Panic must really be setting in for the wheat industry these days, as consumers increasingly seek to avoid food products that contain gluten. According to the latest available figures, as many as one in three people, or about 105 million Americans, now actively shun gluten due to diagnosed coeliac disease, gluten sensitivity or intolerance, or personal choice, proving that the “gluten-free” designation has officially gone mainstream.

In a rant against what he obviously considers to be just an annoying fad, Bloomberg writer Matthew Boyle explains that many food manufacturers are having to reformulate their products to cater to this growing demand for gluten-free foods. Companies like General Mills Inc. and the Kellogg Co., for instance, are phasing out from some of their products not only wheat flour but also conspicuous gluten ingredients like barley malt syrup.

This is good news for the roughly one percent of Americans that suffer from coeliac disease, an autoimmune digestive illness that results in severe damage to the small intestine. Even just a decade ago, coeliac people had a much harder time finding gluten-free foods, that is until a much larger segment of the population decided to jump on the gluten-free bandwagon, creating increased demand for foods that are free of wheat.

To many self-proclaimed skeptics, however, choosing to go gluten-free without a diagnosed health condition is foolish. Even though a substantial and growing body of evidence suggests that up to 70 percent of the population now suffers from some form of gluten intolerance or sensitivity, which may or may not be accompanied by immediate and severe symptoms, some critics have flat-out dismissed the concept as being the product of “bestselling anti-gluten books and celebrity endorsements.”

Millions of Americans are being harmed by modern wheat varieties,
says influential doctor

But is this a fair assumption? There are literally millions of people today with inexplicable digestive problems and other health issues, and going gluten-free has helped many of them experience noticeable improvements. To simply dismiss the gluten-free craze as some type of mindless fad foisted on the unwitting public by uninformed celebrities is both patronising and unscientific.

“Documented peculiar effects of wheat on humans include appetite stimulation, exposure to brain-active exorphins (the counterpart of internally derived endorphins), exaggerated blood sugar surges that trigger cycles of satiety alternating with heightened appetite, the process of glycation that underlies disease and aging, inflammatory and pH effects that erode cartilage and damage bone, and activation of disordered immune responses,” writes Dr. William Davis, M.D., in an excerpt from her New York Times bestselling book Wheat Belly.

“A complex range of diseases results from the consumption of wheat, from coeliac disease — the devastating intestinal disease that develops from exposure to wheat gluten — to an assortment of neurological disorders, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, curious rashes, and the paralysing delusions of schizophrenia.”

Much of this can be attributed to the fact that modern wheat varieties contain up to 40 times more gluten than heirloom varieties, as selective breeding, hybridization and even genetic modification techniques have been applied over the years to improve wheat yields. This means that the types of wheat consumed by people today are far different than the types traditionally consumed by ancient societies.

“Wheat strains have been hybridised, crossbred, and introgressed to make the wheat plant resistant to environmental conditions, such as droughts, or pathogens, such as fungi,” adds Dr. Davis. “But most of all, genetic changes have been induced to increase yield per acre. Such enormous strides in yield have required drastic changes in genetic code. Such fundamental genetic changes have come at a price.”