Heritage Wheat

Heritage Wheat: Is It Safe for Gluten-Sensitive People?

Some people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity are finding they can eat foods with heritage (or heirloom) wheat.

Recently at a nutrition training session for psychotherapists, I was outlining the neurological and psychological symptoms associated with non-celiac gluten sensitivity when a debate erupted in the audience. One therapist reported that increasing numbers of her clients were taking gluten out of their diets and feeling better. A few audience members nodded their heads in agreement. Then a clinician in the front row crossed her arms over her chest and bellowed, “Isn’t this whole gluten-free movement just another dietary fad?”

The fad question inevitably arises whenever the subject of gluten-free living comes up. I explained that, unfortunately, the rising number of people reacting to gluten is not a fad.

While not safe for those with celiac disease, people with gluten sensitivity may be able to supplement their diet with heritage wheat, an idea that most should find easy to digest.

Researchers theorize more people are reacting to gluten because modern day wheat is dramatically different from the wheat grown 50 years ago. Farmers have selectively bred wheat species for specific traits for hundreds of years but in the 1960s, hybridization became a science. Scientists skillfully created wheat with the specific characteristics manufacturers and farmers wanted, such as bigger crop yields, disease resistance and even better baking characteristics.

The gluten molecule’s ability to capture air bubbles is what makes bread so stretchy and soft. While there is fierce debate over whether or not today’s wheat contains more gluten than the wheat of yore, we do know people today consume much more gluten because it’s added to many processed food products.

We also know that an analysis of 80 varieties of wheat found that modern wheat contains higher levels of two celiac disease epitopes. An epitope is the reactive part of a molecule, in this case, the wheat molecule that stimulates the immune system to respond. White blood cells respond to the epitope (sometimes referred to as an antigen), triggering symptoms. Selective breeding may or may not have increased the amount of gluten in wheat but hybridization* has definitely increased wheat’s reactive properties.

As I finished explaining gluten reactions, an audience member spoke up. “After ten years of being gluten-sensitive, I heard about a pizza parlor that only used a special wheat flour from Italy. The owners swear people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity can eat their pizza.”

The audience was all ears.

“Another gluten-sensitive friend and I were doubtful but we decided to try it,” she continued. “Neither of us had any symptoms whatsoever. We were so happy to eat regular pizza that we returned every night for a week!”

The flour used by that pizza restaurant was Caputo 00, a finely ground flour with a medium-level gluten content of 12.5 percent. High gluten flour isn’t much higher (14 to 15 percent), so low gluten content is unlikely the explanation for the unexpected tolerance.

I decided to do my own experiment. I ordered Caputo flour over the Internet and made several batches of simple cookies with it, using only organic ingredients. I approached three people I knew who had become glutesensitive as adults but did not have celiac disease. (People with celiac disease should not eat wheat products of any type.) They all agreed to try the cookies. After eating them, none of these people had their typical reactions.

My little experiment is similar to many anecdotal reports of people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity successfully consuming heritage wheat varieties without reacting. These ancient versions of wheat, also called heirloom wheat, have not been subject to the rigorous crossbreeding and aggressive hybridization of conventional modern grains.

There is a growing movement of farmers, bakers and consumers experimenting with heritage grains as a way to address non-celiac gluten sensitivity. The Heritage Grain Conservancy (growseed.org), a 25-year-old organization that preserves almost-extinct seeds, reports the demand has been overwhelming.

While not safe for those with celiac disease, people with gluten sensitivity may be able to supplement their diet with heritage wheat, an idea that most should find easy to digest.

Written by Kelly Dorfman, originally published in Gluten Free & More.

Tags: Gluten Sensitivity
  1. Chris
    July 16, 2021

    Do you know which brand this was?

    1. Gluten Free & More
      July 19, 2021

      Do you mean what brand of flour? If so, it mentions Caputo 00 in the article.

  2. Michael
    September 10, 2021

    I’m 46, I just went through 6 months of green BM, and reactions to gluten for the first time in my life

    No idea to what was wrong with me I thought it was one of the IBS types.

    After 6 months of trials with foods it turns out I have celiac. No wheat products whatsoever. Even the miniscule amount of wheat in soy sauce triggered it. It’s crazy how much every product has wheat in it even corn tortillas can have wheat.

    3/4 Irish 1/4 German, turns out Celiac comes from Scandinavians and Vikings genes Celiac originally started with Scandinavians in Europe.

  3. Michele
    October 8, 2021

    I am afraid to try because of the past reactions of gluten- I am gluten sensitive. I just don’t like that awful horrifying pain I endured

  4. Diggity
    April 7, 2022

    Yes! This has been my experience exactly! I have suffered from gluten intolerance for decades. It causes massive indigestion, within 15 minutes or so of consumption, followed by cramps and feeling sick a few hours later when it comes out the other end, so to speak. My father has the same reaction. My son got gluten headaches so bad he got nauseous. We have since found that we can all eat Caputo flour with no problems!

    And it’s not just Caputo either. For prepared pasta, we eat Rao’s brand, which doesn’t bother us either, and tastes delicious. We have also tried other dry pastas from Italy with success, although I cannot remember the brand names at the moment. It seems to be that if the wheat was grown in Italy, we can eat it. I have also tried Francine flour from France and that did not bother me either, although I only tried it once and that was a few years ago, so I’d want to try it again to confirm.

    What’s more, we have been to Europe numerous times and we can usually eat wheat there as well. There were 2 exceptions – both times I ate packaged snack products containing wheat and got sick. Which tells me the Europeans use good flour at restaurants, but may occasionally use bad flour for fast food and packaged products.

    France and Italy (and perhaps other countries as well), simply use different varieties of wheat than we grow here in America. The wheat in European fields grows only about 2 feet high, whereas over here in the ‘States it grows 5 feet high. Why? It is a different plant! A different variety of wheat that produces nasty reactions in some people like me.

    Our experience is not unique. It is well known that many gluten sensitive travelers to Europe happily discover that they can eat the wheat there. I have heard some people theorize that it is because the Europeans use less Roundup and other chemicals, or because of the so-called “vacation effect,” of having less stress for a week. Nice theories, but they are wrong. As I said, Europe simply grows different varieties of wheat. Just like there are different varieties of beans, or tomatoes, or lettuce or whatever, there are different types of wheat as well. The variety of wheat grown in Europe is not the same as the variety grown here. Period.

    Side note about Einkorn wheat – we found we could eat it without problems too. The only problem is that it is expensive and frankly doesn’t taste as good as Caputo and other Italian or French wheat flours.

    This needs to be talked about more. It’s not just me and my family. I have heard sooooo many similar stories. I can’t even imagine how much money is wasted in the healthcare system each year, how many unnecessary procedures, how much pain and discomfort, when the problem all along was that American wheat is a slow poison!

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