I have been trying to cut down on eating wheat products for the past few months. I don’t buy any wheat to use in my own cooking at home, but I do have it when I’m eating out if there are no alternatives. Replacements are not always easy to find, but avoiding processed wheat will apparently be the new food trend of 2014 in Ireland, with many restaurants, bakeries and cafes beginning to offer substitutes. I was discussing this with my mother and she was confused as to how the prevalence of wheat intolerance and coeliac disease has sky rocketed in recent years, particularly among the Irish population. She was questioning whether it was all just ‘a fad’, with me being guilty of it I suppose! Although I am not coeliac, or even fully wheat intolerant, my digestion just does not feel right eating a lot of processed wheat bread, as nice as it can sometimes be!
I was curious as to why my body has this reaction, and why issues with wheat intolerance seem to be on the rise, or at the least, increasingly to the forefront of public awareness. After doing further research, I found the results quite fascinating. It’s not merely indicative of a shift towards more mindful and healthy eating. There is a real, scientific reason for the spike in wheat intolerance compared to fifty years ago, and like so many negatives on this planet, it’s all down to capitalism, industrialisation, greed and profit!
Grains, including wheat, have been beneficially consumed by humans without problems for thousands of years, however as our societies evolved, so did our relationship with food. What was once grown by families in their personal plots for their own consumption, is now bought in supermarkets and often flown from all corners of the globe. While previously bread would be fresh made each day for the families’ own consumption, it is now more often purchased pre-made. This, in theory, is not the problem. The problem is that, from the 1950s onwards, the Western world’s relationship with food changed. As we stopped growing our own and baking our own, food became a mass comodity to be marketed, produced and sold on a mass scale. The very essence of how bread is made has changed at all stages, from the growing of the seeds, the milling of the flour, the cultivation of the wheat, and the method of the baking.
In the 20th century, rather than being stone milled, flour began to be milled in an industrialised steel roller. This was faster and more efficient. It enabled the parts of the kernel to be more finely separated, creating low cost white flour. This flour was cheaper and it stayed fresh almost indefinitely, making it perfect for a long, mass production chain. There was no longer such an issue with insects and rodents eating the flour as they didn’t want it anymore! Not surprising considering that it was now refined and stripped of it’s kernel, bran and germ which contain the proteins, vitamins, minerals and good fats. It seems the non human animals were ahead of the game, if only we had paid attention! With stone mills in the Western world generally a thing of the past, it became the norm for overly processed bread to be mass produced in industrial factories and distributed far and wide at a very low cost to the manufacturer.
Not only has the way wheat is processed changed, the way it is grown has changed too. In the 1950s and 1960s, the worlds wheat crop was transformed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlag who was championed as having saved many lives by pioneering changes to cultivation of wheat grain. He began genetically modifying wheat and hybridising seeds with the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides in order to create high yielding grains. This new technology was ironically propagated globally by large corporations who heralded it as an end to famine in developing countries as it was resistant to pests, draught and blight as well as being easier to harvest which dramatically increases yield per acre. No surprises that despite these ‘advances’ we are not yet famine free, as that would not benefit the agendas of the multi national corporations! While the new methods may have increased crop yield, there was little to no regard to maintaining crop nutrition. The wheat that was created is now a distant cousin to the wheat which was used a century ago. It is now far removed from it’s original form by the use of genetic and biochemical modification. It is a mutant seed, grown in synthetic, chemical conditions, mass processed, bleached and milled to create a nutritionally void crop that non human animals no longer want.
Interestingly not everyone believes that this is the reason for our growing wheat intolerance. The medical world is in agreement that the issue of wheat intolerance is a new and rising phemomenon, but some suggest that this may be due to a number of other reasons than that suggested above. It has been suggested that coeliac disease and wheat intolerance developing in adulthood may be caused by a range of different factors, from immune system over reaction to gluten due to the modern obsession with sterile, germ free environments; to anti biotic use in early life, and to the timing of wheat being introduced to infant diets. Some also suggest that gluten may not be the suspect ‘bad’ protein in wheat at all, but that by eliminating the gluten by avoiding wheat, you also eliminate another protein in wheat which is actually the real root of the problem. Whatever the reason, it is clearly an issue that is on the rise and listening to all sides of the debate helps us to be informed about this new phenomenon and I look forward to continuing to learn more about the topic.