Have you noticed how the number of people reacting to wheat and gluten based foods is skyrocketing over the last few years? The media and medical communities have. A sketch on the Daily Show had a sincere looking reporter searching for explanations for the latest horrific mass shooting and gluten intolerance was on his tongue-in-cheek list. It was an obvious poke at how gluten has become the go-to culprit for all manner of horrors and enigmatic behaviors.
The truth is there is a link between gluten reactions and a large host of digestive and neurological symptoms but the backlash to this increased awareness is growing cynicism. People now regularly ask me if avoiding gluten or wheat is a fad or even mass hysteria. As a nutritionist, I regularly help people improve their health by eliminating wheat and/or gluten from their diets but even I am becoming uncomfortable with the level of intolerance. How can so many people react so badly to the staff of life?
In a search for answers, I called MIT senior researcher, Stephanie Seneff. Dr. Seneff and a colleague published two papers pointing the finger at the herbicide, glyphosate. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in the world’s best selling herbicide, Round-Up. Over the last seven years or so, farmers have started spraying Round-Up on their wheat crops a few days before harvest. Wheat has not been genetically modified to resist glyphosate so the plants start to die. They are all at the same rate of deterioration or harvest ready within days so they are easier to gather and process.
If you think this farming process would lead to humans consuming excessive levels of glyphosate, you would be correct. A study led by German researchers found high concentrations of glyphosate in the urine of dairy cows and humans. (published in Jan 2014 journal Environmental and Analytical Toxicology) The manufacturers of glyphosate insist the herbicide is safe but independent studies find links to a long list of side effects ranging from birth defects to cancer. There is strong evidence the herbicide is not fit for human consumption but is it also the cause of increased gluten sensitivity and celiac disease?
Dr. Seneff thinks so. Colorful and outspoken, her theory is that glyphosate binds to the gluten molecule and keeps it in a form known to be more reactive. She rapidly outlined some of the chemical effects of glyphosate. It binds to soil minerals so they are unavailable to plants. Glyphosate prevents the liver from breaking down toxins and interferes with protein pathways. The bottom line is herbicides kill plants by disrupting their physiology. The results of disrupted bodily processes, according to Seneff, correspond to the symptoms of gluten sensitivity and celiac disease.
Many people report gas and bloating improves when they stop eating wheat, for example. Glyphosate is patented as a bacterial killer. Animal studies found it kills beneficial bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. Less good bacteria means yeast can overgrow, ferment food particles in your gut and create gas and bloating. Other symptoms such as headaches, gut-lining deterioration, joint pain and even increased cancer risk (in celiac disease) are caused by a number of factors but are possible side effects of glyphosate.
Seneff also suspects mounting celiac disease cases could also be blamed on glyphosate’s affect on the gut lining and gluten molecule. Her theories are not proven or winning her any popularity contests but they do raise concerns that beg to be addressed. Glyphosate accumulates in all parts of the plant and its residues remain stable in food for at least a year no matter how it is processed. Neither washing nor cooking removes the herbicide. With those properties, it should be indisputably proven to be safe. It is not.
The presence or absence of glyphosate could explain the ability of many people with gluten sensitivity but not celiac disease to eat certain wheat products but not others. Through the years people consistently report they can eat wheat in Italy or France but not in the states. One man told his doctor about his mysterious ability to eat bread in Italy but not in New York. The physician immediately blamed stress for all the man’s symptoms since he was symptom free on vacation. What the doctor could not explain was why only European vacations corrected his digestive issues.
Other people with gluten sensitivity claim they can eat heirloom varieties or certain products but not others. This does not make sense unless the difference in the products in not the gluten itself. The Italians and French have not embraced late herbicide application (though I cannot confirm this) and the heirloom varieties are usually grown organically.
Finally, both corn and sugar beets are also treated with glyphosate. Unlike wheat plants, most corn and sugar beets are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) specifically designed to survive herbicide applications. Corn intolerance, like gluten intolerance is increasing rapidly. Some scientists are blaming unnatural proteins formed through genetic modification but it is impossible to separate reactions to GMOs from potential problems from glyphosate residues as they occur together.
Some authors and doctors have started to call gluten toxic but vilifying grains does not sit well with me. We need grains to feed the 9 billion people living on earth. But we need clean, safe grains. Not all wheat is created equally. When it comes to gluten sensitivity, the devil may be in the details, not the wheat itself.