Digestion Part 7: History of Gluten


Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. In the era of processed foods it’s also found in thickeners and fillers, in salad dressing and soup. I’ve written a brief description of gluten in a previous post. The history of gluten is the history of grains.

Humans started eating grains when we began farming 10,000 years ago. The agricultural revolution was a seminal moment in the evolution of human society. Food could be created and stored in one place, meaning hunting and a nomadic lifestyle were less important. Small, mobile groups of hunter-gatherers created communities which became the first societies. With their improved knowledge transfer, the specialisation of labour, and administrative institutions, these communities were larger and more efficient than the hunter-gatherer communities that they replaced.

So grains played a crucial role in the development of human society, but Loren Cordain has described them as “Humanity’s Double-Edged Sword”. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to feed the planet and civilisation might not be so civil. However eating grains creates so many problems, some of which I’ve discussed before. Insulin disregulation, appetite dysregulation, AGEs, leaky gut…pretty much everything else in your diet is negotiable, depending on your personal characteristics, but consuming wheat, barley, or rye is never optimal.


If grains are so harmful, how is it that human society has managed to thrive over this period?


Firstly, older grains are different to today’s grains. We have developed seeds that can protect themselves from predators, resist floods, and produce much larger yields. We also refine grains, and bleach them to make them whiter. Similar changes can be seen in fruit. Today’s apples and bananas are much sweeter than their ancestors. I’m grateful for scientific improvements that have helped to feed hundreds of millions more people, but that doesn’t make them optimal. Two slices of today’s wholewheat bread raise blood sugar by more than a Snickers bar. Grains are better than nothing, but not much else.

A second issue is that ancient cultures often cooked their grains before eating. Fermenting, soaking and sprouting were all common. These preparation techniques reduce the harmful effects of gluten. You can find out more about them here.

Building on the work of Dicke and Fasano, we now know that gluten is associated with a range of diseases, most notably Celiac Disease. We also know that the rate of such diseases is increasing. In the next post I’ll discuss some of these pathways.