Gluten Avoidance: Myth or Reality



By Cat, July 2015 (Photo, right, from Wikimedia Commons)

A journalist friend shared an article from the New York Times with me, wanting my input on its content. The article is titled The Myth of Big, Bad Gluten (1). What follows is my response concerning human use of grains and other wild seeds prior to the advent of agriculture, and how they dealt with gluten and other problems in grains; also how deviating from the tried and true practices of ancient humans, has negatively affected overall health of modern humans.

See also: 1. Soaking/Sprouting/Fermenting Grains, Legumes, Nuts & Seeds (Intro); Alternate title: Why Soak, Sprout, or Ferment Grains (About); 2. Grains, Flours & Starches (About) MenuOther Sites: The Myth of Big, Bad Gluten (1)

First off, even though humans didn’t start raising crops (i.e. agriculture) until about 12,000 years ago, there is archeological evidence that the hunter-gatherers gathered wild seeds (including grains) and ground them to use as flour, long before agriculture became a way of life. This is mentioned in the article: (1)

Wheat was first domesticated in southeastern Anatolia perhaps 11,000 years ago. (An archaeological site in Israel, called Ohalo II, indicates that people have eaten wild grains, like barley and wheat, for much longer — about 23,000 years.)


It wouldn’t have taken too many generations before they discovered that eating the grains raw caused gastro-intestinal issues (includes gluten and other sources of trouble in the grains). And they would have discovered around the same time that when their ground seeds got wet, the resulting product, if eaten a day or so later, would not cause those gastro intestinal issues (or, at least, they would not be as bad). This is because the seeds, even ground seeds, would have begun the chemical processes associated with germination: the freeing of minerals to activate enzymes, which then break down the mildly problematic substances in the un-germinated grain. (this process using ground seeds is called pre-soak). If left long enough in the wet state, they would begin to ferment, making what we now call ‘sourdough.’

Additionally, whole seeds (not ground), if they got wet in dark storage (such as in baskets they carried), would sprout, which starts and completes the process of germination.

All of these processes that required moisture and darkness alter the protein complex called ‘gluten,’ as well as other proteins. Sprouting and fermentation are the most effective of these processes, which is one reason why sprouted-grain flour and sourdough do not rise as well as white bread.

Therefore, I don’t think early humans, both before and after agriculture was begun, had much problems with gluten unless they ate the grains raw (untreated with moisture and dark).

OK, now back to the article. I do agree with this: (1)

Here’s the lesson: Adaptation to a new food stuff can occur quickly — in a few millenniums in this case. So if it happened with milk [adult humans adapted to milk consumption by not losing their lactase enzymes after infancy), why not with wheat? 
“If eating wheat was so bad for us, it’s hard to imagine that populations that ate it would have tolerated it for 10,000 years,” Sarah A. Tishkoff, a geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies lactase persistence, told me.


However, I would say that all seeds contain toxins and other problematic substances intended to protect the seed from being eaten by creatures, so that it can eventually germinate and perpetuate the species. The gluten complex is one of these, as also WGA (wheat germ agglutinnin), which is not related to gluten but similarly causes digestive distress in humans and other creatures. Fermentation of the seed is the best way to diminish the amount of WGA in the seed.

I am amused by the statement, in reference to celiac-linked gene variants, as it is Darwin’s theory (survival of the fittest) in practice: (1)

People who had who had them, in other words, had some advantage compared with those who didn’t.


I think there is truth to this – the celiac gene has helped people survive. I am also  intrigued by the paragraphs about the prevalence of celiac disease, and how it goes up and down over time, then ends with this:

Whatever the eventual answer, just-so stories about what we evolved eating, and what that means, blind us to this bigger, and really much more worrisome, problem: The modern immune system appears to have gone on the fritz. Maybe we should stop asking what’s wrong with wheat, and begin asking what’s wrong with us. (1)

Amen to that.

I believe that humans only began to have serious trouble with grains and gluten when processed white flour became popular in the late 1800s, followed shortly by the development of baker’s yeast. These two factors enabled humans to give up the healthful treatment of grains (presoak, fermentation and sprouting) and overly indulge in white breads, etc. that did not provide the safety/protection provided by these ancient methods. People were exposed to untreated gluten, and there the serious troubles began. (NOTE that this same development is also likely to be an important cause-factor in rampant type-2 diabetes and childhood obesity).

The “Myth…“article focuses on celiac, but there  is a more prevalent problem with humans eating grains: gluten sensitivity. Not a whole lot is known about food sensitivities; that is, about what causes them, and why they can appear suddenly and disappear as suddenly in the same individual. Many people think its just a fad, and certainly there is that aspect. But it is also a reality for those who suffer from the sensitivity.

I don’t have gluten sensitivity, but I do have a sensitivity to MSG that causes intestinal distress that is nearly as bad as celiac. And it’s not just MSG in the spice bottle; the yeast that produces MSG for commercial use (bakers yeast) also triggers the same MSG sensitivity in me, unless it is used in bread dough that is baked before eating.

The human reaction to intolerances and sensitivities is to avoid the troublesome substance, and I admit, I do that too. But in doing so, we are ignoring the more important thing yet to be discovered: why do we develop sensitivities – does it have implications on the future of homo sapiens? Will we find a way to use these sensitivities to our benefit?

In summary, and to get back to the central topic in the article, as in its title: The Myth of Big, Bad Gluten; yes, I would say that gluten is not as bad as it is painted to be, and it is pretty much misunderstood because of the fear it creates in those who cannot tolerate it. We have a lot to learn from gluten intolerance and sensitivity.

Perhaps we will re-learn what our ancient ancestors once learned: the importance of soaking, sprouting and/or fermenting grains and other seeds before consuming them in any quantity.


  1. NY Times, The Myth of Big, Bad Gluten, b

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