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Mar 9, 2012 08:46 AM

Theory about rise in gluten sensitivity/celiac?

I went to a foodie type talk last night and the chef on the panel was talking a lot about grains, and passionately exploring getting back to real grains, like the corn the Indians grew (and sold to Italy, which is why their polenta is better than ours, because we don't have the same kind of corn anymore). During Q&A someone asked about whether or not he had a theory about the rise in gluten intolerance and Celiac and he theorized that it's because of the introduction of something called "dwarf wheat," which is a shorter and sturdier wheat that was developed by 1 guy and is now basically ALL the wheat in the country. It doesn't get too tall so it doesn't fall over and die and kill the wheat crops. But it also has like 20x the gluten than real wheat. He said that perhaps over a long, long period of time, our bodies could have adapted to this, but not in the 20 or 30 years since this has become the only type available, and that this is why so many people have a problem. Not science by any means, just his personal theory.

Do any of my fellow hounds have more information about this type of wheat or any theories as to whether or not this could indeed be a major contributing factor? Just curious what you all think. I found it intriguing, and no, I do not have a gluten problem. OTOH I don't eat a lot of bread, though i do eat pasta regularly.

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  1. Wheat and corn are two unrelated plants. Gluten sensitivity is only a wheat issue.

    The corn the Italians prefer is a flint corn, akin to that grown on the northern American coast. The American south has preferred dent corn. While they have different cooking qualities, I have not read of any significant nutritional differences. In fact, when poor Italians started to subsist on corn (polenta) they developed pellegra, due to a deficiency of niacin. American Indians did not have this problem with their corn based diet because they processed their corn with an alkali, which freed the niacin (e.g. Mexican corn tortillas). That process was also used in the American south to produce hominy.

    I doubt if there has been a significant change in the protein (gluten) content of wheat in recent decades. Bakers and pasta makers are keenly aware of the protein level of their flour. Italian durum wheat is particularly good for pasta because it is high in gluten, and has been for centuries. Moderately high protein flour is good for bread, but a lower protein flour is better for cakes, biscuits, and most pastries.

    Common wheat is higher in protein than most related grains, such as spelt, farro, rye, barley, etc. But that's been the case for centuries. That claim of a 20x increase in the last couple of decades is clearly suspect.

    9 Replies
    1. re: paulj

      I know wheat and corn are different :) He was drawing similar paralells to what has happened to our corn as to what has happened to our wheat. If you look up dwarf wheat, I think the theory has merit.

      1. re: rockandroller1

        I don't see the parallels. What do you have in mind when you say 'what has happened to our corn'?

        What am I supposed to learn about dwarf wheat? A change in stalk length does not necessarily mean a change in protein content of the grain.

        1. re: paulj

          It's not just a shorter growing wheat. It's a more intense product. Concentrated, if you will.

          Sorry I'm not being clear about the corn. Corn has nothing to do with this post except to say that the speaker in his talk said that we no longer grow the variety of corn that the indians did, called 8 row corn, which did not have the germ (and select nutrients) removed. he got ahold of some and grew it himself and ground it for polenta and it was like being transported to italy and unlike all the the other corn we have here, which is all the same and not 8-row. That 8 row is what they grow in italy and is why their polenta is so much better than ours.

          The parallel is that (he alleges) we have been bastardizing our grains for several decades now and are losing out for it - sometimes in taste and nutrition, but sometimes with a punishment like increased celiac. He also said the same thing has happened to rice.

          1. re: rockandroller1

            The presence, or not, of the germ has nothing to do with the variety of corn, but with the milling method. All corn has a germ.

            1. re: rockandroller1

              The focus of the drcranton article is the milling method, not the varieties of wheat, new or old.

        2. re: paulj

          Gluten sensitivity is to wheat, barley, rye and oats (unless the oats are certified gluten free). I have celiac disease and cannot have even a speck of one of these.

          1. re: paulj

            Does anybody know why it used to be called "celiac sprue"? That s what they called in the '70s, when some of the more avant-garde GI docs at work were investigating the phenomenon.

            1. re: EWSflash

              sprue is an old term for chronic nutrient malabsorption, and that's one of the major symptoms/effects of Celiac.

          2. Rodale Books has published a book by William Davis that does try to blame this dwarf wheat, but I can't find much of the subject beyond his blog and promo info. So far it looks like a one-man band.

            1 Reply
            1. re: paulj

              Interesting, I may look for that. It's apparently at least a 2 man band at this point, as the speaker last night was not Mr. Davis, and he was going to meet with a wheat breeder who also has the same belief and is now doing his own wheat that is the kind that predates dwarf wheat. Thanks for answering my post!

            2. My theory: in the past these people would have died earlier in life or have been treated as invalids.

              3 Replies
              1. re: FoodPopulist

                I think this theory has a lot of merit.

                There were many undiagnosed illnesses back in the day that seem to have similar symptoms to celiac. "Irritable bowel syndrome" for one.

                My wife is celiac but before she was diagnosed in 1993 she almost died of malnutrition because the villi in her stomach had flattened out and she wasn't absorbing any nutrients, even though eating 4,000 - 5,000 calories per day. She went through several doctors before a Mayo Clinic GI doc figured it out.

                Easy to see how someone with similar symptoms could have simply wasted away 30 years earlier when much less was known about the allergy.

                1. re: willyum

                  Old thread, I know, but I wonder if that general term regarding diarrhea was not just a severe form of some food intolerance that led to horrible bowel problems and ultimately wasting away. I wonder if it was just "misdiagnosed" and labeled something else that today we know as Celiac Disease.

                  1. re: gardencook

                    The Wiki article cites various old references that sound like Celiac. But the link to gluten was only made around WW2 by a Dutch physician who noticed a decrease in symptoms in some patients and attributed it to shortages of things like bread.

              2. The chef's pronouncement on wheat is pure hooey; American farmers have grown the same 3 types of wheat for generations.

                1. Junk theory. Component content profile per unit of volume has not changed that much. Not anything like that.