Sunday, January 11, 2015

Genetically engineered wheat and gluten issues? Wait just a minute.

A close friend wrote to poke me a little on the GMO issue after the previous Raising Islands post, and ended up betraying yet another of the genetic engineering issue’s misconceptions.

“It's a fact,” she said, “that gluten-intolerant folks in America can eat wheat products in Europe without  trouble. (I) have anecdotal evidence from too many of my traveling friends. European wheat is non-gmo.”

(Image: Grains of common wheat, Triticum aestivum L. Credit: USDA NRCS.)

 Something may be happening to her peripatetic friends, but it likely has little to do with the flour in that baguette. Two things leap out.

One is that if you suffer from any of the forms of gluten intolerance, including the serious celiac disease, you’d be intolerant of any gluten-containing product—genetic modification shouldn’t be an issue.

Second, the U.S.-grown wheat crop isn’t genetically modified at all. There is no genetically modified wheat being sold commercially anywhere in the world. Not in Europe, but not in the United States, either.

Says the U.S. Department of Agriculture: “APHIS has not deregulated any GE wheat varieties to date, and thus, there are no GE wheat varieties for sale or in commercial production in the United States.” (APHIS is the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the USDA.)

Which is not to say that genetic engineering hasn’t been done on wheat—just that it has not been approved for commercial use and has not moved into the market.

There have been two famous cases in which genetic material from experimental wheat was found in an Oregon field in 2013 and in a Montana field in 2014. The USDA is investigating. That experimental wheat was experimental Monsanto Roundup-resistant wheat that is not commercially available.

Here is the USDA’s September 2014 release on its investigations on those cases. The upshot is that the USDA says they are isolated and unrelated, and it is suspicious and not entirely clear how experimental seed ended up where it did:

One of the ironies of the cases—particularly for those whose goal is to use their anti GMO activism to stop the use of the herbicide Roundup—is that both cases were discovered by non-GMO farmers using Roundup.

In reference to my friend’s note, she is certainly not alone in her claim that gluten intolerance is less of an issue in Europe. There are lots of online references to that. But on review of the data, it’s difficult to make sense of it.

There is lots of reference to the disease in Europe—indeed, celiac disease until the middle of the last century was considered largely a European disease, as this National Institutes of Health report says. 

“Until the mid-20th century, celiac disease was known as Gee-Herter disease. About two decade(s) ago, celiac disease was considered rare outside Europe and, therefore, was almost completely ignored by health care professionals in rest of the world,” it says.

That was before there was genetic engineering in crops on either side of the Atlantic.

The article also makes the point that if you’ve got the disease, there’s only one sure way to stop its symptoms. It’s to eat no gluten whatsoever: “All foods and drugs that contain gluten and its derivatives must be eliminated from the diet because even 50 mg of gluten is sufficient to cause a significant increase in the intestinal mucosal damage,” says the NIH report.

We'd be remiss not to mention that with reference to gluten, if you have the disease, avoiding wheat isn’t all you need to do. Gluten is also found, according to the Mayo Clinic, in barley, bulgur, durum, farina, graham flour, malt, rye, semolina, spelt and triticale.

But it is clear that there's now far more celiac and other gluten-related illness--maybe four times more in North America than there was half a century ago. Also in other parts of the world.

The range of suspects is truly vast. Aside from the large number of gluten-containing food products and processed foods, people have linked the disease to weakened immune systems from poor diets, overprescribed antibiotics, Roundup and other pesticides, GMO crops, genetic predisposition, even living in cities as opposed to farms.

The New York Times (paywall) in 2013 carried a piece linking celiac to breastfeeding. It was better, the researchers in the story said, to have been breastfed than not, but also better to have been introduced to gluten earlier than later. Furthermore it mattered whether the breastfeeding mother was thin or heavy (better thin), whether she lived in a city or on a farm (better farm).

A Mayo Clinic article cites Mayo gastroenterologist Dr. Joseph Murray: "Whatever has happened with celiac disease has happened since 1950. This increase has affected young and old people. It suggests something has happened in a pervasive fashion from the environmental perspective."
So what happened 50 o 60 years ago as the celiac rate was rising? Yeah, we moved off the farms, became more overweight, started eating processed foods, started abusing antibiotics, used more pesticides, launched genetic engineering. 

Might want to throw air pollution, climate change, television, air conditioning, plastics, computers and a whole lot of other stuff in there.
© Jan TenBruggencate 2015


Juan Wilson said...


I think the point is that it is not the GMO genetics that are the problem so much as the glyphosate application to the crops that may be creating what appears to be gluten intolerance.

My wife and I have been tested for gluten sensitivity and the results were positive. No more pizza for us.

After reading about this issue we decided to try a local bread made with organically grown wheat - non GMO and no glyphosate.

We both had reaction to the bread. I conclude you are at least half right.

However the safety of glyphosate (originally created as an antibiotic) is far from proved.

Among the first ingredients I look to avoid in packaged foods is High Fructose Corn Syrup and other GMO corn byproducts.

Juan Wilson
Publisher of

Jan T said...

Thanks for your comment, Juan. So many people don't go the extra step of doing even simple tests, as you have. The hallmark of the sage citizen.