Due to the changes in human consumption and eating habit, the consumption of bread, and therefore of gluten, is decreasing. However, the number of people suffering from intolerances or allergies related to gluten constantly increases. Some nutritionists, like Marion Kaplan, even warn that by 2050, the whole population will be intolerant to gluten (Kaplan, 2018). In order to understand the real cause of this situation, it is needed to look beyond the consumption patterns of people, by looking into the production of wheat, flour and bread.
Evolution of wheat growing practices and genetically modified wheat
Wheat is the food that underwent the most genetic modification since the past 100 years!
Years ago, wheat used to be 1.2 meters high. The crop was so tall that it was creating a perfect shadow on the ground, preventing weeds from growing. However, its height was making the crop more vulnerable to climate condition. Due to wind and rain, the 1.2 meter tall wheat used to fall and lay down on the ground – making it impossible to harvest with a combine harvester.
In order to enhance productivity a less high (0.5 meter) wheat variety has been developed – smaller, more resistant to wind and easier to harvest. However, be reducing the height of wheat, the crop was not creating sufficient shadow on the ground anymore and weeds started to grow. The usage of weed killers and different herbicides was therefore necessary. New varieties of wheat were therefore genetically engineered – varieties that were resistant to herbicides and weed killers. These new, resistant wheat varieties are however stronger in gluten-content – 69% of prolamine (gluten forming protein (PeupleConnscient, 2016).
But it does not stop here… In order to increase yields, varieties with bigger grains were created. The story never ends…
To sum up, wheat has undergone several genetic transformations over the centuries. Today’s wheat is not the same as it was at the beginning of the 20th century. These new genetically modified wheat varieties contain more gluten, but they also have more chromosomes compared to the ancient wheat varieties. However, our organism does not go as fast as genetic engineers. Our digestion systems could not adapt to all those modifications in wheat and our body, therefore, has not the enzymes needed to digest these new grains. This is one of the causes of the intolerance to gluten and wheat allergy. (Albert H. Rowe, 1944)
Industrialization and evolution of bread-making practices
What people have to realize is that allergy to gluten is a recent problem. Since 25 centuries, wheat and bread represented the basis of food in many civilisations. It was the main part of people’s dishes, consumed in much bigger quantities than it is today. So why had the intolerance suddenly appeared? Maybe due to progress in medicine and in the diagnosis of gluten sensitivity? Absolutely not…
Gluten has always existed, however, in much smaller quantities. Back in the days, bread used to be made with freshly milled whole wheat flour and sourdough. During the sourdough fermentation process, proteins and carbohydrates present in the dough – including gluten – were degraded by the leaven. This process allows bacteria present in the leaven to break down the carbohydrates and proteins (including gluten) in the dough. By doing so, nutrients are being realized. The result of this fermentation process is a bread that is easier to digest and with much lower gluten content.
On the other hand, this fermentation process was very long and time-consuming. Big industries wanted to simplify the traditional process of bread making in order to produce cheaper and faster. Nowadays, in order to save time, the sourdough starter was replaced by baking powder. The latter, however, does not break down molecules of gluten present in the bread. As today’s bread does not undergo a proper fermentation process, it is richer in gluten as it was in the past.
In 2011, a small study conducted in Italy tried giving volunteers with celiac disease a small amount of specially prepared sourdough bread. The subjects in the study seemed to react well to the sourdough, which had been fermented until the gluten within it was degraded. The study authors concluded it was not toxic to celiac disease subjects. (The guardian, 2016)
In addition, traditional bread used to be made with spring water. Nowadays, we use chlorinated water which destroys the leaven and its fermentation bacteria… Moreover, in order for bakeries to provide warm and freshly baked bread at any time, the unbaked dough is being refrigerated in order to bake them at the last moment, according to demand. The cold temperature, however, stops the fermentation process and prevents the dough from rising, and degrading the gluten proteins.
Lastly, processing dough with a low gluten level takes more time and requires more handling. Industrial bakeries, therefore, stated to use wheat varieties with higher gluten content. Thus, the dough became more elastic and easier to work with. Manpower and traditional know-how have been replaced by machinery, in order to produce cheaper and faster. For this reason, the level of gluten in bread was increased by using hybrid wheat varieties with higher gluten content.
Genetic modification of wheat and changes in the milling process
Over the centuries, the wheat grain has undergone multiple genetic transformations. Today’s wheat is not the one we knew at the beginning of the 20th century.
In order to obtain a more elastic dough and thus facilitate and optimize bread production, flour with higher gluten content was needed. Therefore, new wheat varieties with higher gluten content have been developed. These new genetically modified wheat varieties contain more gluten, but they also have more chromosomes compared to the ancient varieties (ancient varieties used to have 14 chromosomes in their genetic strcture, modern hybrid varieties have 42 chromosomes). However, our organism does not go as fast as genetic engineers. Our digestion systems could not adapt to all those modifications in wheat and our body therefore has not the enzymes needed to digest these new grains. As these newly modified proteins cannot be digested in our stomach (due to the absence of the required enzymes) they continue and end up in our small intestine where they start fermenting. This fermentation process leads to an inflammation of the intestine – this is the intolerance to gluten. Clearly, some people react more violently than others depending on the level of sensitivity, but this inflammation can lead to numerous other health issues.
Nowadays, as the result of genetic engineering, we grow “wheat varieties with high baking quality” – which are varieties with higher gluten content. The reason for this is that the presence of gluten makes bread dough more elastic and easier to work with. This facilitates the industrialization of the bread-making process, increases productivity and reduces the needed level of expertise of labour. The outcome is a dough that is more elastic and easier to work with – suitable for industrialization, but with a higher gluten content and more harmful for human health.
To crown it all, thanks to lobbying and corruption of our institutions, selling seeds of ancient wheat varieties are legally prohibited and farmers are no longer allowed to sow their own seeds. However, these ancient seeds that our ancestors cultivated contain much less gluten.
Regarding flour, a hundred years ago, every baker had his own little flour mill and producing his own flour. This way, bakers used to produce bread with freshly milled flour – fresh, nourishing and rich in nutrients. (It is worth mentioning that flour preserves its nutrients during maximum 7 days after the grain has been milled). Nowadays, in order to optimize and make usage of the economy of scale, milling flour became centralized. The flour that we consume nowadays and that is used in bakeries is between 1 and 2 years old – free from any nutrients.
Additionally, ancient millstones have been replaced by stainless steel. However, the millstone was maintaining low temperature (less than 40°C) during the milling process, preventing the high temperature to destroy the nutrients present in flour. Moreover, the contact with the millstone was enriching flour with precious trace elements (micro-nutrients) present in the rock. Nowadays, flour is milled between two stainless steel cylinders. The speed and friction between these two cylinders create heat and lead to a loss of nutrients from the flour.