It’s a little weird, right? People have been eating wheat since the agricultural age began, some 10,000 years ago. So why the sudden explosion in gluten sensitivity?
A Quick Overview of Gluten Sensitivity vs Celiac Disease
The gluten protein is the glue, or the core binding element, of certain grains (including wheat of course, plus barley, bulgar, couscous, durum, rye, semolina, spelt, and triticale — to name a few).
Gluten sensitivity is an allergy — it just means the body produces antibodies (IgG or IgE) against the gluten protein, causing inflammation and poor digestion in the gut. An allergy is when your body attacks something that is ordinarily harmless.
Celiac Disease, on the other hand, is an autoimmune condition: it means that in response to the presence of gluten, the body produces antibodies that attack the lining of the small intestine, blunting the villi and preventing absorption of nutrients. An autoimmune condition is when your body attacks itself. (For more on the difference between an allergy and an autoimmune condition, read here.)
Nobody really had any issues digesting gluten until around fifty years ago, around the end of WWII. Since then, the rate of Celiac Disease has risen over 400% — and that’s to say nothing of the many others who are merely gluten sensitive. There seem to be two possible explanations for this: how we grow and process wheat changed around 1960, and how we get the dough to rise changed most significantly during the aforementioned war.
Why Bread Rises
Bread rises due to fermentation. Crash course: 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. (See a correlation in these timelines?)
In 1961, wheat crops also began to be mass-produced. Mass production meant the grain had to be able to withstand fertilizers, pesticides, heavy machinery, and transcontinental shipping… and in order to achieve such hearty grain, the wheat was bred to contain more gluten than ever before. (Remember, gluten is glue — more gluten means it can take more of a beating.) In order to accommodate the extra gluten in the same amount of “space”, though, the trace mineral content in wheat correspondingly declined (and that’s before commercial processing strips out the rest of it).
Gluten-Free (Usually) Still = Processed Crap
Sad, but true… most pre-packaged products marketed as “gluten-free” are still highly processed white carbohydrates, which means the carbs turn into sugar as soon as they hit your saliva (which is a problem for a variety of reasons.) You might not have an allergic response to it, but that doesn’t make it nutritious.
Why Sourdough (and Sprouted Grains) Are Viable Alternatives
In 2007, Applied and Environmental Microbiology performed a study demonstrating that while ordinary wheat bread contains gluten levels of 75,000 parts per million, its fermented (sourdough) counterpart instead contained only 12 parts per million — rendering it effectively gluten-free.
Sprouting your grains is another way to achieve essentially the same effect. Raw food naturally contains probiotics and enzymes — enzymes which do essentially the same thing that lactic acid does in terms of breaking down the gluten protein for you. Ezekiel is my favorite brand of sprouted grain products — although you can certainly sprout your own, if you have the time and inclination.
Disclaimer: IF you have Celiac Disease, you still need to avoid even sourdough or sprouted grains. But even some of my most gluten-sensitive patients can tolerate sourdough and sprouted grains with no problems.