As marketers embrace the gluten-free fad, obvious questions arise: is there such a thing as wheat sensitivity? Who might have it? What can be done?
Some people have to avoid wheat due to well-established illnesses like celiac disease, a condition in which the immune system attacks the lining of the small intestine when sufferers ingest gluten. But recently, a lot of people with no established illness have reported that they feel less well when consuming wheat products, and improve when they avoid them. Is it all in their heads? A ploy for attention? A fancy to follow the latest fads?
Finally, researchers at Columbia University Medical Center have proven what many of us have long suspected: there is a biological basis for the malaise that some people suffer after eating wheat-based products.
The research team found that symptoms such as fatigue, cognitive difficulties, or mood disturbance -- which occur after ingestion of wheat, rye, or barley in foods -- can be explained by a weak intestinal barrier. The lining of the intestines is intended to keep food in the processing area until the food molecules are broken down into the nutrients that can be delivered into the blood stream to provide energy and building blocks for maintaining and growing our bodies. If the food or microbes leak into the blood stream prematurely, this can set off an immune system reaction responsible for wheat sensitivity.
We want to see scientists take this to the next level: as our food chain has modernized, we have introduced food chemists into the processing of foods. The case of trans-fats is one example of this experiment gone terribly wrong. We would like to know if some of the enzymatic processing of grains being incorporated into our foods could be contributing to an epidemic of people feeling poorly when they eat wheat products. This enzymatic processing effectively partially digests our food before we even eat it -- resulting in a sweeter taste that food chemists desire but introducing an ingredient into the food chain that never existed before. Is this hyper-processed wheat part of the problem?
It took humanity many generations of eating berries and passing on the stories about which ones gave us tummy-aches and more generations of learning to cook or otherwise prepare foods to make them edible. So this 'food chemistry' is not new. But it is more technological than ever before. Since food is the basis of all that we are, we need to take extra care when we start to tinker with it.
Study co-author Umberto Volta, of the University of Bologna, observes,
“Considering the large number of people affected by the condition and its significant negative health impact on patients, this is an important area of research that deserves much more attention and funding.”
We couldn't agree more. Until then, the best advice is to follow your gut.