The New York Times ran a silly piece entitled The Myth of Big, Bad Gluten by journalist Moises Velasquez-Manoff, yet another defense of the “eat more healthy whole grain” status quo. I enjoy reading most pieces from the New York Times, but they blundered in published this piece of simple-minded tripe.
I keep on hoping that some of the critics of Wheat Belly finally get their facts straight so that we can actually have a meaningful debate on the issues. Mr. Velasquez-Manoff–as so many other journalists and paid authors before him–fails to deliver, instead providing a misguided, anemic discussion that makes no unique new arguments.
The author failed to do his homework and was completely unaware that gluten is just one wheat component amount dozens, if not hundreds, of factors in this grain that pose dangers to humans who consume them. Or, as appears to be happening quite frequently, this piece is meant to be diversionary, hoping to draw attention to this relatively limited issue of gluten while ignoring all the other issues, like arguing that tar is the only concern with cigarette smoking, misleading you to believe that low-tar cigarettes must therefore be healthy. Take your pick but, either way, this piece is yet another in a long line of articles that, I believe, fail to acknowledge all the other issues that arise when human try to consume the seeds of grasses, i.e., “grains.”
He starts by drawing comparisons of wheat consumption with consumption of products from bovine mammary glands, i.e., dairy products, pointing out that humans have made genetic adaptations that allow them to consume the lactose sugar not just as breast-feeding infants, but as adults, so why not similar adaptations to consuming grains? He makes the crucial point that consumption of the product of mammary glands is not foreign to humans: after all, we are mammals meant to consume such a food, at least as infants. So the adaptation of one gene in some populations of the world to the persistence of the lactase enzyme is a relatively modest, single change in gene expression that can indeed develop within a few thousand years to accommodate to a sugar that we all as infants were able to digest.
He neglects, however, to mention all the other factors in dairy products that humans have not fully adapted to, such as forms of the casein protein (casein beta A1) that have been linked to autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes in children–for which there have been no such adaptations.
Unlike the consumption of the products of mammary glands, there is no such precedent in the consumption of the seeds of grasses. Humans added grains less than 1/2 of 1% of our time on earth, a mere blink of the eye in evolutionary time. The seeds of grasses were never instinctively viewed as food by hungry humans until we watched the ruminants we domesticated eating them–but never before. Nonetheless, there have been limited genetic adaptations in an “effort” (my apologies to those of you aware of teleology) to adapt to the consumption of the seeds of grasses. One such adaptation is the gene variant for hemochromatosis. Modern people with one such variant gene absorb excess iron and must donate blood every few months to reduce the excessive quantity of red blood cells that result. People with two such gene variants are at considerable risk for blood clotting and liver failure. Anthropologists believe (via gene mapping studies) that this gene variant appeared 6000 years ago in people of Northern European descent to adapt to increased consumption of wheat and grains, exposing them to grain phytates that are potent blockers of iron absorption, a gene now carried by approximately 7-8% of people with those origins.
Because wheat and grains are also rich in the amylopectin carbohydrate, explaining why they raise blood sugar so enthusiastically, it is also believed that grain consuming populations have also acquired more copies of the AMY1 gene for the amylase enzyme, making them better able to tolerate the carbohydrate load. There may also be a handful of genes that help protect against the development of diabetes (though we’ve got to question the value of these variants given the epidemic of diabetes and pre-diabetes now engulfing two-thirds of the North American population).
But that’s it. There are plenty of other components of wheat and grains for which we have no adaptations. What about tolerance to those phytates in the other 90% of people who continue to have iron, zinc, magnesium, and calcium absorption blocked? What about tolerance for the people who are susceptible to the mind and emotional effects of the gliadin protein that cause paranoia in schizophrenics, mania in people with bipolar illness, behavioral outbursts and abbreviated attention spans in kids with ADHD and autistic spectrum disorder, or 24-hour-a-day food obsessions in people with bulimia and binge eating disorder? What about adaptation to the central nervous system damage inflicted by the gliadin protein that is responsible for deterioration of the cerebellum resulting in cerebellar ataxia, or peripheral neuropathy (50% of unexplained peripheral neuropathies have now been associated with wheat gliadin), or temporal lobe calcification that results in “absence” seizures, or the recently described “gluten encephalathy,” i..e, dementia from wheat? How about majority of people who, regardless of number of AMY1 genes, still experience high blood sugars from wheat and grain consumption? How about the direct gastrointestinal toxicity of wheat germ agglutinin and the endocrine disruptive and inflammatory effects it exerts when absorbed in microgram quantities? What about adaptation to common wheat and grain allergies manifested as skin rashes, asthma, and gastrointestinal distress?
I could go on, but I believe you get the point: adaptation to components of wheat and grains, plants that were never instinctively viewed as food by humans until the practice was inspired by observing the behavior of ruminants with their unique adaptations that allow them to eat grasses, is limited at best. There are simply too many other damaging components in wheat and grains that would require hundreds of thousands of years to even begin to approach something close to full adaptation. In the meantime, we experience an astounding amount of diabetes, autoimmune diseases, gastrointestinal conditions, psychiatric and neurological conditions from this crazed and misguided notion of consuming the seeds of grasses ad lib.
And to accuse the “gluten haters” of claiming that the gluten content of wheat has increased is silly. I certainly never made that claim . . . because it’s not true. There have been no substantial changes in the quantity of this one protein, gluten, in modern compared to traditional strains of wheat. But recall that the structure of the gliadin protein within gluten was changed by geneticists and agribusiness: the gliadin proteins of the 21st century are not the gliadin proteins of even 1960–they are quite different, as are hundreds of other wheat and grain proteins. Adaptation or no, humans have been introducing their own collection of unique changes into gliadin and hundreds of other wheat proteins faster than any human can adapt to those changes. Traditional forms of wheat and grains have been problematic for humans for as long as we have consumed them, in desperation or in celebration–but it was all made worse when agribusiness and geneticists got into the business of introducing their own collection of alterations.
Mr. Velasquez-Manoff concludes with an argument that I would agree with: that the human microbiome has changed and that it likely underlies a multitude of health problems. But he fails to acknowledge the science (summarized in Wheat Belly Total Health) that documents that at least some of the changes in the human microbiome, oral and gastrointestinal, have been tracked back to grain consumption. There is more to the modern epidemic of dysbiotic microorganisms than grains, but grains are the prototypical disrupter of this crucial component of human-bacterial symbiosis.
In short, the author makes a few empty assertions, fails to acknowledge the bulk of evidence documenting the enormous destructive potential of grains, ignores the newest changes introduced by agribusiness into wheat and other grains (what about genetically-modified corn?), and concludes that there’s nothing to worry about. Go back to your books, Mr. V-M, because you clearly failed to even scratch the surface of the issues, despite the audacity to have it published in the New York Times. Shameful, truly shameful.