Why The Gluten-Free Epidemic?
Humans have been eating wheat since the middle ages, so why have we been hit with a gluten-free epidemic within the past few decades?
Today’s wheat differs from what was consumed a thousand, a hundred, or even 60 years ago. There are new methods of preparing the grain as well as different ways of harvesting crops that may be causing this change. The bottom line is there has been a sharp increase in people who have celiac disease or who are gluten-sensitive, and we need to be aware of what we are putting into our bodies.
How is Wheat Being Prepared Differently?
In the late 19th century, new techniques in grain processing opened the possibility of creating massive amounts of refined wheat for low cost. Of course, as any method that enables high production for a low cost, these new techniques were embraced.
While grains used to be soaked, sprouted, fermented and baked using slow rise yeast, the new way of processing grain allows for the nutritious components of the grain like bran and germ to be separated from the endosperm where the starchy carbs are contained.
Now, flour is bleached and bread is baked with quick rise yeast — a very different technique from the traditional way it was prepared over the last hundreds of years.
What’s eaten most prevalently today is high-yield dwarf wheat, which is developed by cross-breeding and genetic manipulation, techniques introduced in the 60’s. This produces wheat that is much more economically feasible, but much less nutritious as it lacks significant amounts of minerals like Zinc, Copper, Iron and Magnesium. The decrease is said to be around 19-28 percent.
With this decrease in nutritional value comes the increase of problematic issues like the rise of gluten-sensitivity, celiac disease and other health implications, possibly leading to the gluten-free epidemic.
What is Causing These Health Problems?
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact cause of gluten health problems because gluten refers to any of the 23,000+ proteins in wheat. There are now over 300 health conditions linked to gluten sensitivity. However, many scientists are linking the rise in gluten sensitivity to the growing number of Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) crops.
GMO crops have foreign genes inserted into their DNA, namely from bacteria or viruses. There are six major GMO crops: soy, corn, cotton, canola, sugar beets and alfalfa. These six crops are engineered to survive spray applications of weed killer and some are even equipped with genes that produce insecticides. Therefore, these crops contain high residue levels of toxic chemicals.
A recent Canadian study has shown that Bt-toxin, a particularly harmful insecticide, does actually interact with human cells and may be creating holes in our intestinal walls. This is problematic because chemicals are more likely to permeate through the organs of pregnant women to their unborn fetuses. Since fetuses lack fully developed blood-brain barriers, this hole-poking toxin may actually be active in their brains.
The problem also goes past wheat products. Research has shown that Bt-toxin could be in meat and dairy products because of the livestock who eat Bt corn as a main part of its diet. Many tests have been done on these animals. In one case, Howard Vlieger, a farmer from Iowa, worked with a team of scientists to reveal that the stomachs of pigs who were fed GMOs had inflamed, discolored stomachs with multiple ulcers while the non-GMO pigs were perfectly healthy.
Celiac disease, a disease linked to gluten, which makes it difficult to digest food, has increased by five times in the US since 1974. It’s not yet scientifically proven that GMO consumption causes the problems related to gluten sensitivity, but evidence does show how GMOs at least exacerbate symptoms.
With all of these factors involved, it’s more evident why the US is experiencing this gluten-free epidemic. Now that it’s more common to have gluten sensitivity, doctors are looking for it and are therefore prescribing gluten-free diets to more and more patients.
How To Choose Food Responsibly
64 countries around the world either ban GMOs completely or require mandatory labeling so people are aware of what they are buying. The US is not one of these countries, so you have to do the research on your own.
The gluten-free industry started as an option to meet the needs of those with gluten sensitivity and celiac disease. From 2011 to 2013, the industry experienced a near 50 percent growth, creating a booming $10.5 billion market. Just in the past year, 1500 new gluten-free products have hit the shelves in stores.
Be aware that gluten can often be hiding in sneaky places like veggie burgers, salad dressings, and even certain medications. Also, keep in mind that just because it’s grain doesn’t mean it’s gluten! Healthy gluten-free alternatives are millet, buckwheat, amaranth and quinoa.
To avoid GMOs, consult www.NonGMOShoppingGuide.com or download the free app ShopNoGMO. Choosing healthy alternatives to food containing chemicals that may be harmful to your body has never been easier. The gluten-free epidemic seems to be on the rise, so it’s important to be aware of how to keep your body happy and healthy.
Kelly Tatera is an aspiring journalist at Syracuse University who dreams that one day her writing will shed light upon the injustice that occurs worldwide every day. Kelly grew up in various European countries, which she strongly believes contributed to her worldly outlook on life. It also helped her develop decent fluency in French, which she loves to speak to her friends because they have no idea what she’s saying. Her tips for success are: travel as much as you can, respect cultural differences, venture outside of the tourist traps, keep a Dream Journal, become a documentary buff, and always save room for dessert.