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The Great Wheat Controversy: It’s Either the Staff of Life or It’s Killing You. You know, one or the other.

Posted Aug 01 2013 3:28pm

wheat

Feeling cranky today because now that Ye Olde Royal Birth has happened there’s nothing to look forward to for the rest of the summer until all the sandals go on 75% off clearance? Well if you’re feeling in the fighting mood, nothing starts an argument faster in health and fitness circles these days then asking someone “So, how do you feel about wheat?” Depending on their paradigm they’ll either try to drive a wooden stake through your heart or slap you across the face with a BLT on multigrain. (Which is a win-win for you as you get to either get to get your Buffy on or get a free lunch.)

Long been called “the staff of life” for its role in helping sustain humanity since approximately 10,000 BC, wheat has recently taken a PR hit worse than Lindsay Lohan and Anthony Weiner combined. And wheat hasn’t even publicly flashed its genitals! (Leave that up to those skanky bananas , amiright?) Think I’m exaggerating? (Okay, I am. I always do. My husband likes to call it my Hilton – maiden name – hyperbole.) But only a little bit. Consider this quote from a recent article on RawForBeauty by nutritionist Natasha Longo provocatively called “ Why 80% of People Worldwide Will Soon Stop Eating Wheat .”

“Modern wheat grains could certainly be considered as the root of all evil in the world of nutrition since they cause so many documented health problems across so many populations in the world.” Longo quotes Dr. Marcia Alvarez, who specializes in nutrition for the obese.

Wheat – the “root of all evil”? And here I thought it was the love of money! Or at least homemade meth labs! But seriously, when my friend posted this on her Facebook wall, I was intrigued. First because clearly here was a medical professional as fond of hyperbole as I am and second because I really am curious about how healthy or not wheat is. Even ten years ago nutritionists were touting “100% whole wheat” as one of the healthiest foods you can eat and now people would rather club baby seals with the “staff of life” than eat it.

But, like anything that gets this much attention, it’s hard to tease apart what the research says from all the hype. First I looked to my personal experience. Thanks to my genetic testing I know I do not have the gene predisposing me for Celiac disease and (as far as I can tell) I’ve never had a bad reaction to wheat. After reading Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis (Remember that name, he’s going to come up a lot!) I eliminated wheat and gluten from my diet for 6 weeks. I felt absolutely no difference. And yet I have so many friends and have read so many anecdotal reports of people feeling better after eliminating wheat and/or gluten that I’m sure it does help some people. Add in the fact that the world trade for wheat is greater than for all other crops combined . So in an effort to clear things up for myself I decided to go through Longo’s article and examine some of the claims she makes.

Claim: “Wheat is now responsible for more intolerances than almost any other food in the world. “ (Longo again quoting Alvarez.)

- According to the Center for Celiac Research & Treatment wheat intolerance affects approximately 18 million people, or 6% of the population. According to the symposium commissioned by the World Health Organization, 60% of adults have a dairy intolerance. Of the 8 most common foods to cause reactions, the Mayo Clinic lists wheat as #8.

My verdict? Meh. It’s hard to measure how many people are “intolerant” of something because of all the different ways that can manifest but judging by these quick stats, I’d say wheat is in the top ten but definitely not number one.

Claim: “Modern wheat really isn’t wheat at all. And it’s less nutritious”

- Longo writes that “Once agribusiness took over to develop a higher-yielding crop, wheat became hybridized to such an extent that it has been completely transformed from it’s prehistorical genetic configuration. All nutrient content of modern wheat depreciated more than 30% in its natural unrefined state compared to its ancestral genetic line.”

This is a tricky question since modern wheat (like many crops) has evolved since it was first introduced in the human diet. Some strains happened naturally in the wild (as in wind, bees, animals frolicking in various fields and whatnot) while other strains – like the dwarf wheat most commonly cultivated today – were bred purposefully by humans. I think everyone would agree that all varieties of wheat today differ genetically from the mother seed (whatever that was).

But does it make it less nutritious? According to the quite extensive Broadbalk Experiments , the short answer is yes. Thanks to the shortened stalks, less sun and more shallow root systems, the most common dwarf wheat strain is more deficient in certain vitamins. As for the 30% number cited the only source I could find was Longo herself so I’m not sure where that came from.

My verdict? True.

Claim: “The Nutritional Value of Wheat is Practically Non-Existent In Its Current Form”

- Longo goes on to conclude that “the nutritional value of wheat is non-existent.” I’m not sure that it’s a reasonable leap to go from “less nutritious than the ancient not-messed-with-by-man grain” to “not nutritious at all” but I looked up some stats on wheat. It seems that everyone agrees that white flour (a.k.a. wheat processed to 60% extraction) is nutritionally void. (Sorry crusty French bread!) However, according to the George Matjellen foundation (which says on their site that they’re a non-profit with no commercial interests or advertising, a claim which I’m taking at face value since I don’t have the time to look up everything), 100% whole wheat products keep the germ and the bran attached and have “excellent to very good” health benefits and list it as one of the healthiest foods you can eat with high levels of manganese, magnesium, fiber and tryptophan.

Longo rebuts this, writing, “Some experts claim if you select 100% whole wheat products, the bran and the germ of the wheat will remain in your meals, and the health benefits will be impressive. This is again a falsity promoted by the wheat industry since even 100% whole wheat products are based on modern wheat strains created by irradiation of wheat seeds and embryos with chemicals, gamma rays, and high-dose X-rays to induce mutations. Whether you consume 10% or 100% of wheat is irrelevant since you’re still consuming a health damaging grain that will not benefit, advance or even maintain your health in any way.”

If I’m reading her response correctly she’s not saying that it’s false that the bran and germ are included in the 100% whole wheat products but rather that the nutritional benefit they provide is negated by the manipulation of the grains. Whether or not irradiation mutates food (it’s used to kill pathogens) is still up for debate. The USDA considers it safe. Much of Europe does not. But all of that (including the chemical Longo references) is moot if you buy organic whole wheat. A ccording to the USDA  ”organic” means free of synthetic additives like pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and dyes, and must not be processed using industrial solvents, irradiation, or genetic engineering.

My verdict? False. Not only does whole wheat contain some vital nutrients and fiber but you can avoid the issues Longo described by buying organic.

Claim: There are many health risks [from wheat consumption] for proportionally large segments of the population.

- This is really the big question, right? Longo writes that “there are so many adverse and crippling effects such as neurological impairment, dementia, heart disease, cataracts, diabetes, arthritis and visceral fat accumulation, not to mention the full range of intolerances and bloating now experienced by millions of people.” She adds that “Dr William Davis has documented several hundred clinical studies on the adverse effects of wheat. These are studies that document the neurologic impairments unique to wheat, including cerebellar ataxia and dementia; heart disease; visceral fat accumulation and all its attendant health consequences; the process of glycation via amylopectin A of wheat that leads to cataracts, diabetes, and arthritis; among others. There are, in fact, a wealth of studies documenting the adverse, often crippling, effects of wheat consumption in humans.” She adds that wheat gliadin has been associated with cerebellar ataxia, peripheral neuropathy, gluten encephalopathy (dementia), behavioral outbursts in children with ADHD and autism, and paranoid delusions and auditory hallucinations in people with schizophrenia, severe and incapacitating effects for people suffering from these conditions.

So, I’ll have you all know that I looked up every single one of the diseases listed above. Every. Single. One. I read until my eyes bled. (Yes, I want a gold star.) The consensus, from what I can tell, is that there is no consensus. First, a lot of these issues are listed as effects of “systemic or chronic inflammation.” Inflammation is certainly very trendy these days but it is notoriously hard to diagnose or document as it can refer to a wide range of symptoms. I’ve even been told by one noted health professional in an interview that I was massively inflamed even though I have no symptoms at all. Honestly I find that hard to buy. If I feel good and all my health markers are good then it seems unlikely (though not impossible!) that I have some lurking system-wide issue.

Second, a lot of the studies linked the above illnesses with people with a known gluten intolerance, usually looking at a population with diagnosed Celiac’s Disease. This is problematic because you’re looking at a population that is genetically intolerant of gluten and does not describe the general population as a whole.

Last, lots of these things are either considered lifestyle diseases (diabetes) and/or complications of aging (cataracts) both of which have multiple causes and it’s hard to tease apart what’s caused by gluten/wheat specifically and what’s caused by other factors.

My verdict? I have no freaking clue. This could be true – just like you can’t say diabetes is absolutely caused by wheat, you also can’t say that wheat absolutely does not play a role in diabetes. This could also be false. And it’s likely particular to each illness or disorder. (I know parents of kids with autism who say their kids do infitinely better without wheat.) That said, I’m uncomfortable with blaming a single food for the entirety of American’s health problems.

Claim: You won’t miss out on a wealth of essential nutrients by giving up wheat as you can get them in other places.

- Longo quotes Dr. Davis as saying that if you replace wheat with healthy foods like vegetables, nuts, healthy oils, meats, eggs, cheese, avocados, and olives, then there is no nutrient deficiency that develops with elimination of wheat.

My verdict? True. I love the flexibility of a well-rounded diet! Which is why I have no problems with people taking wheat out of their diet. If you think it helps you to abstain, I certainly don’t think you need it.

Claim: Due to the unique properties of amylopectin A, two slices of whole wheat bread increase blood sugar higher than many candy bars. 

- Amylopectin A is apparently 70% of the “complex carbohydrate” that makes up whole wheat bread. (The other 30% is amylase.) Amylopectin A is called a “super carbohydrate” because of how quickly it is digested and enters your blood stream as sugar, causing an insulin spike. A quick check of the glycemic index verifies this. (Although it should be noted the GI is not the end all and be all of health as it lists fructose as being very low GI when fructose is notoriously awful for you.) Check out this article for a more complete explanation.

My verdict? Surprising but true!

Claim: “An estimated 20-30 percent of the world’s population may carry the genetic susceptibility to celiac disease–and the way to avoid turning these genes ‘on’ is by avoiding gluten.” 

- Without extensive genetic testing this is hard to say but experts put the NIH puts the figure at 10%. That said, according to researchers genetics only account for 40% of a person’s likelihood to get celiac disease. Read this NY Times piece f or more info on the genetics behind Celiac’s.

My verdict: Unverifiable. But even if it is true, it doesn’t ensure you will get Celiac’s disease. On the other hand, not having Celiac’s does not rule out a gluten sensitivity.

Claim: “Dr. Alvarez estimates that between the coming influx of genetically modified (GM) strains of wheat and the current tendency of wheat elimination in societies, that a trend is emerging in the next 20 years that will likely see 80% of people cease their consumption of wheat from any form.”

- Despite having read the article six times, I still can’t figure out where that 80% (both in the quote and in the headline) came from but I’m assuming he’s guessing based on trends he sees in his patients? I think he might be saying that 80% of people have a bad reaction to wheat in its current form but later in the piece Dr. Davis clarifies, “It is not my contention that it is in everyone’s best interest to cut back on wheat; it is my belief that complete elimination is in everyone’s best health interests.” So that would mean 100% of people react badly to wheat? At any rate, I think it’s quite the assertion to make that wheat will go from one of the most consumed foods on the planet (it battles with rice for #1) to completely eliminated by 80% of the population. I don’t even know if that’s economically or agriculturally feasible given how many people rely on wheat as a primary source of calories.

As to the GM part of that, there are currently no genetically modified (as in genetically engineered, not to be confused with cross-breeding or hybridization) strains of wheat on the market today. Monsanto has developed several but has either not gotten approval or withdrawn their application for all of them. However, they’ve indicated their plans to submit a strain for approval in the next 3-5 years so it’s quite possible that we’ll see GM wheat in the near future. And of course there was that mysterious appearance of the Monsanto GM wheat in a random field in Oregon and again in Thailand. It’s out there.

My verdict: Likely true about GM wheat, sensationalism on the rest.

My Conclusions

This is exactly the kind of thing I drive myself nuts over. I’ll admit that my instinct when someone with a bunch of letters after their name says something is “the root of all evil” is to snap my heels, salute and yes ma’am! Plus, I came away from my days and days (oh yes) of research on this still pretty confused about all of it. In the past, when I’d get drowned in research like this I’d just say to heck with this! and chuck whatever it is out of my diet. Better to be safe than sorry? But that’s how I ended up orthorexic, folks…

So this time, at least for now, I’m going with this: I feel fine when I eat wheat. I’ve taken it out of my diet and saw no benefits from it. I like eating it. Therefore I will continue to eat it.

That said, the way I eat wheat is probably different from most people. I hardly ever eat crackers, boxed cereal, store-bought bread and the like. I don’t like the taste and I don’t like how processed it all is. (Yes, even the 100% whole grain breads.) I do love a big bowl of cracked wheat though (wheat boiled in water until it bursts open or “cracks”) and I’ll sometimes make my own bread products like muffins, pretzels and pancakes. I don’t eat wheat every day. I don’t restrict it but like meat I just don’t crave it or feel like I want it every day so I just mix it in to my meals sometimes. I don’t know if any of that makes a difference.

But these are my conclusions. What does this all mean for you? I hope you’ll tell me in the comments! Am I missing something major? Do you eat wheat or avoid it? How do you feel about genetically modified foods? (That’s another topic I’m not sure about either!)

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