American vs. European Wheat: The Gluten Sensitivity Debate

Some Americans say they don't experience gluten sensitivities when traveling in Europe, leaving many to wonder if wheat grown in the United States is contributing to the increase in gluten-related issues.

Key takeaways:

The gluten-free diet has gained recognition in recent years, likely the result of increased awareness of gluten-related conditions, such as celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). Moreover, gluten has also been associated with brain inflammation in mice, and reports suggest that following a gluten-free diet may help reduce fibromyalgia pain.

Celiac disease seems to be on the rise, as a 2020 study found that the worldwide incidence of the condition has increased by 7.5% per year over the past several decades.

However, non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) remains a subject of ongoing research, with its exact prevalence and mechanisms not yet fully understood.

Individuals with NCGS experience symptoms like bloating, abdominal pain, fatigue, and headaches after consuming gluten, which resolves when the person follows a gluten-free diet. Unlike celiac disease, NCGS lacks specific biomarkers, making diagnosis reliant on excluding other conditions through a process of elimination.

While it's unclear if specific aspects of gluten trigger NCGS, some people with the condition say their symptoms change depending on the wheat's origin.

For example, some folks report that when traveling in Europe, they don't experience NCGS symptoms even after eating foods that contain gluten.

Are the wheat-growing practices in the United States to blame?

Is U.S. wheat different from European wheat?

Steven J. Mercer, Vice President of Communications at U.S. Wheat Associates, told Healthnews, "It is important to understand that there are several types, or classes, of wheat grown in the U.S. and the EU that are similar in their gluten percentage. When we describe wheat classes, we mean something very different than the term 'variety,' which refers to specific cultivars within each U.S. or EU class of wheat."

As far as gluten content, Mercer says the soft red winter wheat class grown in the eastern U.S. has a similar percentage of gluten as wheat grown in northern France. Moreover, the American hard red winter wheat class grown in the Great Plains has a similar percentage of gluten as wheat grown in Ukraine and the Balkans, and the U.S. hard red spring wheat class grown in the Northern Plains has a similar gluten percentage as wheat produced in Germany and Poland. Finally, U.S. durum wheat, grown for semolina for pasta, has an equivalent gluten level to durum grown in Italy and southern France.

"There are slight differences between these U.S. and EU wheat classes in terms of their baking qualities, but very little difference in gluten content within the similar classes," Mercer explained.

Mercer also noted that wheat cultivation in the United States is similar to that in Europe. In both regions, farmers produce varieties using conventional crossbreeding and similar seed-planting procedures and use herbicides and insecticides to control weeds and pests.

"There are no GMO wheat varieties grown commercially in the United States," Mercer said.

Bob Quinn, organic farmer and founder of Quinn Farm & Ranch in Montana and Kamut International, says that yes, there are differences between wheat grown in these two regions.

Quinn told Healthnews, "The wheat has been greatly changed in America to produce cheap, abundant food, but comes to us with a very high cost that is not paid at the grocery checkout counter."

Instead, Quinn suggests that Americans pay that cost with their health.

"60% of our population in America has at least one chronic disease — mostly due to poor and nutrient deficient cheap food, modern wheat, and the products made from it," Quinn said. "The gluten was changed so that it could hold more air in the American-style white bread. Hence, bakers could make more bread with less wheat. Many have trouble digesting this stronger gluten protein."

Bob Quinn
Bob Quinn Organic Farmer via Facebook

Quinn also says Europe uses more sourdough bread, which has long fermentations to help break down starch and protein, including gluten. This makes it easier on the digestive system than the fast-rising yeast used in America, where there is almost no time for pre-digestion of starch or protein.

Does the herbicide glyphosate play a role in gluten sensitivities?

Though heavily debated, some experts propose that glyphosate — AKA Roundup — plays a role in the development of celiac disease and NCGS.

For example, a 2020 study published in Frontiers in Microbiology suggests that exposure to glyphosate alone or through food treated with the herbicide promotes gut dysbiosis by reducing good gut bacteria and increasing the number of opportunistic pathogens.

The study's authors say this glyphosate-induced dysbiosis may be linked to inflammation, reflux disease, obesity, and colon cancer. It may also be a trigger for celiac disease.

However, while the study focused on wheat, other crops, including legumes, corn, and soy, have been shown to contain high glyphosate residues due to the advancement of glyphosate-resistant crops. Still, the scientists say independent testing found that wheat products contain higher residues post-processing and comprise a significant portion of the average North American's dietary glyphosate exposure.

What's more, research published in 2013 found that as the usage of glyphosate increased between 1990 and 2010, so did the incidence of celiac disease.

Still, no studies have found a direct link between glyphosate and celiac or NCGS.

"Glyphosate is not used in Europe on wheat as a desiccant the same way it is sometimes used in the U.S.," Quinn explained. "Research reports from Canada have described people expressing sensitivity to glyphosate-contaminated wheat and having systems usually associated with wheat sensitivities, so it is likely that glyphosate is the root cause for some of the problems."

Quinn says the U.S. uses more glyphosate than other countries — especially in the Great Plains, which are North and South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico — where farmers use it several times a season to control weeds in chem fallow operations next to fields where wheat is grown.

"Besides being used on wheat fields before planting and after harvest, so much is used we can now measure glyphosate contamination in the rain on our organic farm in North Central Montana — so most of the crops are now being contaminated," Quinn said.

Does Europe import wheat from the U.S.?

One overlooked factor in this wheat debate is that Europe imports wheat from the U.S. So, people in the EU may be consuming American wheat products.

Mercer told Healthnews, "In terms of exports, European millers are limited under EU tariff rules to importing only U.S. hard red spring wheat and durum wheat. Of EU countries, Italy imports the most U.S. durum (an average of about 500,000 metric tons per year the past five years) that is milled into semolina for local pasta production, and hard red spring with an annual average of less than 200,000 metric tons the past five years. Spain sporadically imports relatively small volumes of U.S. hard red spring and durum."

However, because the U.S. produces six classes of wheat, Mercer says millers in America do not need to import large volumes of European wheat.

No clear answers

While more awareness and better diagnostic procedures may account for the increase in celiac disease and NCGS, the jury is still out on whether differences between American and European wheat, glyphosate use, or something else is a driving factor.

But with an estimated one in 133 people in the U.S. affected by celiac disease and nearly 15% of the population potentially impacted by NCGS, finding the root cause of these gluten-related health conditions is critical.

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