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Has Modern Wheat Processing Increased Gluten Sensitivity?

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The prevalence of celiac disease is estimated to have increased two- to four-fold over the last 50 years. But why? What’s behind the sudden rise in celiac disease and non-celiac wheat sensitivity?

In a discussion about celiac disease, there are a number of factors at play, but let’s take a look specifically at the impacts of food processing on wheat sensitivity. Wheat processing has changed over the last 100 years, and modern practices can alter the makeup of wheat, causing it to be more immune stimulating — perhaps at least partially to blame for the increasing prevalence of celiac, wheat allergy and non-celiac wheat sensitivity.

To understand how processing practices impact wheat, we must first understand the components of wheat and each part’s impact on gluten sensitivity. A single grain of wheat contains mostly carbohydrates, proteins, lipids and minerals. For most people, consuming wheat is not a problem, but for a portion of the population, consuming wheat causes a negative reaction which can result in symptoms such as: abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea and fatigue.

Not all components of the wheat grain are equally to blame for these negative responses, but specifically, wheat proteins and fructans can be difficult for the digestive system to break down, thus resulting in symptoms of celiac or another wheat allergy or sensitivity. Wheat proteins are divided into three parts: globulins, albumins and glutens. Modern wheat processing may have increased consumer exposure to these components implicated in wheat sensitivity.

In A Grounded Guide to Gluten: How Modern Genotypes and Processing Impact Wheat Sensitivity, Lisa Kissing Kucek, Lynn D. Veenstra, Plaimein Amnuaycheewa and Mark E. Sorrells take a look at the role of wheat — particularly the gluten protein — in celiac disease, wheat allergy, non-celiac wheat sensitivity, fructose malabsorption and irritable bowel syndrome. They discuss the differences in reactivity for ancient, heritage and modern wheats and the impact of what processing methods on wheat sensitivity.

“Research indicates that germination and fermentation technologies can effectively alter certain immunoreactive components,” the authors write. “For individuals with wheat sensitivity, less-reactive wheat products can slow down disease development and improve quality of life. While research has not proven causation in the increase in wheat sensitivity over the last decades, modern wheat processing may have increased exposure to immunoreactive compounds. More research is necessary to understand the influence of modern wheat cultivars on epidemiological change.”

Stay tuned for my next article where we take a look at the five key ways modern wheat processing may impact gluten sensitivity and celiac disease.