Gluten-free products and companies are (thankfully) appearing all over the place today. Subway and Domino’s are two of the latest companies to test the market, and it appears that we’re entering a “Golden Age” for gluten-free consumers.
Our culture’s romance with gluten is finally on shaky ground, but it hasn’t always been that way. Only in the past decade or so have we started to reverse our infatuation with gluten. In fact, the history of gluten in the human diet spans 10,000 years and includes key characters like the Roman Empire, the Great Depression and even the U.S. Government!
We found the history of gluten interesting, so we thought you would to…
The Ancient History of Gluten
While gluten sensitivity was first suspected by Aretaeus of Cappadocia in the 3rd century A.D., it was only in the 20th century that celiac disease was truly discovered and named by the medical community. Although celiac disease is a relatively “new” diagnosis, the offending gluten protein has actually been around since ancient times.
About 10,000 years ago in Asia, grains first began to be cultivated by humans. Hunting and gathering gave way to farming. Early forms of wheat are believed to have been cultivated at least as early as 9000 B.C.E.
Spelt makes its first appearance in gluten’s history books around 5000 B.C.E. as evidence of its use was found along the Black Sea and in Central Europe. Spelt was distributed more widely across Europe in the Bronze and Iron ages and the Roman Empire was largely responsible for bringing large amounts of glutinous grains into Western Europe for the first time.
There are also biblical references to spelt, but today these references are believed to be about emmer wheat, another ancient grain. Both spelt and emmer wheat (faro) contain lower amounts of gluten than today’s wheat but are still far from gluten-free.
The reason why wheat hadn’t fully caught on yet was the amount of labor required to turn it into bread. Early forms of wheat were not frequently consumed by humans due to the heavy milling and cooking required. While some cultures did eat wheat berries or grind wheat into flour for certain uses, gluten consumption was not nearly as high as it is today.
The Industrial Revolution’s Huge Effect on the History of Gluten
It wasn’t until the 19th century that wheat was milled in large quantities and gluten assumed a more prominent place in the diet. As global transportation improved, railroads were built across America, and the industrial revolution progressed, it became easy and inexpensive to mill and distribute wheat flour.
During the Great Depression and World War II, pasta and bread were encouraged as inexpensive alternatives to the highly rationed foods like meat and dairy in the United States. This is when the country started its love affair with processed foods such as Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and Cream of Wheat cereal.
Wheat consumption rose in the 1960s when whole wheat products were touted as health foods, and then again in the late 70s and early 80s when fast food became prevalent. In the 1990s, the USDA’s first “Food Pyramid” placed wheat products along the base of the pyramid, instructing Americans to base their diets around bread, pasta, and other grain products. Today wheat is the most widely grown crop in the world, and in the United States most people consume it at every single meal.
The Modern History of Gluten
Some doctors and scientists hypothesize that the quickly skyrocketing increase of wheat’s share in the human diet over the last 150 years is part of why celiac disease has become so common. There is further conjecture that the newer strains of wheat further contribute to this because they are bred to contain higher gluten content than the wheat of ancient times.
Whether or not this is true, gluten continues to proliferate in the human diet, including in regions that previously based their diets around other staples. Over time, research may show that such high gluten intake is not healthy for anyone, but what we already know for sure is that gluten continues to be truly toxic for people with celiac disease and can irritate the digestive systems of people with non-celiac gluten intolerances, irritable bowel syndrome, and other conditions.
Fortunately, delicious gluten-free foods are increasingly available across the developed world. We are seeing the history of gluten changed right before our eyes, and it’s only continuing to get better.