Next time you’re in your local supermarket, check out all the gluten-free products now on sale. It used to be only those with celiac disease who had to find food without gluten, but now, gluten-free produce has become mainstream. Gluten is found in bread and other foods with wheat content, such as pasta, beer, and oats. People who are either celiac or gluten intolerant have to avoid it because it irritates the lining of the small intestine.
Today, 1.8 million Americans have celiac disease. Researchers James Everhart and Joseph Murray also discovered it’s likely a further 1.4 million are undiagnosed, with an additional 1.6 million adopting a gluten-free diet without having a diagnosis.
So why are so many people wheat intolerant?
To answer that question, we have to go back to 1945. After World War II, there was a lot of hunger and malnourishment in the world. At least 20 million people died as a result of malnutrition and its associated diseases during the Second World War. That’s half a million more than those killed in combat. Things didn’t improve much after the war either. Up to 30% of the world was chronically malnourished. This side of the pond, Mexico was struggling to feed its population. So, in the 1950s, the Vice President of the US asked the Rockefeller Institute to help.
They responded by sending a young plant physiologist called Norman Borlaug to Mexico to take a look. Borlaug developed cross-breeding dwarf wheat that grew shorter and was hardier. It was the start of the Green Revolution. Dwarf wheat replaced classic taller corn and is now grown in 99% of the world’s wheat fields. Agricultural scientist Borlaug used water and fertilizer chemicals, including nitrogen and phosphorous to farm intensively, resulting in a massive increase in wheat growth. Borlaug was hailed as the man who eradicated food poverty.
Borlaug used the same techniques to create dwarf rice that grew just as fast and successfully. The calculation was simple. More food equals less hunger around the world and US agriculture booms.
So what about the downside?
Imagine all those fertilizers now in wetlands and streams. Wheat and rice are indeed thriving, but only if these chemicals and lots of water are being used. The wheat is growing really close together, which means you also need to use loads of pesticides to keep insects and weeds away. And the gluten content in such wheat is higher because of intensive crossbreeding programs, which have changed the structure of wheat’s gluten proteins.
No matter what we are feeding the population through all this incredible productivity. All the above then end up in our waterways, with harmful environmental and health consequences. Despite the wheat industry’s denials, gluten intolerance and celiac disease are modern day phenomenon, yet 80-90% of the calories we eat come from wheat, rice, and corn. Today one in every 133 Americans has celiac disease.
Yet, gluten allergies to modern wheat are on the increase. In children, the rate has increased even more, yet the National Institute of Health only convened its first conference on celiac disease in 2004. The conclusion? That celiac disease and gluten allergies are “widely unrecognized” and hard to diagnose.
Gluten intolerant sufferers get bloated, experience poor nutrition, pain, diarrhea, and experience weight gain. If untreated, allergic reactions to gluten can result in vitamin and mineral deficiencies and osteoporosis. In fact, a recent study looked at frozen serum samples collected between 1948 and 1952 to present day ones. The study found that gluten allergies and celiac disease are at least four times more likely today than they were 60 years ago.
Now, the general consensus for a definition of a gluten allergy is someone who doesn’t have celiac disease but who suffer bloating and other celiac symptoms which are avoided by avoiding eating gluten.
Still unconvinced of the link?
A small Australian study put 37 volunteers who had gluten intolerance symptoms on a gluten-free or a regular diet for six weeks. Those on the gluten-free diet had fewer problems with bloating, tiredness, and irregular bowel movements.
However, there are some arguments that state that a ‘gluten intolerance’ is, in fact, nothing to do with gluten at all and everything to do with a carbohydrate called Fructan, found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. In 2017, a team of researchers from Oslo, Norway, and Australia took 59 people who didn’t have celiac disease but did have a gluten-free diet. They gave them three different types of cereal bar. One had gluten, one had fructan, and one had neither. Six weeks later, the results showed that 24 people had the most discomfort from the fructan bar, 22 from the placebo, and 13 from the gluten bar.
Almost two decades ago, celiac disease was mostly only found in Europe. Yet today, both celiac disease and gluten intolerance have become part of a broader conversation, that includes trying to get to the root of understanding why it’s on the increase. Also on the rise are people adopting a gluten-free diet without a diagnosis, and even in 2010, there $2.5 billion global sales of gluten free produce. In 2018 that figure sat at $17.59 billion and anticipated to expand by more than 9% by 2025.
Whether there’s a credible scientific link between genetically modified dwarf wheat and celiac disease and gluten intolerance or not, they are modern-day illnesses that mean big business.