Anecdotally, many people who are sensitive to gluten in the United States are able to eat it overseas without a problem. Why is this?
As far as I can tell, there are a few key reasons why this *might* be the case.
DIFFERENT KINDS OF WHEAT
According to the USDA, wheat is the third most abundant crop in the US, behind corn and soy. There are five major classes of wheat planted, including hard red winter (meaning it’s planted in wintertime), hard red spring (meaning it’s planted in the spring), soft red winter, white, and durum. The two hard reds together account for about 60% of the US wheat crops, and these are what are primarily used to make bread flour, due to their high protein (read: gluten) content. I found one source that said it’s about 15% gluten.
While Europe does import American wheat, the vast majority of the wheat they grow is of the soft (read: lower gluten content) variety. One source said it’s roughly 10% gluten.
If you’re gluten sensitive, the lower percentage in the wheat grown in Europe might account for some of the difference, though again: no guarantees it hasn’t been imported from the U.S.
DIFFERENT KINDS OF PROCESSING
Contrary to popular opinion and unlike soy and corn, wheat is not genetically modified, either in the United States or elsewhere.
However, wheat in the US has been bred specifically to cultivate certain traits—among them, the gluten content. Higher gluten means better bread, because gluten is “sticky” and therefore rises better, making a fluffier loaf.
Also, while non-organic U.S. wheat hasn’t had glyphosate (the toxic ingredient of Round-Up and the primary constituent inserted into GMO corn and soy) inserted directly into its genetic code, it is soaked in Round-Up prior to harvest. Roundup kills insects by poking holes in the gut lining. According to the EPA, glyphosate is toxic to insects only and has no effect on humans or animals. That said, since glyphosate has permeated the market, both applied topically as an herbicide and inserted into the genetic code of corn and soy, inflammatory gastrointestinal disorders have been on the rise. So has obesity.
More cause for concern: glyphosate is a chelator, which means it binds to positively charged elements and compounds (such as trace minerals and nutrients) and doesn’t let go. Plants treated with glyphosate may therefore be deficient nutrients, and the evidence suggests they are primarily low in manganese, zinc, and iron.
Although Europe as a whole has not yet banned the use of RoundUp on their crops, many European nations and cities have restrictions on the usage of it. The U.S. has no such restrictions.
Therefore it stands to reason that, not only does U.S. wheat contain a higher percentage of gluten than European wheat, but the usage of glyphosate on non-organic U.S. wheat crops has rendered that wheat more toxic as well.
BUTTERMILK VS. MILK
One more theory on why certain varieties of bread common in Europe may cause fewer problems than American yeast involves the fermentation process. Crash course on fermentation: organisms produce energy from sugar either aerobically (in the presence of oxygen) or anaerobically (oxygen not necessary). Fermentation is an anaerobic process, converting sugar into (in this case) lactic acid and carbon dioxide. The latter is a gas, and that’s what makes bread rise.
Up until about a hundred years ago, sourdough was the only kind of bread available, and it is produced in the following manner: flour + water + a sealed container + time –> sourdough starter (consisting of a whole bunch of different strains of bacteria + CO2 + lactic acid). While the CO2 makes the bread rise, the lactic acid gives it its characteristic sour flavor. But lactic acid also has three other very important functions:
- It serves as a natural preservative;
- It helps to break down certain naturally occurring chemicals (called phytobiotics) that prevent the body from absorbing the nutrients found in the grain; and
- Most relevant to the topic at hand, lactic acid helps to break down the gluten protein. (Remember, gluten is sticky like glue, and therefore harder to digest on its own, without this assistance).
Around 1879, however, mass-produced commercial yeast was invented, consisting only of a single strain of yeast (saccharomyces cerevisiae), compared to the veritable zoo of microflora found in sourdough starters. This single yeast ferments the bread much quicker than in sourdough, minimizing or eliminating the benefits of lactic acid. During WWII, this yeast was further refined into granulated active dry yeast, and it was refined further still into instant yeast in the 1970s.
However, one thing I noticed about European breads is that they frequently call for buttermilk in the recipe. Commercial buttermilk is made from milk + lactic acid bacteria, which take the lactose in milk and turn it into lactic acid. It’s another way to get to the same conclusion as you might get from sourdough breads. At least that’s my theory.
So is European bread different from American bread? Not necessarily, if they’ve been imported from the U.S., and/or were grown in an area that still uses RoundUp. But more often than not, the answer appears to be that European breads:
- have less gluten;
- have likely been sprayed with fewer pesticides associated with increased intestinal permeability; and
- have been made with an ingredient containing its own lactic acid—further breaking down what gluten the wheat did have left to begin with.
So if you are gluten sensitive, what does this mean for you? As mentioned in this article, as long as you don’t have true Celiac disease, you might be able to get away with eating sprouted or 100% sourdough bread. But you also might be able to eat bread that was made from organic, soft wheat, rather than non-organic hard red wheat. And if you’re not dairy-sensitive, you might try recipes made with organic buttermilk as well.