Is GMO Wheat Causing Increases in Celiac and Gluten Sensitivity?

Harvesting wheat
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There's no question that celiac disease is on the rise, and non-celiac gluten sensitivity may be, as well. Some people have suggested that genetically modified wheat—also known as GMO wheat—might be to blame for these increases. However, the truth is that GMO wheat can't possibly be blamed for the hikes in celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, simply because GMO wheat isn't being grown commercially.

Must-Know Facts About GMO Wheat

To be considered genetically modified, a plant such as wheat needs to have its genome altered through gene splicing in the laboratory. Scientists who genetically engineer crops are looking to introduce a desirable trait into that crop, and they do so by inserting a new gene sequence from another species into the target crop's genome.

For example, biotechnology giant Monsanto Co. created its GMO soybeans by introducing a gene sequence from a specific bacterium, Agrobacterium sp. strain CP4, into soy's genome. This bacterium gene allows the soybeans to resist repeated applications of the herbicide Roundup (also produced by Monsanto). Between 80 percent and 90 percent of soy grown in the U.S. is GMO Roundup Ready soy.

Monsanto abandoned its efforts to develop Roundup Ready wheat in 2004. However, Monsanto has experimented with genetic engineering in wheat to produce drought-resistant and higher-yielding wheat strains. Competitors—notably, Syngenta AG and BASF Global—also are pursuing GMO wheat. However, none of these products are market-ready, and they're only being grown currently as experiments.

There was one isolated case of GMO wheat (Roundup Ready wheat) being detected on a farm in Oregon back in 2014, but this was isolated and hasn't recurred. That means (contrary to popular belief) that GMO wheat cannot be blamed for increased celiac and gluten sensitivity cases.

Hybridized Wheat May Be To Blame

That doesn't mean wheat hasn't changed over the last half-dozen decades, though—it has, as the result of a process called hybridization (which is different from genetic engineering). And some scientists (although not all) say those changes could be one cause of an increase in the number of people who have an inability to tolerate gluten.

In hybridization, scientists don't tinker directly with the plant's genome. Instead, they choose particular strains of a plant with desirable characteristics and breed them to reinforce those characteristics. When this is done repeatedly, successive generations of a particular plant can look very different from the plant's ancestors.

That's what's happened with modern wheat, which is shorter, browner, and far higher-yielding than wheat crops were 100 years ago. Dwarf wheat and semi-dwarf wheat crops have replaced their taller cousins, and these wheat strains require less time and less fertilizer to produce a robust crop of wheat berries.

Dr. William Davis, author of the anti-wheat best-selling book Wheat Belly, raises questions in his book about whether these changes in wheat have caused the spike in gluten-related health problems, including obesity and diabetes. "Small changes in wheat protein structure can spell the difference between a devastating immune response to wheat protein versus no immune response at all," Davis writes. Modern wheat has been bred to contain more gluten, he says.

However, a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry cast doubt on part of Davis' hypothesis when it reported that there's not really any more gluten in modern wheat than there was in 1920s-era wheat.

A Word From Verywell

Studies do show a significant increase in the incidence of celiac disease over the last several decades. Anecdotally, gluten sensitivity also appears to be rising, although there haven't been any studies to confirm that (and some blame the current trendiness of the gluten-free diet for reported increases).

However, it's not at all clear why the number of people affected by these two conditions might be rising.

Donald D. Kasarda, the U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist who authored the 2013 study on 1920s wheat, says it's possible that increased consumption of wheat in recent years—rather than increased gluten in the wheat actually consumed—might be in part to blame for increased incidence of celiac disease. He also says the use of wheat gluten as an ingredient in processed foods might contribute.

However, no one really knows why celiac disease (and possibly gluten sensitivity) might be affecting more people. There's one thing that's certain, though: Genetically modified wheat can't be to blame.

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