We were intrigued in mid-2009 when research documented that celiac disease, an immune system reaction to gluten, has increased four-fold in the past half-century. We covered the research in an earlier blog, but the question still left on the table was, “Why has celiac disease increased so hugely?”

Gluten Free Doesn't Mean Grain Free

We set out to find the answers, by combing through scientific research, and came across some interesting information that may fill in the holes – and may give hope to the estimated 1-3% of people who cannot digest gluten properly.

A little background first, before we share our research trove with you. Research shows that celiac disease and gluten sensitivity are distinct problems, and in fact there may be two main types of Celiac Disease. Gluten is a protein that’s found in wheat, barley, rye and triticale (a wheat / rye hybrid). It’s only found in these four grains – so people who have celiac disease or are otherwise gluten-intolerant still have plenty of great choices of whole grains to enjoy. Gluten-free does not mean whole grain-free!

Our romp through the research turned up evidence that today’s wheat foods are, most likely, higher in gluten, which may account for the increased problems experienced by a small fraction of the population. The good news, though, is that we also found research that suggests ways to lower the gluten levels in wheat-based foods. We’ll organize this blog according to our good news findings. (Note: some of these ideas may also apply to barley and rye, but the research we found centers on wheat.)

Consider Ancient Grains

Different types of wheat have different numbers of chromosomes, and some studies show that the older wheats, with fewer chromosomes, tend to have lower levels of gliadins, the type of gluten proteins that seem to cause most sensitivities.

Wheatfield.jpg

Einkorn, the oldest known type of wheat in our current food supply, has just 14 chromosomes, and is called a diploid wheat. Durum wheat (the kind most often used for pasta) and emmer are tetraploid wheats, with 28 chromosomes. Common wheat (used for most everything) and spelt have 42 chromosomes and are known as hexaploid wheats. Research shows that different tetraploid and hexaploid wheat varieties differ widely in gliadin levels, and it’s possible to select “individual genotypes with less Celiac Disease-immunogenic potential.”

Even if you’re not gluten-sensitive, you may want to consider some of the ancient grains. Research shows that Kamut has higher levels of antioxidants than some modern wheats, and that healthy plant sterols are higher in tetraploid wheats than in hexaploid wheats.

Organic May Trump Conventional Growing

We all understand that the foods we eat can make a big difference in the composition and health of our bodies. The old saying “You are what you eat” applies to plants, too.

Wheattractor.jpg

We uncovered one intriguing study that found that varying levels of sulfur and nitrogen fertilizer can change the proteins in wheat. Different proteins, different sensitivities. Is there, perhaps, a connection between the widespread introduction of chemical fertilizers after World War II, and the four-fold increase in Celiac Disease during the same period?

The jury is still out. We’d like to see research that takes the next step, and compares the proteins in conventionally-farmed grains with organic grains.

Try the Old Ways of Making Bread

Once you’ve grown and harvested the wheat, how you make your bread may affect its gluten levels, too. Throughout most of mankind’s history, bread was made using a sourdough process based on lacto-fermentation. The process was slow, and results were uneven, so when modern yeast became available, sourdough breads became less common.

Wheatbreadloaf.jpg

Now research shows us that lacto-fermentation of wheat has the potential to drastically reduce gluten levels. We found three studies along these lines. Our favorite study showed that sourdough bread produced with a particular strain of lacto-bacilli had gluten levels of 12 parts per million – where anything under 20 ppm is considered gluten-free. Bread made with the same wheat but without lacto-fermentation had gluten levels of 75,000 ppm.

Another cool thing about this study was that the Italian researchers lacto-fermented the flour, then dried it and used it in a conventional quick-baking process, one that could be compatible with modern bakeries. We love it when someone discovers ways to incorporate the best of the old ways into today’s realities – that’s what health through heritage is all about!

Share Your Thoughts and Your Research

I’m not a researcher – just a fascinated auto-didact – so some details of the studies cited here may have escaped me. I present the information above as speculation, and invite those doing actual research in this area to contact us with their latest findings. We’re excited by the range of research being conducted, and its potential for removing any barriers that stand in the way of all people being able to enjoy all whole grains! (Cynthia)

Comments

Tim
Some people in this list seem to tolerate organic better vs standard wheat. Farmers in my area of MN are allowed (and routinely do) spray straight Round-up (glyphosate) on their non-organic wheat fields to get them to "brown up" faster for harvest. The result is a better harvest. Round-up chemical residue is not checked by the U.S. Govt. because it has been deemed as safe. I imagine for some people ingesting round-up residue could make someone feel that they are "gluten intolerant".
Cynthia

You make a good point, Tim. Many cases of what people assume are "gluten intolerance" could be due to sensitivities to pesticides and herbicides, including glyphosphates and a number of other factors totally unrelated to gluten. We always advise getting medical advice -- and it can also be interesting to try organic grains, and different varieties of grains (such as spelt, Kamut® khorasan, farro or einkorn for common wheat). 

Judy
I am one of those who cannot eat conventionally grown wheat. But, I can eat organic durum wheat products without having the gastrointestinal distress. I would like to see studies comparing organic wheat flour to conventionally grown wheat.
Cynthia

Glad you found a way to address your problems, Judy. Durum wheat is different from common wheat anyway (it's genetically simpler) -- so you've changed two factors. You could do an experiment and see how your body reacts to a) conventional durum wheat or b) organic common wheat if you're curious as to whether it's the pesticides/herbicides or the genetic makeup -- or both! 

Almaz chekole
write how to reduce the sprout of awheat in given wheat flour
Cynthia
Hi Almaz. Not sure what you're asking. "Field sprouting" is usually unwanted and can be avoided by harvesting wheat under dry conditions and storing it properly. "Controlled sprouting" is now increasingly popular, for the value it adds to grains. See more here. http://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/whats-whole-grain-refined-grain/sprouted-whole-grains
Jens
The idea that modern breads cause gluten sensitivity seems unfounded. The French consume significantly more modern wheat than Americans, yet non-celiac gluten sensitivity is virtually unheard of in France. You will rarely ever see gluten-free options in France—it's really only sought out by actual celiacs there. However, France does not allow adulterations to their flours. A more convincing theory on what causes non-celiac gluten sensitivity (often classified as a bogus diseases) is the fortifications added to flours in certain countries. As it turns out, the countries that fortify and adulterate their flours are the same ones that have a high anecdotal prevalence of gluten sensitivity. Much of this was covered in a recent article: http://freetheanimal.com/2015/08/wheat-superfood-liability.html You can see the trends between fortification and various health issues.
Cynthia

We're big believers in sticking with the nutrients that occur naturally in food. Why take out all those good nutrients -- and then stick just a few back in through enrichment/fortification? BTW, in the US it's not legal to enrich whole wheat flour. So just eat those good whole grains, as nature intended. 

dkaj
People should try to get wheat flour that DOES NOT have the malted barley added to it. My dd reacts to this added ingredient. The reason it is in most commercial flours and store bought breads is because it makes the bread more light and airy. Well, along with this, it's what beer is made from - malt and barley. Anything malted is going to be highly fermentable. So, try buying Hodgson's Mills unbleached flours that don't have it added, and see if this helps. My dd has been nauseated for years because of this malted barley, and we finally figured this out in the last year. She is 10 now. Now, if a person has celiac, this won't help, but if your wheat intolerance is more from a FODMAP malabsorption reason and the high fermentable carbs, this may make a huge difference. There are others who have put this connection together also.
Cynthia

We're not aware of any WHOLE GRAIN flour that has malted barley added or that is bleached, so one good solution would be to simply avoid the white flour and buy whole grains. The ingredient list should say just one thing: whole wheat flour. 

Anonymous
Spelt is tetraploid, therefore it has 28 chromosomes.
Cynthia

See this book on Wheat Breeding and many other sources -- Spelt is indeed hexaploid, not tetraploid.  We couldn't find any expert source that referred to spelt as tetraploid, but if you have one, feel free to share it.

Kris
Does anyone know where I could obtain the blend of 4 lacto-bacilli strains mentioned in the research papers? Or a sourdough start of such a strain? Or does anyone know of another research paper comparing easily obtainable strains vs their "special blend" (Lactobacillus alimentarius 15 M, L. brevis 14G, L. sanfranciscensis 7A, and L. hilgardii 51B) they used? I would really appreciate any help. If I could make safe spelt sourdough or soda bread ... what a joy! Thanks.
Cynthia

We're not aware of any commercial source for this blend of strains, but will post this to see if anyone else has input. Dr. Gobbetti's group is working under very carefully controlled conditions and I would imagine that it might be difficult to get the same results in a home kitchen.

dkaj

Kate Scarlata, RD just posted info on her blog as to where to get this starter that contains the Lacto-Bacilli strains. It's under the blog post about sourdough bread and recent research done on the FODMAP content of sourdough bread. Also, Cultures of Health has many different types of sourdough starters. And, great tutorials with video's. http://www.culturesforhealth.com/starter-cultures/sourdough-starter.html

Cynthia

A note of caution. All starter will contain lacto-bacilli strains. Whether they are the SAME strains used in the Italian research may be difficult or impossible to determine.

Kris
Since there is apparantly no way to get the exact blend of 'starter' used in the research, I decided to make my own spelt starter using whole grain organic stone ground spelt and fresh lime juice. The local yeasts/bacilli have colonized and are doing a fine job. I figure ANY fermentation of the spelt flour is beneficial for gluten reduction, even if not as optimum as the research results. Thank you very much for the advice.
PeterNZ

First of all, there are no "local yeasts/bacilli" in your sourdough starter which have a measurable impact. The yeasts and bacteria come from the flour you add to your starter in order to feed it. Secondly as I described in my post here in the comments, if your sourdough WOULD reduce gluten you better think about how you replace the gluten if you don't want a bread like a brick. Gluten makes bread soft. You NEED gluten in your bread or you need to replace it with something else which has the same function. It is not like gluten has no function in bread. Compare it with sugar in a cake. If you would remove or greatly reduce sugar in a cake you would have to replace it with something else. Cheers Peter

Anonymous
I have a question. What if the starter for the sourdough changes the gluten. What if it is still there giving the light crust, as evidence, but because bacteria it is more digestible.
Cynthia

I believe the basic mechanism is that the bacteria are digesting/breaking down the gluten, so that your body doesn't have to work so hard to break it down. The Italians in fact call this "pre-digested flour" which isn't very appetizing ... probably loses something in translation! 

Tiff
is it possible to be allergic to one type of wheat ? I've eaten bread , cakes, pancakes without any issues . However if I even touch pasta which is durum wheat semolina I get red rashes, watery eyes, a blocked nose, my stomach feels like I want to throw up I get a massive headache . And my throat feels dry and sore and my body basically aches within 2 hours of consuming pasta.
kelly-oldways

 Hi Tiff,

Some people report tolerating certain types of wheat (such as einkorn) better than others, so it would not be outside of the realm of possibility. However, those with diagnosed wheat allergies are often instructed to avoid all wheat products. I highly recommend that you work with your medical team (such as your physician and dietitian) so that you can identify any potential allergies, and find foods that work best for you and your body. It is also worth noting that bulgur and freekeh are often (though not always) made from durum wheat.

PeterNZ

I refer to this section in your article: "Now research shows us that lacto-fermentation of wheat has the potential to drastically reduce gluten levels. We found three studies along these lines. Our favorite study showed that sourdough bread produced with a particular strain of lacto-bacilli had gluten levels of 12 parts per million – where anything under 20 ppm is considered gluten-free. Bread made with the same wheat but without lacto-fermentation had gluten levels of 75,000 ppm."

A bit about my background. I am an Artisan baker and studied Food Chemistry. From my baker's background, there are only two ways of making bread: You create a gluten structure which locks the gasses produced during fermentation and makes the bread soft and fluffy or you replace this gluten structure with something (i.e. emulgators) which take over this task. Without any of these methods your bread will be a brick. Now let's assume your statement would be correct. If sourdough culture would reduce gluten that much in a bread, every sourdough bread would be dense and would have no soft crumb. There are many articles including imagery out in the WWW which proves otherwise. I myself bake a Pane Maggiore with sourdough which is light, airy and has a big open crumb.

I am familiar with the study you quoted. In that study, lactic bacteria were EXTRACTED FROM SOURDOUGH. They then used HYDROLIZED wheat which has undergone FUNGAL PROTEASE. To compare this with a normal situation in any bakery or home baking is in my eyes somewhat naive. As I said, even if we assume that this can be applied to the normal baking process you would still have to replace the removed gluten with something to achieve a light soft crumb as I described above. I see many quotations of this study out there and all of them use it as prove that your home baked or artisan bakery sourdough is gluten reduced. This is totally misleading and - sorry - typical for all the internet experts out there. Sourdough is still healthier than most other breads. But it ain't gluten reduced or even gluten free. Cheers Peter

Cynthia

There's a lot we still don't know about the process. The company that is commercializing Dr. Gobbetti's research has a website here that tells a bit more about it. I agree it's likely that the breakdown of the gluten would necessarily affect baking qualities. It will be interesting to see the ingredient list when the products are on the market. (Cynthia)

Michael

Hi, I actually read an article a while back outlining just what you mention. The sourdough process breaks down or converts the gluten proteins to such an extent the fluffiness is still relatively intact, but the immune system no longer reacts. For a matter of fact many people complain their sourdough bread is too dense, and not similar to their regular bread at all in terms of texture. This would confirm that gluten is broken down or converted, why else would texture change of all other conditions are equal?

PeterNZ

"Gluten is a protein that’s found in wheat, barley, rye and triticale (a wheat / rye hybrid). It’s only found in these four grains[...] you forgot oats in your list. Cheers Peter

Cynthia

Hi Peter. We stick by our position that oats don't contain gluten. They are, however, frequently contaminated by gluten, so we would advise anyone with celiac disease to look for oats that have been tested to be gluten free. A small proportion of people with celiac disease may be sensitive to some proteins in oats. (Cynthia)

kcm
Please cite your sources for the "studies" refered to in this article. I'm just interested in learning more about breeding for increased production versus nutrition value. Thank you.
Cynthia

All of the studies listed in this blog should be linked to the studies cited. If we missed one, please tell us and we'll hunt it down for you! (Cynthia) 

Jen
I have a weird constellation of reactions to wheat eating. I do not have digestion problems with it other than heartburn and esophageal spasms. But I get heart palpitations, unpredictable and extreme vertigo. Rapid fluctuations in blood pressure. Some weakness. And difficulty controlling my eye movements. All of this usually within an hour of eating wheat. But the vertigo can happen anytime within a couple days. Easily reproduce-able symptoms, over a four year trial and error period. I have found completely avoiding modern wheat keeps me from having any symptoms. I have not been diagnosed. But I can have beer. Just not "wheat beer." I can have barley. I can have Einkorn wheat. So I don't really know what I have. But I know what the cure is: No wheat.
Cynthia

We're glad you've found a way to avoid those symptoms, Jen. If you can drink beer, and eat barley and einkorn wheat, it's clearly not a gluten problem, we agree.

Carolyn
http://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/real-reason-for-toxic-wheat-its-not-gluten/ This is an interesting article that talks about the use of Roundup on wheat at the point that it's harvested. The crops are sprayed with roundup because it "stresses" the plant and causes it to respond by increasing its seed production. It can increase the yield by up to 10%. Possibly one of the things people are reacting to is Roundup not the gluten at all.
Cynthia

Thanks for weighing in Carolyn. We looked into this on our Myths page and learned that could be a possible factor, but the practice is not as widespread as rumor has it. Take a look. One way to check: see if organic wheat makes any sensitivity go away.

Michele H
I agree with Carolyn- after all the research I have done- sure makes sense to me.
cindie

Thank you for caring. I think more than 3 percent are gluten intolerant.... so articles like this give me hope... fermentation is the way to go.... keep up the research please

Jill
Thank you for the above information. I am trying to find why my husband can not eat Duram wheat (pasta, noodles) with meat or fish. The combination cause an extreme reaction in his body. He aches all over, has a headache, chills and is wiped out and sleeps. This lasts for at least 3 days after eating. He can eat Duram wheat with veg based sauces. And he can eat meat with gluten free pasta/noodles. I can't find any information on this searching the web. The last time it happened I had give him buckwheat noodles with chicken. I later realised the main ingredient in the noodles was wheat and buckwheat was a lesser ingredient.
Doll
Which lacto- bacilli should we look for on ingredient labels - or will the sour dough in tesco do the trick. What about the polish bakery sour doughs ? Are they effectively gluten free ? Which wheat is best for a glten free sour dough - Are the modern wheats ok id fermented ? I wasn't clear what you meant ?
Cynthia

 Hi Doll,

We really really want to emphasize that there is nothing YOU as a consumer can do to get gluten free wheat on the market in the USA. This is a special process using specific lacto-bacilli -- which are mentioned in their research studies, but not in a way you can use them as a recipe to create your own. We wrote this blog simply to talk about something that's coming down the road, perhaps, at some point. Sorry to disappoint you, but if you have a medical reason not to eat wheat, you should continue to NOT eat wheat, whether it's sourdough or not.

Mikep
Having read through here briefly i am surprised no one has mentioned the processing of wheat. There are a lot of differences between stone ground and steel milled because of the higher temperature acheived with modern fast processing. Some of the desirable nutrients are lost so the flour is degraded immediately. I also dont think you have to go back to einkorn or emma to get less indigestible bread but just study a bit of history and see that only couple of hundred years ago or so the working men in the UK got most of their daily nutrition from bread. The canal builders were consuming upwards of four thousand calories of bread daily so we can assume that the bread was ok then! The gluten content and constituent of wheat has changed and unknowingly we have bred the problem into the wheat plant, throw in changes to processing and adulteration with improvers or agrochem and the whole lot gets messy. In the UK there is a small movement trying to re introduce the older varieties or landraces of wheat for many reasons this one amongst them. By the way please everybody get your fact right re roundup. It is in wheat if it is sprayed pre harvest but in very small quantities and may or may not be of some harm (doubtful) but it is not sprayed on to stress the plant but to kill it and it does not increase yield. It is used in the situation whereby the crop may be of uneven maturity or weedy also to fix the grain charateristics to help prevent poor weather doing more damage to the quality. Always remember that organic farming and famine are constant companions but that is not to say modern farming is without problems just dont throw out the baby with the bath water in some misguided earth mother zeal.
Mic seed guy
Talking to USDA ARS research regulatory branch electrophoresis guy, its seems that sunflower has a bit of glutilin protein as well as rice.. not just wheaT, RYE, barley, triticale and a bit in oats
kelly-oldways
Very interesting, Mic seed guy! I hadn't heard that.
Mohamed Zaki
I noticed that in many countries the flour is fortified with iron and folic acid. I think iron build up might be a big problem for people and especially men who consume large quantity of it. I noticed that I don't feel many of the symptoms of bloating and stomach cramps I usually have when avoiding commercial bread and fortified flour. I'm currently experiencing with organic flour, it looks also reducing the problem.
kelly-oldways
Hi Mohamed, You are correct that much of our white flour in the US is enriched with iron, along with thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate. Whole grain flour is not enriched, although it does contain many more nutrients than white flour, since the healthful bran and germ are present. We recommend whole grains whenever possible.
ANON
Hi Cynthia, I moved to the UK for my udergrad studies about 2 years ago and started to feel a bit of pain in the abdomen after drinking some beer. It was so little that I dismissed it. After about 6-7 months I would get progressively increasing pains in the upper abdomen on both the left and right sides (just under/behind the lower portion of the ribs) When I'd come back home to India, those pains would disappear as my diet would be more rice based although I did continue a few wheat items. I rarely ever felt those stabbing pains. After the summer break when I resume uni, it would begin again after a few months. I went gluten free for about 6 weeks and the GI symptoms disappeared in a few days and it felt worlds better. After about 2-3 weeks off gluten I got some sort of 'carpal tunnel' kind of feeling in my right wrist (couldn't even move my fingers around much) The following week that subsided and I got muscle pulls near my Achilles/heels upward towards the calf muscles but not including the calves. Once that went away it was neuropathy in my arms and feet for about a week. It was more of an annoying thing with constant pain (though it was mild) Doc says everythings fine though I know somethings not so I decided to eat gluten again until i get those pains and perhaps get checked at that point of time. Is there some sort of difference in gluten percentages in UK/EU/US wheat compared to Indian wheat varieties? Because I've never had problems (strikingly noticeably) with the wheat items here in India.
Cynthia
Every variety of wheat varies slightly in gluten content (and other components from protein and fiber to vitamins and minerals). There could be so many variables at play here in your diet overall within the two cultures, with your gut bacteria in the UK vs when you're in India, and so much more, that we couldn't begin to analyze what's going on. We certainly wish you the best and hope you feel better.
Peter Kofitsas
Excellent work. Thank you!!!
Bev
I just found this article through a post on Facebook and I notice it is five years old now. Are there any update posts on the science and and advances in knowledge regarding gluten sensitivity that we should be aware of?
Caroline-WGC
Hi Bev -- We wrote a post in June summarizing some of the latest scientific studies related to gluten-free and grain-free diets (https://wholegrainscouncil.org/blog/2017/06/why-you-might-want-rethink-grain-free-or-gluten-free-diet) and we just created a new handout on the same topic (https://wholegrainscouncil.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/WGC-Grain-GlutenFree.pdf). We post new scientific articles to our Health Studies page every month, so that's always a great place to check to find the latest research (https://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/health-studies/search?keys=gluten&items_per_page=All).
Anne Elliott
When I stopped eating organic wheats of the highly hubridized varietr I lost twenty three pounds in one year! I still eat Organic Turkey red wheat which I grind myself, but the weight has not returned. Obviously this new hybridized wheat has been a cause of gross overweight in the U.S. My grinder makesuktra fine flour. I will now try making bread with only soaked wheat berries and yeast made from fermented orga
Lauren
I do not have celiac disease but I am allergic to wheat. I am also allergic to egg and corn. I am having a hard time finding bread that is "wheat free, egg free, and corn free" that still taste good. Is there a recipe that you have that I could maybe have where I could substitute the different components?

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