I like curling up with a good health article, including the ones in magazines from my neighborhood health food store.
What I read makes sense: Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity are on the rise. You’re not eating your ancestor’s wheat. New wheat, which I assumed was GMO, had more gluten than “good old wheat” and lacked gluten-digesting enzymes.
While industry-sponsored debunking of “health food propaganda” makes me suspicious, my wariness extends to well-funded studies supported by interested parties like coffee growers or chocolate manufacturers.
For this article, I used information from institutions with a reputation for rigorous review. Learning along with my readers, I am surprised at what I found.
1. Are there more people with gluten-related disorders?
According to the Mayo Clinic’s online research magazine, yes.
The article, “Celiac Disease: On the Rise,” states that “the disease is becoming a major public health issue…four times more common now than…60 years ago.”
After joining the Mayo Clinic in 1998, Dr. Joseph Murray tested blood samples from Air Force recruits of the early 1950s. He compared them with today’s young men “who were 4.5 times more likely to have celiac disease than the 1950s recruits.”
In my last article, I reported the importance of formal diagnosis. Murray underlines this by studying long-term health records of the 1950s airmen. “Mayo researchers learned that those [men] having undiagnosed celiac disease were four times more likely to have died.” Diagnosis and treatment equals longer life.
2. Is new wheat responsible for gluten-related illnesses?
Dr. Stefano Guandalini, the medical director of the University of Chicago’s Celiac Disease Center, the only such center in the USA, was interviewed for a 2014 Science Life article.
Guandalini says, “It is a common belief that modern wheat contains more gluten than wheat available 100 years ago…this is simply not true.” He cites USDA data comparing wheat cultivars from the early 1900s to modern wheat. The average gluten content was exactly the same, between 10 and 15%.
Regarding genetically modified wheat, he says, “Let me set the record straight: There is no genetically modified wheat commercially available in any country in the world…today.” It’s true that hybridization has created different varieties, but without difference in gluten content.
Some blame increased wheat consumption on gluten problems, but Guandalini says USDA data shows we are eating half the wheat we did in 1910.
3. Why more gluten-related diseases now?
Murray lists possible environmental causes of celiac disease including “the 21st-century diet,” with its processed foods, “not in existence 50 years ago.” Although Guandalini seems to disagree, Murray adds the fact that “Modern wheat differs from older strains because of hybridization.”
Murray and Guandalini agree on the “hygiene hypothesis.”
Murray says that the “modern environment is so clean that the immune system has little to attack, so it turns on itself.”
Guandalini explains: "[B]ecause of the cleanliness of the society in which we live, babies between birth and 18 months are not exposed to the same antigenic load that mother nature expected. Not enough dirt, in other words.”
While our cleanliness has nearly eliminated a number of infectious conditions, the gut doesn’t get its antigenic load of bacteria, so we develop more autoimmune and allergic diseases.
Supporting the hygiene hypothesis, Guandalini cites the fact that there are few autoimmune conditions in “developing countries which don’t allow for extreme cleanliness.”
For my own part, I’m surprised to learn modified wheat isn’t the culprit, and that our antiseptic environment could be.
Clearly, gluten research is open to further interpretation.
My next article explores what someone with a diagnosis of gluten disorder should do.
Newport Beach resident CARRIE LUGER SLAYBACK is a retired teacher who ran the Los Angeles Marathon at age 70, winning first place in her age group. Her blog is email@example.com.