A blatantly pro-wheat piece ran in the Chicago Tribune that bashes the anti-grain movement. Read it here.
Written by dietitian, Marsha McCullough, it is full of the oversimplifications and partial truths echoed by the wheat industry. (So it smells and looks like something either paid for by the wheat industry to be placed in the Tribune, or Ms. McCullough was paid to write. That’s how the big lobbies work. They generally cannot rely on “organic” commitment.)
“Those with an allergy to wheat or other grains must avoid them. And the one percent of the population with celiac disease and the six percent with non-celiac gluten sensitivity must avoid all gluten, a protein found in grains, including wheat, rye and barley. With a doctor’s approval, most people with a gluten sensitivity can eat small amounts of uncontaminated oats; all other uncontaminated, gluten-free grains are typically allowed.”
Well, that’s a new concession: that people can have non-celiac allergies to wheat and that 6% of the population have “non-celiac gluten sensitivity,” or NCGS. Actually, the percentage of people with NCGS is in dispute with a recent effort at a consensus discussion from several celiac experts asking the question whether all irritable bowel syndrome sufferers, constituting 25-30% of the population, are really suffering from NCGS. The fact that the wheat lobby would allow such a concession is progress, so she starts off on a fairly positive note. Even conservatively, she allows that 7% of the population should not consume wheat — yet we are told by the USDA that everybody without exception should make “healthy whole grains” the centerpiece of diet.
It is a widely held fiction that oats are okay for people with celiac disease or NCGS: Yes, you can find oats without gluten or gliadin, but oats have a closely related protein called avenin that cross reacts immunologically in some people. The question of allergy is not as well charted out, but it is affecting a growing number of people, especially children suffering eczema and asthma, due to changes in wheat proteins, such as alpha amylase and trypsin inhibitors, as well as gliadin.
“According to an August 2013 review in Current Allergy and Asthma Reports, multiple case reports suggest gluten can play a role in some autoimmune diseases beyond celiac disease, but large studies are lacking. Autoimmune diseases that occur most commonly in combination with celiac disease are autoimmune thyroid disease, autoimmune liver disease, type 1 diabetes, Sjogren’s syndrome, and psoriasis.”
Alright, now she’s playing games with us, choosing one review and suggesting that this review is the totality of evidence, and suggesting that autoimmunity only occurs alongside celiac disease.
Not true. Dr. Alessio Fasano, while at the University of Maryland (now at Harvard) performed the elegant series of studies that first demonstrated that wheat (rye, barley) gliadins trigger the zonulin protein-mediated process that is the first step in autoimmunity. And this mechanism has nothing to do with celiac disease or NCGS, though it is partially dependent on the genetic variant of zonulin (“haptoglobin-2”) you carry. But essentially 90%+ of the population is susceptible to this effect.
From the perspective of “large studies,” we have a study of wheat removal in rheumatoid arthritis demonstrating partial remission. A search on PubMed will also reveal the explosion of studies exploring Dr. Fasano’s work further and documenting the close relationship of wheat consumption and autoimmunity. Yes, we need more data, but it all points fingers at wheat (and consistent with our anecdotal daily experience of multiple forms of autoimmunity receding with wheat elimination).
And, by the way, there is more to autoimmunity than wheat/gliadin removal, as chronic grain consumption distorts health in other ways, such as impaired absorption of nutrients over many years, disrupted cholecystokinin signaling for digestion, and changes in bowel flora (dysbiosis). All of this must be addressed for full recovery to occur after grains are removed. Just as an alcoholic doesn’t recover full health just by stopping the flow of bourbon, so a former wheat-consumer does not fully recover once the wheat/gliadin are stopped–the long-term consequences of wheat/gliadin consumption must be corrected, as well.
“Gluten-free diets carry the concern of nutritional deficiencies, and completely grain-free diets only heighten that risk. Julie Miller Jones, PhD, CNS, LN, professor emerita of nutrition at St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn., summarizes data showing grains provide the following amounts of nutrients in the U.S. diet: 70 percent of folate 60 percent of thiamin 50 percent of iron 40 percent or more of niacin, riboflavin, and selenium 25 percent of magnesium and zinc.”
Proponents of grain-free diets voice concern about anti-nutrients in grains. Grains, especially whole grains, contain a substance called phytate that impairs the body’s absorption of some minerals. However, in populations with well-balanced diets, this may be of little consequence. There are ways to minimize phytate, too.”
Ah, so she is aware of the phytate issue, the phosphorus-containing compounds in all grains that block 90% of iron absorption, 90% of zinc absorption, and at least 60-70% of magnesium absorption.
In nations that have developed dependence on wheat and corn, iron and zinc deficiencies are rampant, affecting over 2 billion people. Consumption of grains provides no net increase in iron or zinc, nor of any other nutrient, because they are inaccessible. The second most common cause of iron deficiency anemia in the world (after blood loss): wheat consumption.
How to minimize phytate? Well, first of all, modern grains have been selected to be phytate-rich, as phytates serve to protect grains from pests, such as insects. So modern grains are more effective at blocking nutrient absorption than traditional grains. But she is correct: phytates can be minimized — by genetic modification, GM. So she is essentially advocating that more GM crops be introduced, an argument that surely delights the agribusiness advocates.
Make no mistake: GM is an awful, crude, and desperately unhealthy process, despite the absurd FDA stand that GM crops are “substantially equivalent.” They are not and the science is bearing this out.
“‘Breads made with longer fermentation times, such as Julia Child’s French bread (which requires at least 6 hours of rise time), and classic sourdough bread, have significantly lower phytate levels,’ Jones says. Lectins, another type of anti-nutrient in grains, also may be inactivated by lengthy fermentation, and some are destroyed by heat.”
That is true: phytates are modestly reduced, but not eliminated. Lectins, on the other hand, are nearly impervious to heating, human digestion, or taking a beating at the hands of enthusiastic bakers. Wheat germ agglutinin, the lectin protein of wheat, rye, barley, and rice, remains remarkably intact despite such manipulations. But the reduction in phytates means that gliadin, glutenins, alpha amylase inhibitors, trypsin inhibitors, D-amino acids, amylopectin A are still there in all their glory, exerting autoimmune, intestinally disruptive, bowel flora-changing, allergy-provoking, and blood sugar-raising effects.
“‘Some people reason that if they eat more broccoli, for instance, then it won’t matter if they don’t eat grains. But, thinking you don’t need grain fiber because you get a lot of vegetable fiber is like saying that if you get enough vitamin A you don’t need any vitamin C. That’s just plain wrong,’ Jones says. For example, beta glucan, the fiber best at lowering cholesterol, is present only in oats and barley. It’s grain fiber, rather than fiber from any source, that is linked with a reduced risk of colon cancer.”
Several partial truths here. Jones and McCullough are referring to the presence of indigestible prebiotic fibers, or “resistant starches,” in grains, such as arabinoxylan, consumed by bowel flora and converted to butyrate, which does indeed exert healthy intestinal effects and metabolic benefits, such as reduced blood sugar.
But, given the fact that wheat has been consumed for only the last 10,000 years of human existence — how did humans obtain such fibers in the 2.5 million years prior to grains? Root vegetables. Root vegetable consumption is among the oldest documented foodstuffs to enter the diet of primates, found in even pre-Homo Australopithecus (e.g., robustus). Root vegetables are how non-grain consuming cultures, such as the Hadza of sub-Saharan Africa, obtain their prebiotic fibers — not grains. And most of the fiber in grains is cellulose — wood fiber — indigestible by humans. There is no inherent benefit to wood fiber consumption.
And the fiber data do not demonstrate that it is grain fiber that is most closely related to reductions in colon cancer risk. The data here tend to be sloppy, epidemiological studies of the sort that prove nothing. Taken as a whole, we could say that fiber intake reduces colon cancer risk, but we cannot say that it is grain fiber specifically. (I predict that the data will show, when clean data are finally generated, that it is the prebiotic fibers/resistant starches that are the truly protective component of foods, not the cellulose fibers.)
“A 2009 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that healthy adults on a gluten-free diet for a month had a significant decrease in protective gut bacteria, while potentially unhealthy bacteria increased in number. These findings are similar to an earlier study of children with celiac disease following a long-term gluten-free diet (Journal of Medical Microbiology, 2007).”
This is nonsense. She suggests that eliminating “gluten” is somehow unhealthy, an unhealthy and necessary evil to treat celiac disease. Yes, there are changes in bowel flora when you remove gluten, celiac or no, a process that requires months to years to correct. And they may not correct on their own, given the extensive disruption of digestion and intestinal health that derives from grain consumption. (We cannot create the healthy species we require, such as Lactobacillus plantarum, without introducing them through a probiotic or consumption of fermented foods.) The problem is not removing gluten; the problem is that bowel health is so disrupted that re-establishing healthy bowel flora requires efforts that go beyond gluten removal.
And followers of these discussions know that a “gluten-free” diet can be a terribly unhealthy diet, including effects on bowel flora, if it includes cornstarch, tapioca starch, potato flour, or rice flour, as replacements, since they also distort bowel flora and provoke inflammatory effects of their own. A faulty solution does not mean the original premise was wrong.
“In the typical American diet, wheat supplies at least 70 percent of inulin and oligofructose, which are prebiotic starches that fuel the growth of good bacteria.”
That is true, but suggests that grains are indispensable. Americans have woefully inadequate intakes of prebiotic starches on the order of 3-5 grams per day. The solution is not more grains; the solution is more root vegetables such as legumes, lentils, chickpeas, and other foods — the way humans have done it for 2.5 million years until the widespread fictions, misinterpretations, and lore of grains entered our experience. (This is an entire discussion of its own — for future!)
All in all, despite the half-truths in this piece, it demonstrates that apologists for wheat are getting a bit more savvy. But I don’t envy their position, having to defend the role of grains in the human diet — because they never belonged in the human diet in the first place. Recall that grains entered the human experience during moments of desperation, a source of calories when foods we instinctively consumed — such as organs, bone marrow, meat, nuts, seeds, roots, and berries — fell in short supply. They were intended to be consumed when real food was unavailable. But, in a world overpopulated due to the cheap, large-scale production of grains, we are told that our diets should be dominated by this nutritional intruder.
If you were starving and found yourself standing in a field of wheat, would you celebrate your good fortune and feast on the seeds of this grass? No, you would die of malnutrition. Wheat was never meant for human consumption.