It seems like daily we hear about gluten intolerances and allergies. More restaurants and grocery stores are offering gluten-free options than ever before. I am, in fact, one of those “people” who can’t handle gluten. I discovered my gluten sensitivity about a year ago – and let me tell you, my health has been better without gluten in it (I won’t go into my whole story here, you’re welcome 🙂 ). While on my gluten-free journey I began to wonder why so many Americans are dealing with genuine gluten sensitivities – from uncomfortable intolerances to full-blown, potentially life-threatening Celiac’s disease. We know the idea of gluten sensitivity is very new, because wheat was a nutritious staple of many peoples for centuries, and because of an interesting study discussed here. So this begs the question: what happened? Here, I’ll do my best to summarize what I think are the largest culprits.
The Green Revolution
Beginning in the 1940’s scientists wanted to find a way of farming that would result in higher yields; thus the introduction of chemical fertilizers (blech!) and “new disease resistant high-yield varieties of wheat” (History and Overview of the Green Revolution). In the 1960’s scientists developed our modern cultivar of dwarf wheat. It gave a high yield with “larger seeds heads and thick, short stalks that could bear the weight” (Mark’s Daily Apple). As a result, these hybrid stalks could receive less sunlight and a smaller space while maintaining a high yield. So what’s the problem? This dwarf wheat is not only less nutritious – lacking in numerous minerals, including zinc and magnesium – but it packs a wallop of specific gluten proteins nearly non-existent in ancient wheats. These gluten proteins in modern wheat have been shown to be a common reactor in people with Celiac’s disease. It is no wonder, then, that anyone who already has a propensity to gluten sensitivity would be more likely to be effected by our modern wheat.
The “Heart Healthy Diet” + The USDA Health Pyramid
In the 1950’s doctors began to assert that there was a link between saturated fat consumption and cardiovascular disease (a myth that has been thoroughly debunked here). In my opinion, the result of that assertion has been disastrous for those with gluten sensitivities (and really for ALL Americans – I’ll deal with some of those health concerns in part 2). Consider the USDA food pyramid, with grains near the bottom, insisting that a healthy, well-balanced diet consisted of a large portion of grains (namely wheat based products). From that point, not only did a vast majority of Americans cut out animal fat products (the horror!), they filled in those gaps with gluten heavy carbohydrates. The almost constant gluten assault on our bodies has taxed our systems to the point of rejection (think allergies – for many, allergies to various things don’t show up until later in life after your body has had one too many encounters with a substance).
Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs)
Many of us are aware of the ethical horrors of modern commercial meat and dairy operations; and we’ve seen the pictures and videos of animals cramped together with no room to move, living in their own filth. The CAFO diet is a large contributor to gluten sensitivities and flare-ups. These animals (cow, pig, and chicken) are given grain feed, the gluten of which passes into their meat and into us when we eat it – thus increasing the gluten saturation of the American public. This unnatural, grain-based diet also leaves the animals highly susceptible to illnesses which requires the much publicized use of antibiotics and other drugs in the animals, which is a whole other problem in itself.
So there we have it. The three largest culprits of the rise in gluten sensitivities in America (in my humble opinion, of course). I have so much more I want to say on this issue, so I’ve decided to make it a two-parter. So, please keep your eyes open for part 2 when I’ll discuss how gluten took over our food supply, hidden sources of gluten, both common and unexpected problems caused by gluten, and what you can do to reduce your family’s gluten intake.
Smiles and healthy eating,