Answers to the 7 Big Questions Everyone Asks About Gluten
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These days, it seems almost easier to find false “information” about gluten than the truth. Gluten-free is trendy, and it’s no longer strange to find restaurant menus dotted with “GF” logos next to various items like “polenta lasagna” that have been tweaked to remove any trace of wheat.
Recently, Jimmy Kimmel made fun of people who follow gluten-free diets by asking pedestrians if they were gluten-free and, if so, what is gluten. And…they had no idea. Some people even believe that wheat nowadays is genetically engineered (it isn’t). And with so much hype and confusion swirling around, others believe that anyone who says they can’t have gluten is making it up. So here are some facts about wheat and gluten you should know.
1. What Is It?
What we call “gluten” is made of two separate proteins, gliadin and glutenin, found in wheat and other related grains (barley, rye and triticale). When water is added, they combine to form gluten, a stretchy, elastic molecule that gives bread its wonderful consistency.
You can often find alternative forms of wheat in natural food stores, like einkorn wheat, emmer, spelt, or kamut. Sometimes people who cannot tolerate most wheat can tolerate these other forms of it, but not always.
2. Is It Genetically Engineered?
Much has been made about human tinkering with wheat DNA, yet so far, commercial wheats are not genetically engineered. This might change in the future – just give Monsanto more time – but so far, there is no genetically engineered wheat legally on the market in the U.S.
The rumors that wheat is genetically engineered likely stem from two sources. First, from the ancient breeding that gave us modern wheat. Einkorn and emmer were two of the first forms of cultivated wheat. Einkorn is a diploid, meaning that it has two complete sets of chromosomes (one from the mother and one from the father), just like humans do.
Then, wheat got weird. Emmer and durum wheat are each tetraploid, with four complete sets of chromosomes. And spelt and common bread wheat are hexaploid, with six complete sets of chromosomes. This occurred without any genetic engineering, thousands of years ago.
Humans can’t survive with extra sets of chromosomes, but plants can. It’s still a bit odd, but it’s actually somewhat common in the plant world. Strawberries can have eight sets of chromosomes, and marijuana aficionados found they could increase THC content by tricking the plant into growing with extra sets of chromosomes in it. Still, some marketers are using wheat’s extra set of chromosomes as a reason to condemn it.
The extra chromosomes showed up in wheat long before modern science and plant breeding came along. More recently, scientists spent the 20th century fiddling with wheat to see if they could improve yield, disease resistance and other traits, including its ease of use in commercial kitchens.
The idea that modern breeding led to the increase in gluten intolerance has been promoted by books like Wheat Belly by William Davis. And in fact, a 2010 study compared the amount of specific gluten epitope (the part of the antigen recognized by the immune system) known to cause trouble for people with celiac disease in modern wheat and traditional wheat varieties (landraces). Overall, the gluten epitope was more present in modern varieties than traditional ones.
Still, changing wheat varieties is only one potential cause in the increase in gluten intolerance. We also live in a time with increases in all kinds of auto-immune diseases, including many that are entirely unrelated to gluten, like peanut allergies or asthma. Some scientists suspect the increase in auto-immune diseases actually stem from our lack of exposure to common allergens in the first few years of life. A recent study found that children exposed to cockroach droppings and cat and mouse dander as infants had lower rates of wheezing at age three.