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Why Is Wheat A Problem For So Many People Today?

Why Is Wheat A Problem

Thousands of varieties

Wheat is grown in 42 states in the U.S. and has been the primary grain used for commercial grain products like white bread, pasta, pizza, bagels, and pastries since the 1700s (18th century) (1).

The thousands of wheat varieties can be classified in six ways; hard red winter wheat, hard red spring wheat, soft red winter wheat, hard white wheat, soft white wheat, and durum wheat (1).

Increased adverse reactions to wheat consumption

Current research shows that more individuals experience adverse reactions today, like allergies or celiac disease, when they consume wheat products (2). And, studies report that more than 6% of the U.S. population now has a non-celiac wheat sensitivity (2).

So, why are more and more people struggling when they eat wheat products today?

Some signs and symptoms

There are various conditions associated with wheat today.

A small percentage of individuals experience an allergic response when they consume wheat products, as their immune system reacts to various proteins in wheat (3).

An allergic response can present with an itchy rash, swelling, congestion, headache, breathing difficulties, cramps, diarrhea, or even more life-threatening symptoms like an anaphylactic reaction (3).

Some individuals have celiac disease, an autoimmune condition, and when they eat wheat (or barley or rye which also contains the gluten protein) a reaction damages the small intestine which, over time, can prevent nutrients from being absorbed and leads to malnutrition and disease (4).

Celiac disease should be assessed and diagnosed because symptoms can vary widely.

The Mayo Clinic suggests that you consult your healthcare provider if you experience diarrhea or digestive issues for longer than two weeks (4). Individuals diagnosed with celiac disease must remove gluten-containing products, like wheat, from their diet.

A newer condition related to wheat is non-celiac gluten sensitivity, as more patients have symptoms related to wheat consumption that are not allergic or autoimmune responses (2).

Many of the symptoms of non-celiac gluten sensitivity are similar and also vary widely like headaches, muscle and joint pain, GI issues, depression, and anemia (2).

Whatever the condition, one thing has been established, today more people are experiencing negative health outcomes when wheat is consumed.

Changes associated with wheat crops and products

Over the last several decades there have been changes that have occurred related to growing, harvesting, and processing wheat that affects the final product that we purchase and consume.

First, research shows that much of the commercial wheat products (bread, pasta, etc.) sold today are processed from hybridized wheat.

Scientists have used cross-breeding and genetic manipulation over the past several decades to produce higher-yielding, lower-cost crops, which has resulted in wheat hybrids that contain more gluten than their ancient counterparts like einkorn and Khorasan (kamut) wheat (5) (6).

Gluten is a complex of hundreds of proteins with gliadin and glutenin being the most prevalent proteins (7). The gliadin protein is not water-soluble and has a peptide sequence that makes it difficult to digest, which can lead to adverse reactions (7).

Additionally, wheat or gluten can be consumed unaware today as they can be found in many products like deli meats, veggie burgers, and even supplements or medications (10).

Next, the growing and harvesting practices of today include a process known as crop desiccation, which involves spraying herbicides like glyphosate on the crop shortly before the harvest for weed control and to speed the drying process to get the grain to market more quickly (8).

Studies show that herbicides like glyphosate can be key contributors to gluten issues and diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and cancer, as well as obesity, infertility, and depression (9). Celiac disease, for example, is associated with dysbiosis which can be caused by glyphosate (9).

Hospital discharge diagnosis (any) of celiac disease ICD-9 579 and glyphosate applications to wheat (R=0.9759, p≤1.862e-06). Sources: USDA:NASS; CDC. (Figure courtesy of Nancy Swanson). (9)

Here’s another way modern wheat products have changed, food additives.

Wheat products now contain many food additives like high fructose corn syrup and DATEM.

High fructose corn syrup is an industrially produced food additive widely used in highly-processed foods and beverages for the past several decades that has, more recently, been found to be a major risk factor for conditions like gut dysbiosis, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, hypertension, obesity, and liver cancer (11) (12) (13).

Emulsifiers like diacetyl tartaric acid ester of mono and diglycerides (DATEM) are commonly added to baked goods, cream, chewing gum, processed meats, sauces, and coffee, and are used as beverage whiteners (14). Emulsifiers like this have been found to contribute to metabolic and gut-associated diseases as inflammation occurs due to alterations of the gut microbiota and mucus layer that encourage bacteria to move into the body (14).

Dough conditioners like potassium bromate are widely used in commercial bread products here in the United States, even though many countries have banned the use of this food additive (15) (16). More recent studies have found potassium bromate to increase the risk for cancer, specifically cancer of the thyroid, kidneys, and GI tract cancer like esophageal, stomach, and colorectal cancers (17) (18).

As many Americans consume several wheat products each day - beginning the day with a bagel or donut, having a sandwich on white bread for lunch, and perhaps pasta for dinner – they can consume a greater amount of gluten, pesticide residue, and food additives that challenge their health.

Putting it all together

The development of chronic conditions, like those covered here, is typically multifactorial, meaning they are caused by more than one thing.

Here we have covered a few ways that wheat has been altered or changed over the past several decades; hybridization that resulted in greater gluten levels, the use of herbicides that damage body organs, and food additives that lead to disease.

We could also discuss the refinement process that removes essential nutrients from the original wheat kernel, creating a nutrient-deficient product that contributes to deficiencies that can lead to chronic conditions.

When consuming a commercial grain product, like bread, it’s best to read the Nutrition Facts panel and ingredient label to be sure that you are consuming a clean, whole-food product. You can read more about choosing grain products here.

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