Busting Myths About Genetically Modified Wheat

busting-myths-about-genetically-modified-wheatElizabeth Johnson, RHN – Twenty Something and Telling It Like It Is!

“It’s no secret that the gluten free trend is still on the rise, but why are gluten-free disorders like celiac disease and gluten sensitivity growing as well? Is it because of a change in wheat, because wheat is GMO or something else?”

Is wheat genetically modified?
“Contrary to popular belief commercially grown wheat is not yet genetically modified. That being said there are several companies like Monsanto and others that are working on GMO wheat. So genetically modified wheat isn’t what’s causing the rise all of the gluten related disorders because it’s not even available. More below …”

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What does hybridized wheat mean?
“Just because wheat isn’t GMO doesn’t mean it hasn’t changed over the last half-dozen decades,  it has, as the result of something called hybridization. And some scientists (although not all) say those changes could be one cause of an increased inability to tolerate gluten.

In hybridization, scientists don’t directly change the plant’s genome. Instead, they choose particular strains of a plant with desirable characteristics and breed them to reinforce those characteristics. When this is done repeatedly, successive generations of a particular plant can look very different from the plant’s ancestors.

That’s what’s happened with modern wheat, which is shorter, browner, and far higher-yielding than wheat crops were 100 years ago. Dwarf wheat and semi-dwarf wheat crops have replaced their taller cousins, and these wheat strains require less time and less fertilizer to produce a robust crop of wheat berries.

So what’s changed specifically? Is there more gluten in the wheat plant then before hybridization?
While some claim the protein composition of the grain (including gluten), has been fundamentally altered by the agriculture industry, the truth, as discovered by the University of Saskatchewan researchers Ravi Chibbar, Pierre Hucl and their colleagues, is that the overall nutritional quality and composition of wheat grain over time has seen little change.

The scientists took seeds from 37 varieties of wheat representing grain from each decade from the 1860s onwards, and grew the wheat in the same field under the same conditions. They harvested the wheat and compared the nutritional composition against modern Canada Western Red Spring wheat.

Upon analysis of carbohydrates, protein and other nutrients in wheat, they discovered that wheat today is nutritionally similar to wheat grown in 1860. The research, which was funded by independent (non-industry) sources including the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture and Food, and the Canada Research Chairs Program.

So when it comes to the composition of wheat and gluten levels they are then same as wheat from 100 years ago.

Why are wheat related disorders on the rise?
If wheat hasn’t changed, why is there a rise in celiac disease and gluten intolerance?  Many theories try to answer that question, including the use of pesticides, overconsumption of wheat in general, the abundant use of gluten as a food additive, the hygiene hypothesis, the idea that indigestible FODMAPs2 may be more to blame than gluten (in gluten sensitivity), or that some individuals have damaged gut flora / leaky gut.

Is there a connection between gluten, wheat and gut health?
One of the concerns that many have with gluten is the fact that it could damage the gut lining. Is this true? Does gluten damage your gut? If it does, is that actually a bad thing?

If you have celiac disease then there is a clear connection between the health of your gut and ingesting gluten. Not only is there damage to the villi that absorb nutrients from your food, there is often a condition called leaky gut found in those with celiac disease.

Zonulin is an inflammatory protein first discovered in 2000. It helps regulate leakiness in the gut by opening and closing the spaces or “junctions” between cells in the lining of the digestive tract (a.k.a. leaky gut). Zonulin is triggered by harmful bacteria, and offers important protection to the body: If you accidentally eat a food contaminated with salmonella, you rely on zonulin to help trigger diarrhea and flush out the bugs.

What does this protein have to do with gluten? It’s been found in high levels in those with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. 1 No human being completely digests gluten and in a small percentage of us, that undigested gluten triggers the release of zonulin, leading to high levels of it in the body.

When you have leaky gut it can create an inflammatory state in the body. This is because certain things are being passed through the intestinal wall that shouldn’t. Toxins, undigested food particles and other molecules get into the body where they shouldn’t be and cause inflammation.

So bottom line, in a small group of the population (those with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity) ingesting gluten can cause an increase in Zonulin and leaky gut. So there is a connection between wheat, gluten and intestinal health in some people.

What about the general population? Is wheat bad for everyone?
This is a controversial topic, I believe that there are some reasons to be concerned about wheat. I also think it’s been vilified to an extreme and has been blamed for conditions that have nothing to do with gluten or wheat consumption. There isn’t a lot of scientific evidence that the general population with no health concerns benefits from eliminating wheat. That being said future studies may show harmful effects.

Many people with health conditions like autoimmune disease feel much better on a gluten and even a grain free diet. The best thing you can do is if you think you have a problem with wheat or gluten is to first get tested for celiac disease, then try a gluten free diet to see if your symptoms disappear or improve.

So is the change wheat causing the increase in gluten related disorders?
Studies do show a significant increase in the incidence of celiac disease over the last several decades. Anecdotally, gluten sensitivity also is rising, although there haven’t been any studies to confirm that.

Donald D. Kasarda, the U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist who authored the 2013 study on 1920s wheat, says it’s possible that increased consumption of wheat in recent years, rather than increased gluten in the wheat actually consumed, might be in part to blame for increased incidence of celiac disease. He also says the use of wheat gluten as an ingredient in processed foods might contribute.

There has also been a increase in awareness thanks to the gluten free trend. This increase in awareness means more doctors are testing and looking for both conditions. So part of the increase could simply be more doctors and patients are aware of the conditions and the symptoms.

There are some that suggest that the pesticides on wheat could be contributing to the increase in gluten related disorders. However, no one really knows why celiac disease (and possibly gluten sensitivity) might be affecting more people.”

1 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3384703/

2 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23648697