Into the future: Wheat-free faddism and global food security

by Julie Mollins | @jmollins | CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center)
Tuesday, 17 March 2015 20:52 GMT

Wheat test trials at the El Batan, Mexico, headquarters of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). CIMMYT/Julie Mollins

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Gluten-free diets are “the new cool eating disorder, the ‘basically I just don’t eat carbs’ diet,’” said actor Jennifer Lawrence in an interview published in “Vanity Fair” magazine.

The remarks made by the star of science fiction film “The Hunger Games” (2012) pinpoint the controversy surrounding fad diets that urge the elimination of wheat and its protein, gluten.

“The Hunger Games,” like grim dystopian films “Snowpiercer” (2013) and the grisly “Soylent Green” (1973), imagine the complexities of food provision and access amid future pressures of population growth, conflict, climate change, land shortages, political mismanagement, economic disparity and class hierarchies.

In real life, many of these challenges already exist. U.N. food agencies and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimate that at least 800 million people do not get enough food to eat and that more than 2 billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiency, or “hidden hunger.”

Arguments regarding the supposed dangers of wheat consumption, which accounts for 20 percent of the total calories and protein from plants consumed by people worldwide, discredit the vital role it plays in nutrition and food security. Such arguments also undermine efforts by scientists, governments and intergovernmental agencies to boost global food security through projects to develop high-yielding, disease and climate resilient varieties of wheat.

The U.N. projects that global population will increase from about 7.2 billion today to more than 9 billion by 2050, which means that the successes and failures of wheat farmers will continue to have a crucial impact on food security.

By 2050, demand for wheat is expected to increase by 60 percent, and estimates indicate that annual wheat yield increases must grow from the current level of below 1 percent to at least 1.6 percent, according to the Wheat Initiative.

The popularity of wheat-free diets has grown largely due to claims published in such books as “Wheat Belly” by William Davis and “Brain Grain” by David Perlmutter, and in stories asserting that wheat products are the cause of most health problems. Well-established medical and nutritional advice is cast aside and dietary guidelines established by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization overlooked.

To a large degree, anti-wheat arguments are based on imaginings of what dietary practices were like for early human hunter-gatherers before farmers began to domesticate wild grasses, creating wheat, which led to a more secure food supply and the capacity to develop sedentary societies.

“Gluten-free” is a burgeoning industry. Sales have risen 63 percent since 2012, with 4,599 products introduced last year, according to the January 2015 issue of “Consumer Reports” magazine.

For such nutritionists as Julie Miller Jones this is a worrying trend because wheat offers important health benefits. As a relatively inexpensive food staple, which may be consumed, for example, in the form of bread, it provides a filling base that can accompany other more costly nutritious foods.

Wheat and gluten-free diets may not provide enough fiber, Miller Jones said in a review of “Wheat Belly.” Excluding cereal grains would result in a fiber-intake deficit far below the recommended amount needed to maintain a healthy digestive system.

“The average gluten-free diet contains only 6 g of dietary fiber per day,” Miller Jones wrote. “This is considerably lower than the 25-38 (female-male) g/day recommended by the Institutes of Medicine. In addition, a number of benefits are associated with cereal fiber…Vegetables and nuts are important sources of fiber, substitution of nuts or a serving of carrots for two slices of whole-wheat bread provides about the same amount of dietary fiber, but a serving of greens (1 cup of raw spinach) provides much less fiber.”

These diets may have short-term weight-loss benefits, but overall are unsuccessful in keeping obesity at bay, Miller Jones said.

“While it is true that such diets have been shown to cause more rapid weight loss than other diets in the initial six months following such a regimen, they do not result in greater weight loss over time and result in more dropouts than other diet types that are more balanced and do not eliminate entire food groups,” Miller Jones said.

Fad-diet hyperbole about wheat consumption might cause worry and unnecessary health fears among all sectors of society, but it is the poor and low-waged that may suffer most. Many poor families rely on bread, rice or maize and legumes to supplement their diets.

“The world has over 50,000 edible plants,” according to the FAO. “Just three of them, rice, maize and wheat provide 60 percent of the world’s food energy intake.”

Eliminating wheat consumption could lead to reliance on more expensive foods, which are in short supply or impossible to produce on a global scale to meet dietary needs, Miller Jones said.

“Even if we did decide to abandon wheat as a dietary staple, we don’t have the turnaround time, the availability or the quantity of foods that have been recommended as alternatives in anti-gluten fad diets,” she added.

“When developed nations say they are not going to eat something because of a particular issue in that food, that food has been rejected as food aid in some of the developing countries, so this really has some potentially harmful results that no one really initially intended,” Jones said.

“The scientific evidence behind many of the most popular wheat- and carbohydrate-free diets is surprisingly thin and selectively used,” according to a report from Britain’s University of Warwick.

“The low-carbohydrate diet has now generated its own industry and new product development in the “free from” sector means that a typical low cereal and carbohydrate diet may cost more yet deliver less,” it said.

“Apart from the 1 percent of the population who suffer from celiac disease and the other 1 percent who suffer from some other form of sensitivity to wheat, the evidence to suggest that consumption of whole grain wheat products is good for individuals is overwhelmingly positive and consumption of whole grain will increase both health and help to maintain a healthy body weight.”

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