I recently went on a safari in Fargo, N.D. - a wheat safari, presented by the Wheat Foods Council. Over the two-day trip, I got the lowdown on wheat from nutrition scientists, Ph.D.s in wheat genetics, flour milling experts and wheat farmers. The experts also addressed some myths about wheat production. Participants included dietitians and food writers.
The wheat industry has taken a beating the last few years from consumers who have turned away from bread products and gone gluten- free. Julie Miller Jones, distinguished scholar and professor emeritus of nutrition in the Department of Family, Consumer and Nutritional Sciences at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn., addressed the wildly popular trend of people adopting a diet without gluten.
"The 'Wheat Belly' book caused alarm," she said. "There is no end of people self-diagnosing themselves as celiac or allergic to gluten. There's a massive rampage to going gluten-free. Much of the science referenced in the book is not completely reported."
Gluten, in its generic form, refers to the proteins that grass plants build into their seeds (which we know as grains) to support the growth of the next generation of plants.
"Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder triggered by gluten proteins, which are found in all wheat products, including wheat, rye and barley, and in many other foods that use wheat in the manufacturing process," she said.
When a person with celiac disease eats gluten, the body's immune system overreacts, attacking not only the proteins but also the small intestine itself, especially the small, hairlike villi, which is where nutrients are absorbed. This assault reduces the small intestine's ability to absorb vital nutrients from food.
There is no cure for celiac disease, but the symptoms can be effectively managed by following a gluten-free diet. However, Miller Jones warns that many of the symptoms of celiac can be confused with other intestinal disorders. Symptoms of celiac disease include diarrhea, abdominal pain, weight loss and fatigue. The only true way to know if celiac is the culprit is through a blood test and a small intestine biopsy.
"Celiac disease affects an estimated one in 133 people," she said.
In spite of the very small percentage of those who truly must avoid gluten, the food industry has more than jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon.
Since 2011, the market for everything wheatless has grown at a rate of 44 percent, reaching sales of $10.5 billion in 2013, according to food industry research done by Mintel. The research firm predicts even bigger growth in the category since more of the products actually taste good.
Before embracing an expensive gluten-free diet, double check the science behind what you are reading. If you're still convinced you need to avoid gluten, see your doc for an official test.
Speakers also addressed consumers' belief that wheat is a GMO (genetically modified organism) crop. "It's a myth," said Brett Carver, wheat genetics chair in agriculture at Oklahoma State University.
"GMO generally means introducing a gene from a different source - foreign DNA. That's where the train leaves the tracks. All breeding (in the United States) is done at colleges, where we work inside the natural genetic boundaries. There is no GMO wheat grown in the U.S."