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  • Jefferson Adams
    Jefferson Adams

    Is Wheat Breeding Really Driving Higher Rates of Celiac Disease?

    Reviewed and edited by a celiac disease expert.

    Celiac.com 03/27/2013 - Increased rates of celiac disease over the last fifty years are not linked to wheat breeding for higher gluten content, but are more likely a result of increased per capita consumption of wheat flour and vital glutens, says a scientist working with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

    Photo: CC--D. H. WrightThe researcher, Donald D. Kasarda is affiliated with the Western Regional Research Center of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.

    Kasarda recently looked into one prominent theory that says that increased rates of celiac disease have been fueled by wheat breeding that has created higher gluten content in wheat varieties. His research article on the topic appears in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

    Kasarda says that, while increased consumption of wheat flour and vital wheat gluten may have contributed to the rise in celiac disease over the last decades, "wheat breeding for higher gluten content does not seem to be the basis."

    He notes that vital gluten is a wheat flour fraction used as an additive to improve characteristics like texture, and commonly featured in numerous and increasingly popular whole wheat products. However, he says that there is a lack of suitable data on the incidence of celiac disease by year to test this hypothesis.

    Part of his article features statistics on wheat flour consumption throughout the two centuries. He notes wheat flour consumption from all types of wheat hit an all-time high of 220 pounds per person (100kg) in 1900, declined steadily to a low of around 110 pounds per person (50kg) in 1970, then gradually rose to about 146 pounds per person (66kg) in 2000, and then decreased to about 134 pounds per person (61kg) in 2008.

    He goes on to point out that, even though consumption of wheat flour "seems to be decreasing slightly in recent years, there was an increase in the yearly consumption of wheat flour of about 35 lb (15.9kg) per person in the period from 1970 to 2000, which would correspond to an additional 2.9 lb (1.3kg) of gluten per person from that extra flour intake."

    Kasarda suggests that 'crude estimates' indicate that consumption of vital gluten has tripled since 1977. He finds this fact very interesting, because, he says, "it is in the time frame that fits with the predictions of an increase in celiac disease."

    However, he says that attributing an increase in the consumption of vital gluten directly to the rise of celiac disease remains challenging, partly because consumption of wheat flour increased far more significantly in the same time frame.

    Additionally, Kasarda says that there is no evidence that farmers have been breeding wheat to ensure higher protein and gluten content over the years. He points out that numerous studies have compared the protein contents of wheat varieties from the early part of the 20th century with those of recent varieties. These studies have all shown that, "when grown under comparable conditions, there was no difference in the protein contents," he said.

    One factor that remains unanswered is the relationship between higher rates of celiac disease and higher rates of diagnosis. That is, are more people developing celiac disease, or are more people simply with celiac disease getting diagnosed than in the past?

    It's likely that more and more people with celiac disease are being diagnosed, but it's unclear whether celiac disease rates are rising. There is just not enough evidence yet to provide a solid answer, although studies in the US and in Finland suggest that rates of celiac disease may be on the rise.

    Kasarda's article points out how much more research needs to be done. We need to determine if there is, in fact, a genuine rise in celiac disease rates and, if so, how such a rise might relate to gluten consumption.

    For now, though, there just isn't any solid evidence that wheat has any higher gluten levels than in the past, or that gluten consumption is driving an increase in celiac disease levels.

    What do you think? Have you heard this theory about modern wheat having higher gluten levels, or being substantially different than wheat in the past? Have you heard that such a difference may be driving higher rates of celiac disease? Please share your comments below.

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    I have to wonder if this person even understands what celiac disease is, and how it develops in a person. It isn't just that wheat is bred for "more gluten"... it is that with the cross-hybridization of wheat to create a hardier grain with a shorter stalk, we have started introducing NEW forms of protein molecules in the gluten that are foreign to our bodies. When our bodies detect a foreign substance that they are having trouble producing antibodies for, it goes into lockdown mode, and attempts to use all its immune defenses to protect itself. Studies have found incidents of at least 20 NEW types of bacterium amongst celiacs in the human intestine...bacteria that has never been seen before. More study must be done by the medical community as well as scientists before making such a bold statement.

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    Guest Giordano Checchi

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    I do not think the issue is the amount of gluten in new breeds of wheat. I agree with the previous comment. Something changed in wheat. Born in Italy I ate pasta, bread, and pizza all of my life and I never suffered from gluten intolerance until I was well into my middle age. Then "bang", it hit me like a cannon ball. Why? My only answer is: wheat must have changed. And I will continue to think so until proven wrong.

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    I admit that I have jumped on the band wagon and been quick to blame wheat tampering for the rise in celiac disease. But I read an article recently speculating that modern medicine could be to blame. It turns out that many drugs can cause a leaky gut. Maybe once the gut becomes leaky, gluten proteins pass through and those with celiac genes react and develop the disease. Just another thought.

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    I agree with the above entry. This man has no common sense and just knowing he is affiliated with the Agriculture Dept raises tons of red flags. You don't have to be an expert to look at how wheat has been modified over the years to realize this will have an effect on the population. And his statistics are just like any, they can be molded into almost any "outcome" you desire.

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    I have to wonder if this person even understands what celiac disease is, and how it develops in a person. It isn't just that wheat is bred for "more gluten"... it is that with the cross-hybridization of wheat to create a hardier grain with a shorter stalk, we have started introducing NEW forms of protein molecules in the gluten that are foreign to our bodies. When our bodies detect a foreign substance that they are having trouble producing antibodies for, it goes into lockdown mode, and attempts to use all its immune defenses to protect itself. Studies have found incidents of at least 20 NEW types of bacterium amongst celiacs in the human intestine...bacteria that has never been seen before. More study must be done by the medical community as well as scientists before making such a bold statement.

    I agree completely with you, Share. You've hit the nail on the head. It would be nice if there were actually scientists who did real scientific research--regardless of who or what industry that "research" might hurt. We need good, honest-to-goodness research done that doesn't rely on anyone's money to fund it. That way, no scientists are watching over their shoulders, wondering who they might tick off with the research results--the right, correct, unbiased research results.

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    Interesting article! I believe a combination of new strains of wheat, higher consumption, and more accurate diagnosis are all factors in the current higher rate of celiac disease. Looking at any one factor alone does not give a clear answer for the higher incidence of this disease. Remember this is a complicated genetic disorder.

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    I totally agree with the above two entries, also wheat is added to so many 'convenience' foods nowadays, people eat more packaged food than in the past and so are eating a large amount of 'hidden' gluten. It wasn't until I became gluten intolerant last year that I realized just how much gluten there is in everyday foodstuffs apart from bakery products.

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    I think both this article by Mr. Adams and the research that he describes by Dr. Kasarda (USDA) are very good science and very good way of interpreting science; very useful information for us trying to make sense of a poorly understood disease. We must base our opinions in facts that can be corroborated by real data. "Common sense" is meaningless; some years back slavery was "common sense," but now we know it is not; pardon my extreme example. Yes it is POSSIBLE that new wheat varieties MAY have new forms of gluten that MAY lead to more celiac disease, it is a good hypothesis, but it must be proven correct or not with facts, not musings of our imagination. This is said in the spirit of waking people up to reality, not to offend.

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    I think it's worth getting this discussion going. My father was a plant geneticist in Montana. He bred wheat grasses here, though others worked on wheat itself, but for 2 years in the 60s he worked in Turkey on a higher yield wheat. I remember buying "hi-protein" wheat through a co-op. So yes, what I have seen is that geneticists have been developing wheat strains with higher protein yield.

    As to the question of a rise in incidence or a rise in testing with celiac, my experience would indicate the latter. It took me 10 years to figure out what was going on with me, and the only reason I did was that my son had very extreme symptoms, which led to us testing all of us. I remember my mom having very similar symptoms to mine in her 40-50s, but she just suffered through - it was never diagnosed. To this day, even though she has gone on to have additional celiac symptoms, she does not believe she has the disease. It's what's "normal" in her mind.

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    Wonder how much wheat farmers paid this person to question the relation between celiac disease and wheat consumption?! I'm getting sick of telling family members and other wheat farmers that I can't eat their grain, only to have them (at best) look at me like I have 5 heads or (at worst) make me feel like a total pariah because I have celiac disease. And it's really humiliating to have to go into a small town restaurant where the main customer base is wheat farmers, only to read that their menu doesn't include any gluten-free choices. What really upsets me is how the owners of these small-town restaurants fail to learn about celiac disease and train their staff how to appropriately accommodate our needs. They then have the gall to turn the blame back on us for having celiac disease when they fail to educate their help about how to properly handle our food and make excuses for their staff. Appalling.

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    I doubt that a rise in wheat consumption has led to more recognized cases of celiac disease. For me, a single crumb of something containing wheat can trigger a full reaction. It isn't a question of how much, but a question of whether I ate something containing wheat gluten. What might be a factor is the hidden wheat flour in many packaged foods. Wheat flour is added to sunflower seeds, peanuts, shredded cheese and many many others to prevent clumping. This wheat does not appear on the label! It should, but it doesn't.

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    I have to wonder if this person even understands what celiac disease is, and how it develops in a person. It isn't just that wheat is bred for "more gluten"... it is that with the cross-hybridization of wheat to create a hardier grain with a shorter stalk, we have started introducing NEW forms of protein molecules in the gluten that are foreign to our bodies. When our bodies detect a foreign substance that they are having trouble producing antibodies for, it goes into lockdown mode, and attempts to use all its immune defenses to protect itself. Studies have found incidents of at least 20 NEW types of bacterium amongst celiacs in the human intestine...bacteria that has never been seen before. More study must be done by the medical community as well as scientists before making such a bold statement.

    The pathology of celiac disease occurs NOT because our body can not produce an antibody for gluten, but because our body does produce an antibody for gluten triggering a damaging immune response in some individuals.

     

    As for the "new" bacteria. The technology to identify the hundreds of bacterial species living in the gut (both in healthy and diseased individuals) is relatively new. There is still a huge amount of work that needs to be done to characterize these bacteria (and other microbes), let alone understand the relationship between the bacteria and host.

     

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  • About Me

    Jefferson Adams is Celiac.com's senior writer and Digital Content Director. He earned his B.A. and M.F.A. at Arizona State University, and has authored more than 2,000 articles on celiac disease. His coursework includes studies in science, scientific methodology, biology, anatomy, medicine, logic, and advanced research. He previously served as SF Health News Examiner for Examiner.com, and devised health and medical content for Sharecare.com. Jefferson has spoken about celiac disease to the media, including an appearance on the KQED radio show Forum, and is the editor of the book "Cereal Killers" by Scott Adams and Ron Hoggan, Ed.D.

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