I remember walking through the grocery store about 12 years ago and noticing a growing section of “gluten free” products. At the time I didn’t really know what gluten was. My initial thoughts were, “Well, it must be bad if there are so many new products without it!” and, “Should I stop eating gluten?” Shortly thereafter I would end up working in the food industry and learning all about gluten and what this whole “gluten free” thing was about. I thought it was great that there were more options being developed for people with celiac disease, but I also was having a hard time deciphering what was true and what was untrue about the claims regarding gluten and wheat at the time. Wheat myths seemed to be growing.
Fast forward to now, and many of these same myths about gluten and wheat are still being perpetuated. Of course, there are myths that have been added in over the years too.
Here are three of the top myths about wheat that I’ve come across.
Wheat Myth #1
Gluten Creates “Leaky Gut” Even in Those Who Do Not Have Celiac Disease
All right, so first off, do we all need to be avoiding gluten like nutrition pseudoscientist Mark Hyman claims? No. You can choose to do so for any reason you’d like, but it’s only important for those with celiac disease to avoid it completely.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. If you have celiac disease and eat foods with gluten, your immune system responds by damaging the small intestine. An estimated 1 percent of the population in the U.S. lives with celiac disease. But does gluten cause leaky gut and intestinal permeability in those even without celiac disease? Well first, “leaky gut” isn’t a diagnosis accepted by mainstream medicine. Increased intestinal permeability does exist, and studies have shown that gluten significantly increases intestinal permeability in people with celiac disease. One study found that gluten increased intestinal permeability in people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) as well, however, in other human studies, gluten did not cause any changes to intestinal permeability in those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity or IBS.
And for people without these health conditions, it appears that gluten does not increase intestinal permeability. Although it’s great there are more choices for those that have to avoid gluten, the reason that many people choose to avoid it is most certainly due the large amount of misinformation surrounding it.
Wheat Myth #2
It’s Not the Gluten, It’s the Glyphosate
This is a relatively new myth I’ve been hearing a lot lately, and it always goes along with an anecdote about how someone can allegedly eat all of the wheat they want in Europe, but feel sick eating any amount in the U.S. First, this is obviously just an anecdote, and second, let’s get into why this doesn’t make much sense and can potentially end up causing harm as well.
I want to make it abundantly clear that if you have celiac disease, you should avoid gluten regardless of the country. This is where the myth can be harmful. The principal varieties of wheat grown in Europe are of the soft variety and contain less gluten than the hard wheat varieties grown in the U.S. These soft wheat varieties may have a lower gluten content, but they absolutely still contain gluten. There are also different baking methods that can result in end products with different amounts of gluten and fructans as well. So, it could be possible for someone with IBS, for example, to have fewer unpleasant effects from a wheat containing product that’s lower in fructans or for someone who is sensitive to gluten (non-celiac) to perhaps be able to eat products with less gluten.
The claims that this sensitivity is due to the glyphosate on the wheat grown in the U.S. are just false.
Pre-harvest applications of glyphosate are made after the wheat plant has shut down, when wheat kernel development is complete and the crop has matured. This is an uncommon treatment — used in less than 3 percent of all wheat acres in the U.S. In addition to that, Europe imports wheat from both Canada and the U.S., which both allow pre-harvest applications of glyphosate, although it’s rarely used in practice. It’s used so sparingly that the amount on the food that you would end up consuming wouldn’t even be detectable or would be at very low parts per billion levels, which I explained in more detail here.
There’s no evidence to show a sensitivity to glyphosate at these extremely low residues potentially in foods containing wheat. And since Europe imports plenty of Canadian- and U.S.-grown wheat, you could even be eating the same U.S.-grown wheat when in Europe too. Despite false claims of celiac disease rates in the U.S. being much greater than in Europe because of the glyphosate, the rates in Europe are actually higher than in the U.S.
Wheat Myth #3
GMO Wheat and Newer Strains of Wheat Contain More Gluten Than Strains in the Past
First, there is no GMO wheat commercially available in the U.S. or in any country other than Argentina, where the first transgenic wheat in the world was approved in October 2020.
OK, so do newer varieties contain more gluten than old ones? Sixty preferred wheat varieties from the period between 1891 and 2010 were analyzed by Katharina Scherf and her team at the Leibniz-Institute for Food Systems Biology. They found that “overall, modern wheat varieties contain slightly less protein than old ones. In contrast, the gluten content has remained constant over the last 120 years, although the composition of the gluten has changed slightly. While the proportion of critically viewed gliadins fell by around 18 percent, the proportion of glutenins rose by around 25 percent. In addition, the researchers observed that higher precipitation in the year of the harvest was accompanied by a higher gluten content in the samples.”
Environmental conditions had an even greater influence on protein composition than changes caused by breeding. In addition, on the protein level, they did not find any evidence that the immunoreactive potential of wheat has changed as a result of the cultivation factors.
Hopefully the myths surrounding wheat will subside and unnecessarily restricting gluten will become a thing of the past.
If you need to avoid gluten, I’m glad there are more gluten-free options today than there were a decade ago. The innovations in this space have been nothing short of impressive. However, there is no compelling evidence that a gluten-free diet will improve health if you don’t have celiac disease.
Food Science Babe is the pseudonym of an agvocate and writer who focuses specifically on the science behind our food. She has a degree in chemical engineering and has worked in the food industry for more than decade, both in the conventional and in the natural/organic sectors.