fluffy cakes you eat are not made with the same wheat your grandparents ate.
2) The incidence of Celiac disease and gluten intolerance in the US has increased 4x since 1950.
3) My mother can’t eat American wheat.
As you might suspect, all these statements are very much related, and in what follows I will show you why. But first let’s talk about my background for a second.
A Hunk of Bread in One Hand…
I was born in the Republic of Moldova, in Eastern Europe, on a small farm. In my culture bread is considered holy and we believe it is a sin to throw it away. If bread goes moldy, we scrape the mold off and feed it to our animals, not the trash can. This reverence we have towards bread comes from the fact that it is such a huge staple of our diet and that wheat is rather hard to grow. Every Moldovan eats their meals with a hunk of bread in one hand a spoon or fork in the other. A dish is never complete unless its eaten with bread.
When my mother came to visit last Christmas, I stocked our kitchen with bagels, french baguettes, and multigrain breads of all kinds for her sake. Although I have been gluten-free for a few years now, my family has had a hard time understanding the concept of giving up bread for health reasons. “What do you mean bread makes you bloated?”, asked my grandma last time I was home and refused a freshly baked slice of bread from our massive clay oven. “I don’t get bloated. Your mother doesn’t get bloated, and we’ve been eating this all our lives!”
Imagine my surprise when my mother, just three days into her visit, began avoiding bread. At first I pretended not to notice, as I didn’t want to bring up a touchy subject, but I finally caved in and asked her. “I don’t like it honey. This isn’t bread. The more I chew it the harder it gets… sort of like glue. Then it just sits here.” she said pointing underneath her belly button. “It wont move!” My mother’s observation was more spot on than I realized at the time. Here is why.
Dwarf Wheat, World Peace, and Unintended Consequences
In the 1950’s, University of Minnesota geneticist Norman Borlaug developed a variety of exceptionally high yielding dwarf wheat – created through an early example of the process of genetic modification – with higher amounts of, among other things, starch and gluten. This new genetically modified wheat required a shorter growing season and would stay upright without buckling despite its enlarged head, resulting from new nitrogen-heavy artificial fertilizers – something the more ancient types of wheat like einkorn couldn’t do.
This new discovery won Dr. Borlaug the Nobel Prize for Peace. “When the Nobel Peace Prize Committee designated me the recipient of the 1970 award for my contribution to the ‘green revolution’, they were in effect, I believe, selecting an individual to symbolize the vital role of agriculture and food production in a world that is hungry, both for bread and for peace.” said Burlaug in his acceptance speech.
Yes, the new dwarf wheat increased wheat crops that were supporting many poor countries with struggling economies.
“Borlaug’s new semi-dwarf, disease-resistant varieties, called Pitic 62 and Penjamo 62, changed the potential yield of spring wheat dramatically. By 1963, 95% of Mexico’s wheat crops used the semi-dwarf varieties developed by Borlaug. That year, the harvest was six times larger than in 1944, the year Borlaug arrived in Mexico. Mexico had become fully self-sufficient in wheat production, and a net exporter of wheat. Four other high yield varieties were also released, in 1964: Lerma Rojo 64, Siete Cerros, Sonora 64, and Super X” Source
But while the scientists were busy trying to solve the world hunger, something else was going on too. Over the next fifty years, incidence of Celiac disease appears to have increased four-fold.
A study preformed at the Mayo clinic provides a unique snapshot of Celiac disease incidence in the US residents from half a century ago. The researchers acquired blood samples drawn fifty years ago for a streptococcal infection study, and kept frozen since. The frozen samples were collected during the period from 1948 to 1954 from more than 9,000 male recruits at Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. After establishing the reliability of the long-frozen samples, they tested them for Celiac markers and compared results to samples from two modern groups. A modern “control” group was chosen that consisted of 5,500 men with similar birth years to the military recruits, with samples obtained from starting in 2006 (mean age of 70 years). A second modern group consisted of 7,200 men of similar age( mean age 37 years old) at the time of the blood draw of the Air Force recruits. Source
I read about this study in the book Wheat Belly, written by Dr. William Davis. I confess I was a little incredulous at first. Really 4x? In fact, says Dr Davis, the recruits with positive Celiac markers were also four times more likely to die, usually of cancer, over the fifty years since providing blood samples! So I looked up the study on PubMed. Here is the conclusion. You can read the full study here.
Results: This study included 9133 healthy young adults at Warren Air Force Base (sera were collected between 1948 and 1954) and 12,768 gender-matched subjects from 2 recent cohorts from Olmsted County, Minnesota, with either similar years of birth (n = 5558) or age at sampling (n = 7210) to that of the Air Force cohort. Sera were tested for tissue transglutaminase and, if abnormal, for endomysial antibodies. Survival was measured during a follow-up period of 45 years in the Air Force cohort. The prevalence of undiagnosed CD between the Air Force cohort and recent cohorts was compared.
Conclusion: During 45 years of follow-up, undiagnosed CD was associated with a nearly 4-fold increased risk of death. The prevalence of undiagnosed CD seems to have increased dramatically in the United States during the past 50 years.
There is also a Finnish study that showed the total prevalence of Celiac disease has doubled in Finland during the last two decades, and that the increase cannot be attributed to the better detection rate. The environmental factors responsible for the increasing prevalence of the disorder are issues for further studies.
And That’s Not All
Dr. Borloug’s wheat experiment contains more starch and gluten than its ancient predecessors like spelt and einkorn – and not just a little bit. Not only does it probably contribute to Celiac disease and general gluten intolerance, but it does a number on your blood sugar levels too!
The first major difference of this dwarf wheat is that it contains very high levels of a super starch called amylopectin A. This is how we get big fluffy Wonder Bread and Cinnabons. Here’s the downside. Two slices of whole wheat bread now raise your blood sugar more than two tablespoons of table sugar. There is no difference between whole wheat and white flour here. The biggest scam perpetrated on the unsuspecting public is the inclusion of “whole grains” in many processed foods full of sugar and wheat, giving the food a virtuous glow. Source
A recent study looked at 36 modern wheat varieties vs 50 wheat strains grown a century ago.
To analyze whether wheat breeding contributed to the increase of the prevalence of Celiac Disease and gluten intolerance, we have compared the genetic diversity of gluten proteins for the presence of two CD epitopes (Glia-α9 and Glia-α20) in 36 modern European wheat varieties and in 50 landraces representing the wheat varieties grown up to around a century ago. Glia-α9 is a major (immunodominant) epitope that is recognized by the majority of CD patients. The minor Glia-α20 was included as a technical reference. Overall, the presence of the Glia-α9 epitope was higher in the modern varieties, whereas the presence of the Glia-α20 epitope was lower, as compared to the landraces. This suggests that modern wheat breeding practices may have led to an increased exposure to CD epitopes. On the other hand, some modern varieties and landraces have been identified that have relatively low contents of both epitopes. Such selected lines may serve as a start to breed wheat for the introduction of ‘low CD toxic’ as a new breeding trait. Large-scale culture and consumption of such varieties would considerably aid in decreasing the prevalence of CD. Source
I am not quite sure which modern wheat variety my family uses on our farm, but I do know we save seeds every year and use it for the next season, and have done so for decades. Every August after harvesting, we sweep off a section of our attic and store all our wheat we plan to use for the year. Once a month my father takes a few large satchels of wheat to our local mill (more than a century old) and comes back with freshly ground flour that my mama bakes into large loaves of bread in our clay oven.
While my gluten intolerance has increased over the years (constipation –> hypoglycemia –> eczema), my family in Moldova continues to show no symptoms of a gluten allergy or Celiac disease. At first I thought they must not be as in tune with their body as I am, but my mother proved me wrong when she refused to eat any more American bread. When I consider all the data, I conclude that the problem is very likely rooted in the new varieties of wheat we use in Industrialized Agriculture, especially in America. I had never even had a wheat intolerance before I came here, and now I have a full blown gluten intolerance!
I am not trying to romanticize Moldova. There are a lot of things that are difficult about the place I was born in… watching our economy fall apart after the Soviet Union, our medical system becoming corrupt and inefficient, my father going off to civil war. And yet the wheat they grow, ground in old half dilapidated mills and baked in homemade clay ovens, doesn’t seem to cause so many of them to suffer with severe gluten allergies or full blown Celiac disease.
In Part 2 I will expand on solutions to the gluten intolerance epidemic and how serious this condition and celiac disease can be. Until then, I highly recommend you pick up the book Wheat Belly by William Davis, MD, and find out more about how modern wheat is affecting your health.
(Featured Image courtesy of Jacob Swanson. You can view his portfolio here.)