Gluten is a very polarising topic. From the outset, I will say that my views are not going to be subscribed to by everyone. There are many fervent believers out there that gluten is polypeptide manifestation of the devil; but realistically, whole civilisations have thrived as a result of the agricultural revolution. Wheat, barley and rye have been crucial parts of the survival and influence of all of the cultures in the Mediterranean. It’s only really recently that issues with gluten containing foods have begun to emerge.
So what are we missing?
Gluten is a protein aggregate found in wheat, oats, barley and rye. It is a relatively large protein and can resist digestion. Gluten can have a negative influence on the signalling of proteins in the gastrointestinal tract that allow nutrients through the epithelium into circulation, and keep bacteria, pathogens and other waste material in the gastrointestinal tract for excretion. As a result, the hypothesis is that gluten modulates the tight junctions in the epithelium, allowing passage of molecules that would otherwise not be able to traverse this barrier and ultimately leading to chronic inflammatory processes in the gut. This is commonly termed, ‘leaky gut’. While this mechanism exists and may be in play when we eat gluten, this story is very insular and fails to see the body as a whole. While I don’t believe it’s a good idea to eat wheat based foods indiscriminately, I certainly think a great deal of nuance should be introduced into this debate so that practitioners can adequately explain the relevant factors.
Wheat has changed a lot since the beginning of the agricultural revolution. Selective breeding over generations has yielded strains of wheat that produce more grain with higher gluten to protein ratio, yet with lower overall protein levels. Depleted soils have also lead to reduced mineral content of essentially all foods, including gluten-containing grains. Might this be playing a role in the increase in individuals suffering from reactions to wheat? Probably. What is the magnitude of the effect? Unclear.
We should keep in mind while discussing this issue that the way we consume wheat today is vastly different to the way it has been consumed in antiquity. Our ancestors ate wheat by stone grinding the grains into flour, mixing it with water and letting it ferment; sourdough. This wild fermentation process pre-digests the macromolecules in the wheat, rendering the proteins (including gluten) much easier to break down. Would we be having the same complaints from people if they consumed wheat that has been wild fermented and then cooked into a bread? Likely not.
One of the more critical aspects to consider in this trend of gluten intolerance/sensitivity is that changing chemical environment associated with mono-cropping and industrial agriculture. Wheat is a highly contaminated food. The use of chemicals on staple crops such as wheat, barley, oats and rye is substantial and in many cases, the chemicals are applied directly to the grasses before harvest as a desiccant. I am of the belief that the chemicals on the wheat are more to blame for the disruption of the gut than the proteins in the wheat. The most popular herbicide, Roundup (glyphosate) has been shown to directly disturb the tight junctions in the epithelium the same way gluten is theorised to. It may be that the combination of the two are worst than either on their own. Combine this with the fact that we do not engage in the adequate food preparation methods such as fermentation, soaking and sprouting and we can see why this may be an issue. If someone with self-proclaimed gluten sensitivity is given a slice of organic/biodynamic einkorn (heirloom wheat) sourdough that has been wild fermented, I think that there would be no reaction. We need to begin considering the broader implications of agricultural practise, the chemical environment and general human health before we can condemn foods that have sustained entire populations for centuries.
I also think that the general degradation of the human gut microbiome over the last few centuries plays a role in food sensitivities in general. It seems to me as though the complex bacterial environment of the gut may have been playing a role in the protection from modulating proteins such as gluten, although this is mostly speculative.
I could go on, and I likely will in the future. My point is, wheat, oats, barley and rye are extremely nutritious foods and can be used to great effect in many people to bring about health and wellness. It is, however, critical to choose organic and prepare these foods correctly to enhance digestibility and nutrient bioavailability. Personally, I like to soak and sprout my grains and then pressure cook them into a soup or stew. This is a great way to benefit from the nutrient profile of gluten-containing grains.