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"Gluten-Free" May Be On the Rise, But Gluten Isn't the Culprit

Nothing cues an eye roll quite like the phrase “I’m gluten-free.”

As many people see it, "gluten-free" is just the latest in a catalogue of fad diets: paleo, raw food, the Atkins Diet. All slightly variant ways of stating “I’m fit, healthy and have my life completely under control.”

But what if the oft-mocked gluten allergy is more than just another first-world problem, more than the hypersensitive imaginings of a bunch of rich people with nothing better to do than diet? Perhaps our response to the monumental spike in gluten allergies hasn’t been nearly sensitive enough.

I’ll begin this article with a short (I promise) tale of my own gluten sensitivity. I’ve been, as I put it, “gluten flexible” for 4 years now, avoiding breads, muffins, cakes and all things fun to the best of my ability.

Photo courtesy of Travis Nep Smith / Flickr

Photo courtesy of Travis Nep Smith / Flickr

Stomach discomfort and an allergy test told me to steer clear, so I did, despite the fact that I am not diagnosed celiac. Whenever I ate gluten, I found myself riddled with stomach pains. It was reliable enough. Until it wasn’t.

During a visit to France, determined to do as the French do, I ate--gasp--a croissant. When my blissful rendezvous with gluten was up, I accepted my fate and buckled down for the pain that would inevitably follow. Except, it didn’t. I felt fine.

Sure that it had been a fluke, I moved on to quiche, crepes and then baguette. Still nothing. How could it be that this food, to which I was so intolerant in America, caused me no problems abroad?

As it turns out, I’m in good company. Many other Americans have posted similar stories on the Internet, astonished by how their gluten intolerance vanishes when they eat in European countries.

Carolyn Welch describes herself as “unable to eat wheat without experiencing significant gastrointestinal distress,” yet in Hungary she feasted on glutinous foods day in and day out and her digestive system was completely unaffected.

Even people with celiac disease, a condition considered much more serious and legitimate than a mere sensitivity, find themselves comfortably slurping down spaghetti in Italy or pain au chocolats in Paris.

All this begs the question, is "gluten-free" a distinctly American problem? And if so, what are we doing so wrong?

Photo courtesy of janeandd / Flickr

Photo courtesy of janeandd / Flickr

To answer this question requires travelling back a bit to the 1950s and 60s when the “Green Revolution” swept throughout the agriculture industry in the United States. This revolution in agricultural science involved the development of optimized grains and seeds as well as pesticides in order to produce radically higher crop yields.

While this revolution in agriculture heralded the “end of hunger,” with optimized seeds--especially corn and wheat--yielding much larger crops and feeding many more people, only much farther into the future would any adverse health effects be regarded.

As Wheat Belly author Dr. William Davis puts it, “this thing being sold to us called wheat--it ain’t wheat. It’s this stocky little high-yield plant… genetically and biochemically light-years removed from the wheat of just 40 years ago.”

The dramatic genetic changes that the wheat we consume has undergone in such a short period of time present one problem to our digestive system. Yet another and potentially more severe problem is caused, unsurprisingly, by the chemicals we spray on our wheat crops.

In their paper “Glyphosate, pathways to modern diseases II: Celiac sprue and gluten intolerance,” researchers Anthony Samsel and Stephanie Seneff propose that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, is “the most important causal factor in this [gluten allergy] epidemic.”

This chemical herbicide is dumped on a wheat crop right before harvest in a fairly modern (circa 1980s) process known as crop desiccation, the purpose of which is to dry the wheat and bring it to maturity more quickly, allowing it to be harvested earlier.

Photo courtesy of Mike Mozart / Flickr

Photo courtesy of Mike Mozart / Flickr

Unfortunately for us, the chemical’s last minute application leaves little time for rain to rinse it off the wheat, thus the herbicide remains on the plant and, you guessed it, eventually ends up in our stomachs.

Due to its antimicrobial nature, glyphosate kills gut bacteria essential to the digestion of the very same crops it is sprayed on so liberally.

In fact, in their experimentation, Samsel and Seneff found that fish exposed to glyphosate developed digestive conditions “reminiscent of celiac disease”--primarily a severe imbalance of gut bacteria.

Considering the negative effects that glyphosate is shown to have on digestion, and the substantial link between its use on wheat crops and the dramatic rise in celiac disease and similar gluten allergies, it seems a wonder that the United States government has not done more to regulate its use.

In the Netherlands, the use of Roundup and other similar herbicides is completely banned. Meanwhile in the United States, US Department of Agriculture figures show that as of 2012, 99% of durum wheat, 97% of spring wheat and 61% of winter wheat are soaked in this very herbicide immediately prior to harvest.

As the exposing documentary Food, Inc. showed and puts quite poetically, “There is a well-documented ‘revolving door’ between Monsanto employees and officials from US Government regulatory bodies (particularly the Food and Drug Administration…).”

Photo courtesy of Donna Cleveland / Flickr

Photo courtesy of Donna Cleveland / Flickr

Michael Taylor, who was appointed to a high advisory position in the FDA under the Obama administration, was the previous vice president of Monsanto and is an active Monsanto lobbyist.

This conflict of interest and others like it are hard to overlook and have allowed Monsanto to sell hugely questionable chemicals and genetically modified seeds with minimal government regulation.

Considering Monsanto’s significant lobbying influence in Washington and utter dominance in agribusiness, federal government regulation of herbicides like Roundup and genetically modified seeds is unlikely to occur any time soon.

In the meantime, it is left up to individuals to care for their own digestive wellbeing with exceptional diligence. People with gluten sensitivities or a strong desire to nourish their bodies sans chemical interference must do their own research, searching high and low for the relatively few foods they can be confident are pure and nutritional.

The Grainstorm Heritage Baking Company offers truly organic, freshly milled wheat flour as an alternative both to being gluten free and to the highly processed flour most gluten-containing foods are made with.

Their belief, which is very much aligned with the research of Samsel and Seneff, is that gluten is not actually the culprit we have made it out to be. The real problem lies in the way in which American farming modifies and poisons wheat to the point that our bodies can no longer correctly digest it.

"Gluten-free," while a foodie fashion, is rooted in a bevy of much less appealing issues: questionable herbicides, GMO seeds, lackluster FDA regulation and crosscutting motives. Weeding out agribusiness corruption and getting wheat back to a form our bodies can actually digest is a tall order, but in the meantime, at least there are always gluten-free cupcakes.