On June 1, Netflix released a documentary titled, “What’s With Wheat?” The documentary features 15 people who discuss their opinions on the effects of wheat on human health. These “experts” include a nutritionist, two neurologists, a medical school professor, an organic livestock farmer, a hospital internist, an MIT research scientist, a Paleo chef, two authors, a biologist, the owner of a makeup company, a pediatrician, the president of an education foundation and a physicist.
Unfortunately, the film did not provide opinions from plant scientists, wheat producers, agricultural industry representatives or pro-wheat nutritionists, making the message one-sided. It’s important that some of the remarks made in the documentary are addressed so that consumers who are trying to educate themselves can have the most accurate information available.
First, one point of discussion is the difference between modern wheat and ancient, or heritage, wheat. It’s easy to blame today’s higher-yield, higher-resistance wheat on the increasing number of people diagnosed with Celiac Disease. However, a study by North Dakota State University found that there is no evidence that today’s hard red winter wheat (used in most breads) is more likely to cause Celiac Disease than heritage wheat. Information on that study can be found here. A video by Verify also debunked the theory that farmers are intentionally growing wheat with a higher gluten content. Watch that video here. A study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the body’s glycaemic, insulinaemic and GLP-1 (glucagon-like peptide 1) responses were the same after consuming an ancient wheat and a modern bread wheat. Read that study here.
There is scientific evidence that heritage wheat is just as likely to cause Celiac Disease as modern wheat.
The film delves deeper into wheat genetics by introducing fructans. Fructans are carbohydrates that contain short chains of fructose (fruit sugar) units and are found in 15% of all flowering plants and many of the foods we eat, including wheat, garlic, broccoli, pistachios and artichokes. What the documentary gets right is that fructans have been linked to intestinal issues. According to a study by Georgia Regents University, 24% of people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome are sensitive to fructans. (It also concludes that more information is needed before the effect of fructans can be properly diagnosed.) Read that study here. However, the documentary claims that the added fructose in our food comes from wheat fructans, when in fact, most added fructose (that does not occur naturally) comes from corn. Information about fructose is available in many peer-reviewed journals and articles, like this one.
Along the same line, the film talks about wheat being “in everything,” from vitamins to beauty products. It’s true, many vitamins contain maltodextrin or dextrose, both of which can be extracted from wheat, although they are also commonly extracted from corn, potatoes and rice. However, maltodextrin and dextrose are so highly processed that the end result is almost identical regardless of the source. A clear outline of this information is available on the Celiac Disease website. When it comes to beauty products, many people have reported reactions such as rashes after using shampoos, lotions and makeup containing gluten. According to Mayo Clinic, gluten cannot be absorbed through the skin, so beauty products containing gluten are safe for people with Celiac Disease. However, someone who experiences a reaction to these products may have a general allergy to wheat or another ingredient in the product and should see a doctor. It’s also a common side effect of Celiac Disease to have skin redness, itchiness and irritation, regardless of skin products used.
Maltodextrin and dextrose, sometimes extracted from wheat, are so highly processed that the end result is safe for people with Celiac Disease to consume.
Let’s address the claims made in the documentary about autoimmune diseases. There is a long explanation about how gluten creates holes in the intestinal tract, allowing undigested proteins to enter the bloodstream, which may cause the body to attack itself. The film credits cases of diabetes and coronary heart disease to the consumption of wheat. This study shows that there is no connection between the consumption of gluten and Type 1 diabetes, this preliminary study shows that gluten consumption may actually prevent Type 2 diabetes and this study shows that there is no connection between the consumption of gluten and heart disease. However, it’s easy to get mixed up about gluten and autoimmune diseases. Celiac is an autoimmune disease and there is plenty of information available that supports the theory that having Celiac can put someone at risk of developing other autoimmune diseases. But there is also information available showing the disconnection between actual gluten consumption and further development of autoimmune diseases. Read a study about that here.
Finally, there are also many comments made about farming practices and the effects of production agriculture on the environment. Specifically, the film calls out glyphosate, an ingredient in many herbicides including Roundup. According to the commentary, wheat absorbs the glyphosate and deposits the chemical into our bodies, causing a variety of health issues. While it’s true that some farmers apply glyphosate products to their fields to kill weeds, these applications only take place before, during or after planting, not during growing stages. There is a “pre-harvest treatment” option, which involves the producer spraying the field right before harvest, but this only occurs on about 3 percent of U.S. wheat acres and can only take place once the wheat kernel has matured completely. Once the kernel is matured, the wheat plant shuts down and no longer takes in nutrients from the soil, making it impenetrable to the glyphosate. There’s also the fact that less than 35 percent of U.S. wheat acres were treated with any glyphosate in 2016. There is more information about glyphosate available on the National Wheat Foundation blog, found here.
What we can appreciate is the film’s short discussion about gluten-free labels misrepresenting the nutritional content of food products. First of all, gluten-free breads, cakes, cookies and crackers are intended for people with Celiac Disease and are not healthier alternatives to foods containing wheat. In fact, most of these products have higher calorie and sodium counts, lower percentages of vitamins and minerals and contain additives to help with taste and texture. Second, many foods labeled with “gluten-free,” such as bacon, peanut butter and fruit juice, don’t contain gluten to begin with and should not be considered any healthier than they really are.
So what’s the conclusion? That science is constantly evolving and we are better able to understand how our bodies use the food we eat. Some scientists have studied the adverse effects of gluten on humans, while others have studied the health benefits of wheat. We believe that it takes diligent research and personal dedication to know exactly what’s right for your body, but we are doing our part to provide the information you need to make educated decisions.