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Beyond Gluten: Understanding Bread’s Bad Rap

Survey of wheat sensitivity research suggests there may be multiple suspects. Credit: iStock

Survey of wheat sensitivity research suggests there may be multiple suspects. Credit: iStock

“The world doesn’t want to know the truth about gluten,” graduate student Lisa Kissing Kucek joked last July under a tent at Cornell University’s research farm in Freeville, N.Y. Lightning cut the sky, and we, a group of farmers and bakers, dashed for our cars before she could tell us what she’d discovered.

Now we know. Her research, “A Grounded Guide to Gluten” was published recently in the journal Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. Kissing Kucek and her colleagues reviewed more than 200 scientific research papers to see what is known about how different wheat varieties and our processing methods affect people’s sensitivity to wheat.

The conclusions of her literature review are cautious, far more so than the declarations made in such books as “Wheat Belly,” which considers modern wheat a chronic poison. Kissing Kucek was curious what wheat actually does in the human body and began by looking at gluten and the pathologies associated with it.

“We are missing a lot just by focusing on gluten,” she said. “So to see what actually is going on, I extended that to wheat.”

Her inquiry grew to cover a broad territory, including the problems caused by wheat, how those problems vary by wheat species and variety, and the role of processing methods. It considered everything from celiac disease, wheat allergy and nonceliac wheat sensitivity (NCWS), to fructose malabsorption and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

The review pairs well with other Cornell research. The university and its research partners received a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant in 2011 to look at heritage wheat varieties. Field trials, lab analysis and baking trials are all part of this grant project, which ends in 2016.

Vintage wheat varieties have captured the imagination of a gluten-shy public, and the paper includes thorough descriptions of wheat kernels and wheat genetics. The material is dense, but Kissing Kucek explains it in an easy to follow video presentation.

Many people have trouble digesting fructose and certain carbohydrates, collectively known as FODMAPS. “These individuals experience bloating and gas when consuming large amounts dairy, high fructose corn syrup, stone fruits and wheat,” she said. “As many foods contain FODMAPS, if these individuals only remove wheat gluten from their diet, their symptoms will likely persist.”

Lynn Veenstra, also of Cornell, surveyed fructan research for the paper. Some of the findings she reviewed were featured in a recent Washington Post article about FODMAPS.

Illnesses like nonceliac wheat sensitivity, IBS and fructose malabsorption can be hard to diagnose. But most of the research points to multiple triggers beyond gluten proteins or other parts of wheat.

Little about gluten is straightforward

Contrary to popular or wishful thinking, old wheats don’t wear halos.

“There is no perfect wheat species that reduces all types of wheat sensitivity,” said Kissing Kucek. However, einkorn is promising because it contains fewer celiac reactive compounds than heritage and modern wheat varieties. Einkorn dates from the very early domestication of staple crops; emmer and spelt are also classified as ancient. Heritage or heirloom grains refer to older seed varieties developed before 1950. Modern grain varieties generally have shorter stalks, which allow the plants to receive heavy doses of fertilizer without falling down in the field.

Different wheat varieties vary widely in their reactivity for celiac and wheat allergy. But we don’t know the effect on wheat sensitivity for many of the old or new wheat varieties used in the United States. Europe is screening more varieties. Yet nothing is straightforward when interpreting natural systems.

Figuring out how gluten works in our bodies is tough. Figuring out how growing conditions or plant variety might affect a crop’s potential to harm us is also tough. Understanding the role processing methods play also needs more research, but there’s enough information to cause concern over a few things.

One item —vital wheat gluten — is common in the food supply, and has the potential to cause reactions. It’s used to bind multigrain breads. A cheap protein and a great emulsifier and binder, it’s also widely used in industrial food processing. Irradiated flour and other baking additives also are cited as worrisome.

However, the paper’s section on processing offers some hope, too. Grain sprouting for instance, could help some people digest the complex proteins that give some eaters grief. Longer fermentation also breaks down proteins that can cause some forms of wheat sensitivity.

Other research questions about wheat and gluten are still being charted. A recent Mother Jones story about research at The Bread Lab of Washington State University suggests that modern baking is a bigger culprit than modern wheat. The publication Eating Well also has a new story on gluten by Sam Fromartz called “Unraveling the Gluten-Free Trend.” Like his recent book, “In Search of the Perfect Loaf,” the article nicely navigates the maze of fears about eating wheat and gluten.

Kissing Kucek’s “A Grounded Guide to Gluten” maps the research already done. Like any realistic map, the guide offers facts, not commandments of the “Here Be Dragons” sort. Answers might be found, the paper suggests, in turning to traditions.

This confirms what I’ve long suspected: That we need to unravel some of the processing developed over the last 150 years. In that time, we’ve adopted roller milling, which leaves behind most of the bran and germ. While I never fell out of love with wheat or gluten, I’ve grown enamored of the taste of fresh stone ground flour, and the concept of using all parts of the grain. Perhaps there is something that each lends the other, and to us, as we turn this plant into food. I think that the unity of stone milling is essential to healthy utilization of grains. Some professional bakers believe this too, and are working exclusively with fresh milled whole grain flours.

As people negotiate a friendly relationship with bread, I am hoping that my personal truth about gluten might gain scientific ground.

Main photo: Survey of wheat sensitivity research suggests there may be multiple suspects. Credit: iStock

Zester Daily contributor Amy Halloran writes about food and agriculture. An avid baker, particularly of pancakes, her love of flour led to her book, "The New Bread Basket: How the New Crop of Grain Growers, Plant Breeders, Millers, Maltsters, Bakers, Brewers, and Local Food Activists Are Redefining Our Daily Loaf." See more of her work at

  • Josee 3·25·15

    Amy, Very interesting article. I’m glad to read something that isn’t the typical “Gluten: it’s all in your head”- type article. I think manufacturing is the most likely culprit, as you say. Lots of store-bought breads also add extra gluten as an additive which may cause problems. Also, there are people who suffer from problems that don’t present as digestive ailments from ingesting (what for now appears to be) gluten. There are other auto-immune disorders that are not very well researched and are pointing to gluten-intolerance. With insufficient support from doctors, sufferers take it upon themselves to discover what may give them some relief. Many are discovering that leaving out gluten is the only thing that has worked. But, when people do leave out gluten, they often leave other things out at the same time, like preservatives, etc. They may be attributing their relief to the omission of the wrong thing. Bu their relief is not a fantasy.

    I am very interested in how grain-sprouting may affect people who are sensitive. I was gluten/wheat-free for about ten years when it was not so easy to be and I found that wheat-free was not enough, I had to go for gluten-free to avoid getting very sick. I was never diagnosed as celiac (only the blood test) and I ate spelt and barley without event if I spaced them out well enough. I would have been quite happy if there had been an opportunity to try sprouted grains to see if that would work, even if not for every day. I don’t know why I reacted the way I did. There are a lot of people who have mystery-illnesses that MDs cannot help with that would benefit from more research and an examination of how food processing affects foods we rely on.

  • Terra 3·28·15

    Thanks for bringing together all of this recent research, Amy. One factor that still seems to be largely ignored in discussions about digestive problems associated with wheat/gluten is the heavy use of Round-Up to “burn down” the wheat crop just before harvest. The high residues of this herbicide, especially its so-called “inert” ingredients, which are present to make plant cell walls more permeable to the “active” ingredient, glyphosate, could be another culprit, and could be irritating intestinal cell walls and making them more permeable.

    My solution is to buy organic grains (no herbicides or other pesticides used) from local farmers and grind them myself, and then do long, slow fermentation for a delicious and wholesome (and easily digestible) bread. We now have our very own Grand Prairie Grain Guild here in Central Illinois making these great grains more widely available.

  • FlourPower 4·9·15

    Interesting article. I am an artisan baker and am often treated like a drug dealer at the local farmers’ market. With most of the articles talking about gluten I don’t understand the accusation that we bakers would nowadays use more gluten. Or that wheat has more gluten. You say in your article “because it contains fewer celiac reactive compounds”, What are these “celiac reactive compounds”? My understanding so far was that celiac is caused by gluten which is a chain of proteins mainly glutenin and gliadin. Is there more to it?
    My tools when baking artisan bread are a several types of flour. The biggest difference between them is gluten content. Now the problem I have with understanding the “modern wheat has more gluten” is that I always use the same amount of gluten in my bread. We artisan bakers cannot just suddenly switch from a 11% gluten flour to a 14% gluten flour. Our recipes depend on certain gluten content in our bread. It is an ingredient. We mix flours to achieve a gluten structure typical for the bread we bake. basically a baguette always has and had the same amount of gluten. the argument that modern wheat breeds have more gluten and therefor my bread nowadays is less healthy than 5 years ago doesn’t make sense in my eyes.
    One other hing I would like to raise is that we bakers need gluten. Yes seriously. No gluten no rise. Gluten is needed to create the structure in the dough which holds the gasses during fermentation. The more gluten, the more structure the bigger the holes. If you take out the gluten from this formula you will have to replace it with something. That’s a fact. These replacements are often emulgators which also have certain health issues. If you say “Grain sprouting for instance, could help some people digest the complex proteins that give some eaters grief. Longer fermentation also breaks down proteins that can cause some forms of wheat sensitivity.” then this is true. But people need to keep in mind that you then get a more dense and compact bread. Unless you replace some of this gluten with emulgators. And what the consumer wants is soft fluffy bread or ciabatta with big holes etc. If we aim for a life with less gluten we need to rethink our craving for ciabatta and baguette.
    Or is my view too simplistic?

  • Bageladies 4·3·16

    Thanks for the interesting article and your notation that processing may be helpful in increasing the ability to properly digest wheat. I hold a patent on a bread processing method that changes the nature of the wheat starch, removing all the wheat starch glucose and reducing the sugars by 60%, when compared to traditional bread methods. Studies have proven that breads made in our patented way do not spike blood sugar levels and result in better maintenance of healthy sugar-insulin response.
    Customers have shared interesting observations: 1) persons who otherwise considered themselves “gluten intolerant” do not experience those symptoms from our bread; 2) those who have IBS and “belly bloat” from wheat breads to not have these issues when digesting our breads; 3) diabetics can enjoy our breads without need for additional counteracting insulin treatment when compared to ingesting traditional un-sprouted wheat breads; and 4) parents of children with hyper-activity issues have learned that their children do not experience the typical hyped-up energy followed by the crash and stay more focused in their classroom.
    The “wheat issue” is a very complicated one. Much research is indicating that the overuse of glyphosate and the spraying of glyphosate on conventional wheat just prior to harvest is contributing to “gluten intolerance.” Wheat has been (and remains) an important dietary staple for centuries. What modern agri-business has done to change the purity of wheat would best be investigated as a root cause behind the wheat crisis. A good solution is organic production in an effort to wheat’s original non-threatening benefits.

  • enter name 4·18·16

    Totally has the same views as flourpower” has…agree totally,,”not to forget to add .”eat in moderation” won’t risk any health issues ,,(I m a artisan baker as well)