What Happened to Wheat?
By Dr. Alison Adams, Contributor
Recent research conducted in the USA, Europe and other countries suggests that the incidence of coeliac disease has at least quadrupled in the last 30 years.
Coeliac disease (CD) is caused by an inability to digest the gluten protein in wheat and some other grains. The gluten is recognised by the immune system of the coeliac as being a foreign protein and their intestines suffer irreversible collateral damage as a result of an ‘autoimmune’ reaction when they consume gluten-containing foodstuffs.
Whilst 1% of the population are recognised to have full-blown coeliac disease, many multiples of that figure may have some lesser degree of gluten intolerance that usually goes undiagnosed but that undermines their health. This can have serious consequences and one study found a four-fold higher risk of death amongst people with undiagnosed gluten intolerance.
Whilst screening procedures may have improved over the last 30 years, could there be another explanation for this massive rise in the incidence of coeliac disease?
Researchers at the Mayo clinic in the USA recently analysed blood samples from Air Force recruits that had been stored since the early 1950s for gluten antibodies. They assumed that about 1% of the sample would test positive mirroring the current rate of incidence of coeliac disease.
However, they found that the number of positive results were far smaller than expected indicating that coeliac disease was rare 60 years ago. A Mayo clinic spokesperson attributed the increase in incidence of coeliac disease to “Something that has happened in a pervasive fashion from the environmental perspective”.
So, the question is: What has happened to wheat?
In order to understand that, first you need to understand a little about the wheat grain.
The bit about wheat
When being processed, the ears of wheat are first threshed to remove the wheat kernels and then milled to break up the grain into a flour.
The outer husk of the grain which is separated out when milling white flour, is known as bran.
The embryo portion of the wheat kernel is the wheat germ and is a concentrated source of vitamins, minerals and protein.
The endosperm forms the majority of the grain and is a starch storage region designed to support the growth of the wheat germ.
The unique ability of wheat to make bread is related to the type and quantity of the gluten proteins, particularly the high-molecular-weight glutenin that is found in the starchy endosperm of the seed.
For many centuries growers have used a variety of breeding techniques to make the grain thresh and mill more easily and to increase the gluten content of the endosperm to make lighter, stickier flour products.
Unlike many other grains, the genetics of wheat are complex with some wheat species such as einkorn having two sets of chromosomes and being referred to as diploid wheat. Some wheat such as emmer or durum wheat has four sets of chromosomes and is therefore referred to as tetraploid wheat. Whilst modern wheat and spelt have six sets of chromosomes and are referred to as hexaploid wheat.
Work on mapping the genome of wheat is reported to be almost complete.
A history of wheat
Wheat is a natural hybrid derived from cross-pollination of grains such as Triticum monococcum and Aegilops speltoides (spelt) and has become one of the biggest crops in the world along with rice and corn (maize). In terms of global human consumption, wheat is second only to rice and is the leading source of vegetable protein, having a higher protein content than other grains.
The advent of agriculture in the Middle East using domesticated wheat allowed for the emergence of the city-state and ‘civilisation’ because it was one of the first crops that could be cultivated and stored on a large scale. Wheat has since been used around the world to make a variety of breads, biscuits, cookies, cakes, breakfast cereals, pastas, noodles and couscous and is also fermented to make beer and other alcoholic drinks.
Evidence of cultivation of the more primitive grain, emmer, have been found dating back over 10,000 years to the Neolithic period. However, there is evidence of the domestication of barley dating back 25,000 years and some say that this is also likely to be true of wheat. Kamut, one of the grains from which wheat has been derived has been found in Egyptian tombs from 5,000 years ago and there is evidence of its cultivation in Northern Europe around this time also.
Over the millennia, farmers and breeders have cross-hybridised grains to breed in qualities considered more desirable. However, formal wheat breeding began in the nineteenth century when single genetic strains were produced by selecting a single plant noted to have desirable properties.
For example, the wheat required to make breads requires a strong, elastic gluten enabling the dough to trap carbon dioxide during the rising process. However, the gluten in pasta needs to be strong but not elastic for the production of pasta which needs to be rolled into sheets and so wheat exhibiting these properties was specifically selected and bred.
Later, the growing understanding of Mendelian genetics led to techniques involving cross-breeding two lines and inbreeding the progeny for ten or more generations to obtain specific qualities.
Hybridisation produced dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties in the twentieth century that had longer ears of grain, shorter stalks and that could withstand adverse climactic conditions. Such wheat has been embraced by the developing world, but has met with limited commercial success in Europe, the USA and South Africa.
However, in the last few decades techniques such as injecting genes using biolistic methods and using bacteria to transfer genetic information in agrobacterial methods have been used to produce transgenic wheat. In this manner the wheat has been genetically engineered to contain what are referred to as ‘funny proteins’ from a variety of plant and animal sources including the fish, flounder and the mould, ergot.
Companies including Monsanto claim that the use of these transgenic techniques can select with more precision the traits required rather than using radiation or chemicals to induce mutations as was previously the case.
This genetic engineering of wheat has resulted in a crop that is no longer classifiable as a plant, but is now considered a genetically modified organism (GMO).
Wheat has been and is being engineered to:
- Produce greater yields
- Improve quality
- Be disease and insect resistant
- Require less nitrogen to grow
- Require less pesticides and herbicides
- Increase the glutenin content
- Be resistant to drought
- Be tolerant of heat
- Reduce wheat’s allergenicity
- Increase the nutritional value
- Be resistant to aluminium contamination of the soil
- Enhance wheat’s lignans which may have anti-cancer properties and
- Boost the human immune system using human genes!
Whilst those who support the adoption of transgenic wheat feel that such modification is necessary to feed a growing global population, concerns about genetically engineered wheat include:
- The introduction of DNA changes in humans that no one can predict.
- The creation of super-weeds that will be resistant to herbicides as disease-resistance is transferred between plant species.
- The creation of super-bugs as antibiotic resistance is transferred to microorganisms.
- Contamination of conventional or organic crops, as wheat is pollinated by the wind. In 1999 scientists in Thailand claimed to have found transgenic wheat in a grain shipment from the United States, even though at the time it had not been approved for sale and had only ever been grown in test plots.
- The main claim is that such crops will require less pesticide, but so far this has proven unfounded and since the companies that provide the pesticides are the ones creating the transgenic crops, a conflict of interest has been observed.
- Transgenic crops become the intellectual property of the company that created them and farmers using such crops have to agree to stringent conditions including being unable to collect the seeds to replant. Monsanto has engineered crops specifically to require the use of their fertilisers and this means that farmers in developing countries in particular can be held to ransom by large multinational corporations.
- Transgenic wheat produced by Monsanto is currently being grown in Argentina and the United States and has passed in-house environmental risk assessments and US government regulatory agencies have approved its use. Reception in the developed world has been cool and farmers have been concerned about the saleability of transgenic crops. This has led Monsanto to appear to have set its sights upon penetrating the developing world markets – starting with India.
Celiac disease and gluten intolerance
The first line of treatment for celiac disease and gluten intolerance is to avoid gluten-containing grains for a lifetime. Celiacs may also need to exercise caution when consuming non-gluten containing grains like millet and rice which can have been contaminated by being grown or processed near grains like wheat. For some gluten-intolerant people, supplementing digestive enzymes may help to break down gluten to below a safe threshold.
The hybridisation and genetic engineering of wheat has resulted in a staggering 500 fold increase in the gluten content of modern day wheats compared to the wheat our forefathers would have known and this may be one of the prime reasons behind the massive rise in incidence of gluten intolerance and celiac disease in recent decades.
Some countries such as France and some manufacturers tend to use more traditional wheats and gluten content can also vary widely between products. Pizza dough for example is high in gluten, but the wheat used in cookies or biscuits is lower in gluten and you may find that you can tolerate some wheat products and not others. Trial and error or muscle testing may help to determine which foods you can consume.
Celiac disease and gluten intolerance are thought to be the most under diagnosed conditions in the world and symptoms include:
- Indigestion, heartburn and/or stomach aches
- Bloating and flatulence
- IBS-type symptoms with abdominal cramping and alternating diarrhoea and constipation
- Anaemia ie: feeling tired and breathless
- Loss of appetite and/or weight loss
- Tingling and/or numbness in the hands and/or feet
- Loss of hair
- Muscle spasms
- Excessive production of mucus
- Swelling of the hands, feet, arms and/or legs
- Confusion, poor memory and cognitive impairment
- Depression or irritability
- Muscle, joint or bone pain,
- Skin rashes
- Seizures and
Whilst all these symptoms are attributable to gluten, wheat also contains a toxic and anti-nutritional compound known as wheat germ agglutinin (WGA). According to researchers at the University of Verona in Italy, WGA can cause the intestines to absorb substances from food which would not normally enter the blood stream leading to the development of allergies and dysfunctional immune responses (Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 2009 Jun).
Other gluten-containing grains include spelt, kamut, barley, rye and in lesser amounts, oats. Whilst spelt is genetically similar to wheat it has not been subject to the amount of hybridisation and genetic manipulation seen with wheat and its proteins are also easier to digest. Whilst not suitable for celiacs, some people may find they tolerate spelt products better than wheat and it also has a higher protein content than wheat.
Thoughts about wheat
The archeological fossil record indicates that the introduction of the agrarian diet coincided with a massive decline in the health and vitality of the population. Prior to this time there was no evidence of degenerative diseases or tooth decay, but with agriculture both men and women lost considerable height which has only now been recovered after 10,000 years. There is also evidence that there was a massive increase in infant mortality at this time. So it may be that wheat – hybridised or not – was never good news for human health.
More recent evidence supports the notion that modern ills including diabetes, obesity and heart disease have their origins in the refining of foods which has stripped out the nutrient content and created multiple mineral and vitamin deficiencies in the human population.
There is also a significant link between mercury toxicity largely acquired from dental amalgam fillings and the development of food intolerances, particularly to gluten- and casein-containing foodstuffs. This is because mercury blocks the digestive enzymes involved. Possibly for this reason gluten intolerance appears to co-exist or play a causative role in conditions such as chronic fatigue, autism and attention deficit disorders.
Finally, if you do choose to include wheat in your diet, use certified organic flour or organic products to avoid some of the more dubious genetic manipulations of wheat.