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Is Wheat To Blame For The Rise Of Celiac Disease?

Harvesting Wheat

As we all know, there has been a huge rise in the incidence of celiac diagnosis in recent years.  But what’s behind this rise – is it simply a matter of better screening and testing techniques and greater awareness among doctors – or is there another reason behind it?

The number of people diagnosed with celiac disease has doubled every 15 years since 1974.  Just a decade ago, gluten-intolerance levels were estimated at 1 in 2,500 people worldwide.  Today, it’s estimated at 1 in 133.  Since identical twins (who, of course, have identical genes) only have a 70% chance of having CD, this means there must be an environmental component to the disease.

While investigating celiac disease, gastroenterologists and scientific researchers at the Mayo Clinic are looking into the reasons behind the increase in the incidence of celiac disease (CD) diagnoses.

In this respect they struck gold when they discovered a long-forgotten depository of blood samples taken from young Air Force recruits in the 1950’s.  The team tested the blood samples for gluten antibodies, only to find that the occurrence of this marker was far less than the 1% which prevails today.  They further compared the tests with a set of blood test results from elderly men who had been born in the same year as the airmen, and also with a second set of blood samples from modern young men which matched the age of the airmen when their blood was drawn.  The fascinating result was that young people today are whopping 4.5 times more likely to have celiac disease than people born several decades ago.  Their research therefore proves that the increased incidence of CD is not due to greater awareness or improved screening for the disease, but rather must be due to changes in the diet.

This raises the obvious question:  how did previously safe, staple foodstuffs become toxic substances capable of wreaking serious damage on the human body?

One avenue the researchers at the Mayo Clinic are following is to look at the grains we are consuming in the 21st century, and whether there could be something different about the grains we eat today compared with those that were consumed by previous generations.

The oldest archaeological evidence for wheat cultivation comes from Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Armenia, and Iraq.  As people began to use grains as a staple foodstuff about 9,000 – 10,000 years ago, this changed the way they lived their daily lives and led to the practice of agriculture.  In ancient times, wheat would have been made into flat cakes or made into a thin, watery porridge, little resembling the finely milled bakery goods we are familiar with today.

In early times, the grain varieties naturally hybridized with wild grasses, but later on humans intervened in attempts to breed wheat strains that would have large kernels, good disease resistance and that would grow well in the prevailing climate.  At harvest time the biggest and best grains would be selected and the seeds kept for planting the following year’s crop.  Hybridization was achieved by selecting two parent wheat varieties and crossing them.

Of all the grains and cereals grown over the last few thousand years, the common bread wheat, Triticum aestivum, has the advantage of having grain kernels that thresh free of their hulls, whereas other grain varieties have tough hulls that must be vigorously rubbed off before they can be processed.  In addition, T. aestivum‘s gluten content made it ideal for making leavened bread, which probably dates back to Egypt in the 17th century BC.  It is only in the past 200 years, however, that bread made from wheat has become the preferred bread type, with rye bread having previously been the bread of choice in Europe.

With the advent of the industrial revolution in Europe in the 18th century, agriculture struggled to meet the demands of feeding an increasing urban population with foods grown on nutrient-depleted soil.  This situation was aggravated by food shortages which occurred in the mid 18th century due to wars, cholera epidemics and poor harvests in England and France.  When European settlers emigrated to the Americas and Australia, they took their favorite grain varieties with them to see if they would thrive in the new foreign climates.  The vast tracts of fertile land in the USA were a situation ripe for exploitation by American farmers who, by 1860, were exporting millions of tons of wheat per year to Europe.

Unfortunately, modern industrialized food production methods, aimed at maximizing profits, are used these days to make bread in western countries.  Cheap, low-nutrient ingredients are used in a rushed process that keeps production costs low and throughput high, with the inevitable negative impact on character, texture, taste and nutritional value.

The rapidity with which grains are processed today contrasts sharply with the lengthy processes that were used in ancient times.  Although our ancestors ate whole grains, back then the grains were sprouted, soaked or soured before consumption.  In some African and Latin American cultures grains are still soaked for several days or even weeks.  Although our ancestors would not have not have known the precise science behind it, their ancient wisdom told them this was the safest way to prepare grains.  Modern science now tells us that grains contain antinutrients called phytates.  Phytates serve to deter plant pests, but are not very good for humans, either.  Phytic acid binds to important minerals like iron, calcium, magnesium and zinc so that they cannot be absorbed by the intestinal tract.  Phytic acid can also attack minerals and enzymes that are essential for the body’s digestive system and other bodily functions.  Nuts and seeds also contain phytates.  Soaking or sprouting the grain or seeds maximizes nutrients and reduces the amount of phytates in the grain, making it easier to digest.

This process is too lengthy for modern, profit-conscious food production companies, however.  The only leavened wheat bread in the western world that is still prepared using a fermentation process is sourdough bread, which undergoes extensive preparation.

In an attempt to keep pace with the population explosion, in the last 50 years plants have been bred to display high yields, resistance to fungal diseases and pests, and the ability to meet the demands of industrial milling and modern bakery methods.  Moreover, plant geneticists are constantly striving to breed new wheat strains with “enhanced characteristics” that will produce more grain per acre.  With the advent of transgenic plant varieties produced by GMO methods this situation can only worsen, since genetically engineering plants produces unintentional – and sometimes very dangerous – proteins.

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