Historically speaking, the widespread presence of gluten within our food supply is a relatively modern concept. For 10,000 years humans have been exposed to wheat, but this is just a drop in the ocean when you consider that as a species we are around 2.5 million years old. The evolution of our grain farming practices over time may help to partly understand why gluten sensitivity appears to be an increasingly prevalent burden for many.

Historical versus modern grain farming practices

Casting back in time, pre-modern agriculture of grains resulted in composition of wheat grains that were naturally tougher with harder, tight-fitting hulls (or shells), and lower in gluten content. Modern cultivation of wheat, which has been occurring since the 20th century, is contrastingly centered around breeding grains that are larger in size, achieve a greater yield, and are more easily milled for flour. The increased presence of nitrogen in the fertilisation of crops has been cited as being responsible for increasing protein content, and thus creating larger gluten stores within the grains [1]. Additionally, with time we have moved away from eating traditional European sourdough breads, which used bacteria that would partially digest proteins such as gluten in the fermentation process of production.

Nowadays, the shelves of most supermarkets contain several options of gluten free breads, with manufacturers working to improve taste, albeit with differences in nutrition compared to regular wheat bread.

There have been efforts by researchers in the field to develop gluten free bread that is still derived from wheat by using the active enzyme Caricain to digest the gliadin present. Unfortunately, researchers have not yet been able to make the bread 100% gluten free, so for now, sticking to gluten free breads is the safest option for those who experience gluten sensitivities. See more about this interesting development here.

What are the possible reasons for the rise in gluten-sensitivities?

The ‘spectrum of sensitivities’ covers a wide range of symptom severities and activity in response to gluten ingestion, and as recently as 2015 accounted for approximately 5% of the population [3]. Within this, around 1% of the population are reported to experience an autoimmune response to specific peptides found in gluten [2] ultimately damaging the small intestine’s lining, making it a significant health concern.

So, given that our digestive systems have spent 10,000 years being used to digesting traditional wheat grains and breads, it’s believed that given the recent introduction of modern grains and bread manufacturing techniques, our bodies haven’t all learnt to tolerate as much gluten. Over time there has been a rise in the prevalence of gluten sensitivities within the population, with an estimated fivefold rise in cases reported over the last 50 years [2].

Modern diagnostic developments have also improved the way gluten sensitivities are identified . Advancements in diagnostic tools are being attributed to higher reported rates of gluten-sensitivities, with medical professionals now able to detect biological and genetic markers within minutes, contributing to a fast and effective diagnosis [4].

General awareness in the population regarding gluten related conditions has also turned the attention to our diet and an increase in patients’ consultations with GI specialists. It’s likely that gastrointestinal symptoms caused by gluten consumption were simply mislabeled as other conditions in the past, leaving more serious conditions undiagnosed.

While technological and food supply improvements are making life easier than ever before for those with gluten sensitivities, the only treatment remains a strict gluten-free diet. If you fit somewhere along the ‘spectrum of sensitivities’, making every effort to eliminate gluten is crucial. To help minimise the chances of experiencing symptoms associated with accidental consumption of hidden gluten, we recommend GluteGuard for those with diagnosed gluten sensitivity.

References:

[1] D. Godfrey, M. Hawkesford, S. Powers, S. Millar, P.R. Shewry 2010, ‘Nutritional effects on wheat grain composition and end use quality’, J. Agric. Food Chem., 58(5), pp. 3012-3021.

[2] B. Lebwohl, J.F. Ludvigsson, P.H.R. Green 2015, ‘Celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity’, British Medical Journal, 351, pp. 1-13.

[3] L. Elli, F. Branchi, C. Tomba, D. Villalta, L. Norsa, F. Ferretti, L. Roncoroni, M.T. Bardella 2015, ‘Diagnosis of gluten related disorders: Celiac disease, wheat allergy and non-celiac gluten sensitivity’, World J Gastroenterol., 21(23), pp. 7110-7119.

[4] A.B. Cichewicz, E.S. Mearns, A. Taylor, T. Boulanger, M. Gerber, D.A. Leffler, J. Drahos, D.S. Sanders, K.J. Thomas Craig, B. Lebwohl 2019, ‘Diagnosis and Treatment Patterns in Celiac Disease’, Digestive Diseases and Sciences, pp. 1-12.

Author:   Cassandra, Glutagen.

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