Sayer Ji

The Dark Side of Wheat: New Perspectives on Celiac Disease & Wheat Intolerance Part 2 of 3

by Sayer Ji on April 7th, 2010


(Editor’s Note: Click here to see Part One)

OUR BIOLOGICALLY INAPPROPRIATE DIET

In a previous article, I discussed the role that wheat plays as an industrial adhesive (e.g. paints, paper mache’, and book binding-glue) in order to illustrate the point that it may not be such a good thing for us to eat. The problem is implicit in the word gluten, which literally means “glue” in Latin and in words like pastry and pasta, which derives from wheatpaste, the original concoction of wheat flour and water which made such good plaster in ancient times. What gives gluten its adhesive and difficult-to-digest qualities are the high levels of disulfide bonds it contains. These same sulfur-to-sulfur bonds are found in hair and vulcanized rubber products, which we all know are difficult to decompose and are responsible for the sulfurous odor they give off when burned.

There will be 676 million metric tons of wheat produced this year alone, making it the primary cereal of temperate regions and third most prolific cereal grass on the planet. This global dominance of wheat is signified by the Food & Agricultural Organization’s (FAO) (the United Nation’s international agency for defeating hunger) use of a head of wheat as its official symbol. Any effort to indict the credibility of this “king of grains” will prove challenging. As Rudolf Hauschka once remarked, wheat is “a kind of earth-spanning organism.” It has vast socio-economic, political, and cultural significance. For example, in the Catholic Church, a wafer made of wheat is considered irreplaceable as the embodiment of Christ. .

Our dependence on wheat is matched only by its dependence on us. As Europeans have spread across the planet, so has this grain. We have assumed total responsibility for all phases of the wheat life cycle: from fending off its pests; to providing its ideal growing conditions; to facilitating reproduction and expansion into new territories. We have become so inextricably interdependent that neither species is sustainable at current population levels without this symbiotic relationship.

It is this codependence that may explain why our culture has for so long consistently confined wheat intolerance to categorically distinct, “genetically-based” diseases like “celiac.” These categorizations may protect us from the realization that wheat exerts a vast number of deleterious effects on human health in the same way that “lactose intolerance” distracts attention from the deeper problems associated with the casein protein found in cow’s milk. Rather than see wheat for what it very well may be: a biologically inappropriate food source, we “blame the victim,” and look for genetic explanations for what’s wrong with small subgroups of our population who have the most obvious forms of intolerance to wheat consumption, e.g. celiac disease, dermatitis herpetiformis, etc. The medical justification for these classifications may be secondary to economic and cultural imperatives that require the inherent problems associated with wheat consumption be minimized or occluded.

In all probability the celiac genotype represents a surviving vestigial branch of a once universal genotype, which through accident or intention, have had through successive generations only limited exposure to wheat. The celiac genotype, no doubt, survived through numerous bottlenecks or “die offs” represented by a dramatic shift from hunted and foraged/gathered foods to gluten-grain consumption, and for whatever reason simply did not have adequate time to adapt or select out the gluten-grain incompatible genes. The celiac response may indeed reflect a prior, species-wide intolerance to a novel food source: the seed storage form of the monocotyledonous cereal grasses which our species only began consuming 1-500 generations ago at the advent of the Neolithic transition (10-12,000 BC). Let us return to the image of the celiac iceberg for greater clarification.

OUR SUBMERGED GRAIN-FREE METABOLIC PREHISTORY

The iceberg metaphor is an excellent way to expand our understanding of what was once considered to be an extraordinarily rare disease into one that has statistical relevance for us all, but it has a few limitations. For one, it reiterates the commonly held view that Celiac is a numerically distinct disease entity or “disease island,” floating alongside other numerically distinct disease “ice cubes” in the vast sea of normal health. Though accurate in describing the sense of social and psychological isolation many of the afflicted feel, the celiac iceberg/condition may not be a distinct disease entity at all.

Although the HLA-DQ locus of disease susceptibility on chromosome 6 offers us a place to project blame, I believe we need to shift the emphasis of responsibility for the condition back to the disease “trigger” itself: namely, wheat and other prolamine rich grains, e.g. barley, rye, spelt, and oats. Without these grains the typical afflictions we call celiac would not exist. Within the scope of this view the “celiac iceberg” is not actually free floating but an outcropping from an entire submerged subcontinent, representing our long-forgotten (cultural time) but relatively recent metabolic prehistory as hunters-and-gatherers (biological time), where grain consumption was, in all likelihood, non-existent, except in instances of near-starvation.

The pressure on the celiac to be viewed as an exceptional case or deviation may have everything to do with our preconscious belief that wheat, and grains as a whole are the “health foods,” and very little to do with a rigorous investigations of the facts.

Grains have been heralded since time immemorial as the “staff of life,” when in fact they are more accurately described as a cane, precariously propping up a body starved of the nutrient-dense, low-starch vegetables, fruits, edible seeds and meats, they have so thoroughly supplanted (c.f. Paleolithic Diet). Most of the diseases of affluence, e.g. type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, cancer, etc. can be linked to the consumption of a grain-based diet, including secondary “hidden sources” of grain consumption in grain-fed fish, poultry, meat and milk products.

Our modern belief that grains make for good food, is simply not supported by the facts. The cereal grasses are within an entirely different family: monocotyledonous (one leaf) than that from which our body sustained itself for millions of years: dicotyledonous (two-leaf). The preponderance of scientific evidence points to a human origin in the tropical rainforests of Africa where dicotyledonous fruits would have been available for year round consumption. It would not have been monocotyledonous plants, but the flesh of hunted animals that would have allowed for the migration out of Africa 60,000 years ago into the northern latitudes where vegetation would have been sparse or non-existent during winter months. Collecting and cooking grains would have been improbable given the low nutrient and caloric content of grains and the inadequate development of pyrotechnology and associated cooking utensils necessary to consume them with any efficiency. It was not until the end of the last Ice Age 20,000 years ago that our human ancestors would have slowly transitioned to a cereal grass based diet coterminous with emergence of civilization. 20,000 years is probably not enough time to fully adapt to the consumption of grains. Even animals like cows with a head start of thousands of years, having evolved to graze on monocotyledons and equipped as ruminants with the four-chambered fore-stomach enabling the breakdown of cellulose and anti-nutrient rich plants, are not designed to consume grains. Cows are designed to consume the sprouted mature form of the grasses and not their seed storage form. Grains are so acidic/toxic in reaction that exclusively grain-fed cattle are prone to developing severe acidosis and subsequent liver abscesses and infections, etc. Feeding wheat to cattle provides an even greater challenge:

“Beef: Feeding wheat to ruminants requires some caution as it tends to be more apt than other cereal grains to cause acute indigestion in animals which are unadapted to it. The primary problem appears to be the high gluten content of which wheat in the rumen can result in a “pasty” consistency to the rumen contents and reduced rumen motility.”
(source: Ontario ministry of Agriculture food & Rural affairs)

Seeds, after all, are the “babies” of these plants, and are invested with not only the entire hope for continuance of its species, but a vast armory of anti-nutrients to help it accomplish this task: toxic lectins, phytates and oxalates, alpha-amalyase and trypsin inhibitors, and endocrine disrupters. These not so appetizing phytochemicals enable plants to resist predation of their seeds, or at least preventing them from “going out without a punch.”

Next week: Part 3 Wheat an Exceptionally Unwholesome Grain

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Author Information: Sayer Ji
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2 Responses to “The Dark Side of Wheat: New Perspectives on Celiac Disease & Wheat Intolerance Part 2 of 3”

  1. [...] Editor's Note: Click here to see Part 1. Click here to see Part 2. [...]

  2. Julie says:

    What a great article! I’ve been looking for literature regarding the plant classes. It seemed odd to me that we would only exclude one tiny sub-class (family) of plants, and that the other sub-classes would be perfectly safe. Thanks for the information.

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