Are Modern Agricultural Processes Making Wheat Gluten More Toxic?

Celiac disease affects hundreds of thousands of Americans each year. Many more patients have non-celiac wheat gluten sensitivities. As celiac disease diagnoses continue to rise, scientists have looked for possible causes. One common theory is that modern agricultural processes have made wheat gluten increasingly toxic over time, leading to more gluten allergies and gluten-related diseases.

The idea is that, as wheat crops have been selectively bred and modified, the gluten has become harder for the human body to digest. Finally, a large-scale study has addressed this problem by comparing the chemical compositions of different types of wheat.

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Scientists have already identified the main trigger of celiac disease reactions: gliadins. Gliadins are proteins that are found in wheat gluten. If modern wheat-breeding techniques were slowly increasing the toxicity of gluten, there would be more gliadins present in newer wheat varieties. The team examined the earliest wheat varieties (including spelt) and modern, selectively bred varieties. Interestingly, spelt contained more gliadins than modern wheat, suggesting that there isn’t a connection between toxicity and modern agricultural practices.

However, this study did focus on patients with celiac disease. There are a growing number of patients with what is referred to as non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). Scientists have found that this type of sensitivity is not linked to celiac disease, but tends to overlap with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Currently, both disorders are poorly understood. Studies focusing on celiac disease do not always apply to patients with NCGS or IBS.

If a patient is sensitive to wheat gluten, “ancient” varieties of flour probably won’t help. In fact, the more modern varieties might be slightly less irritating to patients with NCGS. Scientists are still trying to figure out whether there’s a link between celiac disease and NCGS; so far, they seem unrelated. Either way, modern wheat-breeding methods are not to blame for the rise in documented cases of celiac disease and NCGS.

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