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The Gluten Controversy

Gluten has become the villain of food for the past decade. And it may be behind the world’s obesity epidemic. But what is gluten, anyway? And should we really cut it out of our diet? 

According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the incidence of food allergies worldwide grew by no less than 50% between 1997 and 2013. Among children, the situation is even worse – in China the cases have more than doubled, in Europe they have risen 700%, and in Brazil 2 million have some type of food allergy. Allergies have always been linked to a genetic predisposition. But how to explain the explosion of cases in recent years? Our DNA hasn’t changed much during this period. But the food we eat has. 

According to the Canada-based International Development Research Centre (IDRC), half of all calories consumed on the planet come from just three foods: rice, corn, and wheat.  

Wheat

Wheat is the most widely cultivated of them, and is in many foods that people find especially tasty – such as bread, breakfast cereals, pizza, pasta, beer.  

It is present even where we don’t expect it, such as in tomato paste and frozen French fries. The result: we have never eaten as much wheat as we do today. 

But it has become the new villain of the diet. All because of a protein it contains: gluten. It is also present in other foods, such as barley and rye, but we consume it mainly through wheat.

Since the 1950s, the number of people with gluten allergies has quadrupled worldwide. 

And the number of adherents to the gluten-free movement continues to grow. In the USA alone, 28.5% of people say they want to reduce or eliminate this substance from their diet, and the gluten-free food market is already worth more than $10 billion a year. Since 2012, 1,500 new products have been launched in the US.

Is this a fashion? Should we eat gluten or not? The answer is not as simple as the question. First, we need to understand what it is. 

Back to the origin

There is evidence that mankind was eating wheat as early as 7500 B.C. Even the Bible speaks of “daily bread”. In Deuteronomy, Moses describes the “Promised Land” as a magical place, abundant in wheat, barley, and vineyards. Wheat was essential to the advance of civilization. But why, then, has it now become the great evildoer of the modern diet? Supposedly for two reasons: because the plant has changed, it is no longer the same, and because we are eating too much wheat. 

For American neurologist David Perlmutter, author of the book Diet For The Mind the problem lies in the modifications made by farmers. 

In the second half of the 20th century, they began to cross several types of wheat to produce stronger varieties and increase crop yields. As a result, the plant underwent several modifications. 

The most noticeable is the stature. The old varieties reached more than one meter. But farmers are now looking for smaller varieties, about 40 centimeters, which facilitates mechanized harvesting. 

The plant’s life cycle has also changed. It is getting shorter and shorter, as this allows better use of the land (which is released more quickly). In addition, in the old varieties, there were losses when the grains became detached from the ear and fell to the ground. In today’s wheat, the kernels do not fall off so easily. 

In fact, the more than 25,000 varieties of wheat in existence today differ greatly from wild strains such as emmer and einkorn. This early wheat contained no gluten, but was poorly productive and bad for making bread. It was thanks to a natural crossing with another grass, Aegilops tauschii, that the wheat cultivated today gained the presence of gluten. 

And this was a good thing, so much so that one of the most valued characteristics in wheat is the so-called “gluten strength,” which greatly aids in the production of bread. It is what makes the bread fluffy, tall and beautiful.

The modifications in wheat, and the consequent increase in productivity, served to supply the food industry, which began to use it in countless products. Wheat is cheap, tasty, and useful. It is widely used as a thickener (to give food consistency), and gluten helps stabilize other ingredients. 

Controversy arises

But for some doctors, this process of wheat development may have gone too far, and may be causing bad effects:

“Wheat has been stretched, sewn, cut, and folded into something totally unique, almost unrecognizable when compared to the original, and yet it goes by the same name: wheat”

American cardiologist William Davis – whose book Wheat Belly was 50 weeks among the bestsellers in the USA. 

This theory, that the genetic improvement of wheat may have created a monster, is only a theory – and one that is highly questioned by researchers in the field. This is because genetic crossbreeding has been going on for millennia, and in some cases it happens naturally, without human intervention.

There is no scientific proof that this process has changed the way wheat is digested. But there are those who believe that this may have happened. “There is not a single system in the body that is not affected by wheat,” Davis attacks. “From fatigue to arthritis, from gastrointestinal discomfort to weight gain, all [these ailments] have their origins in the innocent-looking food that each of us eats every morning,” he believes.

For this thesis, wheat could be doing us harm – and be largely responsible for the epidemic of obesity in the world (which is not only a cosmetic issue, but is linked to a number of serious diseases, such as heart problems). 

There is no great harm in excluding gluten from the diet, according to gastroenterologist Flávio Steinwurz.

“It is even possible that this habit improves the quality of the diet, since the individual can replace it with healthy options, such as fruits and vegetables,”

Gastroenterologist Flávio Steinwurz

He added that in any case, it is better to have a balanced diet than to cut just one ingredient and expect miracles. 

“A large part of the cases of obesity is due to an unbalanced diet and lack of physical activity,” says nutritionist Fabíola. “Before thinking about any more drastic restrictions, several more basic changes should be made. The removal of gluten can be an auxiliary treatment,” she adds. 

Ironically, reducing exposure to gluten can increase its bad effects, especially in children. In the 1980s, gluten became a villain in Swedish children’s diets. Between 1984 and 1996, Swedish doctors recommended that mothers delay their babies’ exposure to gluten-containing foods. The result was an explosion of celiac disease, which increased 300% over the period.  

The children’s bodies began to reject gluten, because they had not been exposed to it when they were making their first antibodies. Today, Swedish doctors have changed their opinion, and recommend that babies be given small amounts of gluten-containing foods already during the breastfeeding period (starting at 5 months of age).

Conclusion

Despite the ardent arguments around gluten and its effects, there is still much to be discovered about the action of gluten in the human body. 

But all the indications are that it is not entirely innocent – nor is it the terrible villain one imagines it to be.  

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