Wheat is hailed as the main ingredient in the “staff of life,” but it makes about 14 per cent of North Americans sick, a recent industry meeting was told.
That’s not the best news for Canadian farmers who grow more acres of wheat than any other crop, or North American flour millers who want people to consume even more wheat.
An estimated one in seven North Americans is sensitive to wheat, or more specifically to wheat gluten, a protein also found in barley and rye, Dr. Bill Code told the Prairie Grain Development Committee’s Plenary Session here Feb. 24.
That figure includes the one in 133 North Americans believed to have celiac disease, a genetic intolerance to gluten.
Although celiac disease and wheat intolerance are different, sufferers of each often experience some of the same symptoms, such as migraine headaches, and have a higher incidence of rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases, Type I diabetes, depression, epilepsy, cognitive impairment, schizophrenia and even certain types of cancer.
Code, the son of a Saskatchewan wheat farmer, a medical doctor and pharmacologist, lives in Duncan, B. C. Despite his training, Code eschews drugs in favour of diet, including going gluten free, to treat a range of maladies, including his own multiple sclerosis (MS).
“Hippocrates said a long time ago let food be your medicine and let your medicine be your food,” he told the conference attended by agronomists, farmers, plant pathologists and plant breeders. “We have not solved things with better chemistry and more drugs.”
Sensitivity to wheat is worse in the West, where average wheat consumption is about 130 pounds per capita in North America, he said.
In Japan an intolerance to rice is more common, which makes sense, according to Code, given the Japanese eat a lot more rice than wheat.
Gluten makes some people sick by leaking from the intestine into the bloodstream. White blood cells attack the foreign protein, but in some cases those cells go on to attack the person’s own body, such as the lining of joints. That’s rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease.
Code was diagnosed with MS, also an autoimmune disease, in 1996. His condition got worse for the next 10 months, but improved after he stopped eating gluten.
“I’m pleased to report mine (MS) is reasonably under control,” he said. “But if I fall off the wagon (and eat gluten) I don’t just get the headaches, I get the electrical shooting pains back and the whole scenario.”
Shelley Case, a Regina-based consulting nutritionist, registered nurse, celiac disease expert and celiac sufferer, said incidence of celiac disease has quadrupled during the last 50 years.
Both Case and Code agree increased gluten consumption could be partly responsible. Gluten is in dozens of foods from non-wheat cereals, chocolate bars, sausages and other prepared meats, soya sauce and seasonings to french fries, potato chips, beer, some medications and herbal teas, Case said.
There is hope though. Not eating gluten is one option, although not easy or cheap to do.
Researchers have also discovered certain bacteria can help. It appears the bacteria found in sourdough bread related to the fermentation process help to pre-digest the proteins certain people are sensitive to, Code said.
There’s even talk about developing a vaccine, but according to Case most people prefer changing their diet over taking drugs.
Wheat breeders might also find ways to “deglutinize” certain wheat varieties, although Code admitted the flour probably wouldn’t bake properly since gluten is essential in making bread rise.
“The Prairies are still the breadbasket of the planet to a great degree but we risk losing that if we don’t stay current and stay current with what we can do,” he said.
If a special wheat for celiac and wheat-sensitive people was developed, it would be very lucrative for farmers to grow, Code said.
Ron DePauw, a wheat breeder with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Swift Current, said wheat hasn’t changed, but how people eat has.
Fifty years ago most meals were prepared at home. Now fast, processed food dominates.
“We’ve got to be doing things about our gut and our gut health,” he said.
In an interview later DePauw said fast food is part of the North American lifestyle. Even bread making, which has been speeded up, has contributed to the problem by reducing dough’s exposure to good bacteria. There is, however, increasing awareness about pro-and prebiotics – bacteria that aid digestion, he said.
“This isn’t going to be good news for the pharmaceutical companies because they want to go the way of the pill, whereas if you go the other way of a good diet… you can eliminate a lot of these problems without side-effects,” DePauw said.
“We should be getting back into the use of whole grains and less processed food, less convenient food.” [email protected]