Need to avoid gluten? Or wondering why so many people say wheat is bad? Nutritionist Naomi Devlin looks at why people around the world seem to be increasingly sensitive to wheat, and who does - and doesn't - need to avoid gluten.
Naomi Devlin

29 Jan 2016 - 10:55 AM  UPDATED 13 Mar 2019 - 11:48 AM

Modern Western diets are liberally sprinkled with wheat, so if you suffer when you eat gluten it is important to know where you might find it. However, before looking at gluten in detail, a little history can help to explain why people around the world might be increasingly wheat sensitive. We have been cultivating wheat for about 10,000 years in Europe, which on the face of it seems an awfully long time. Yet modern humans were hunter-gatherers for about 200,000 years before they settled down to cultivate. At first, they just ate what seeds they could find, and gradually began to find that some were better than others. They eventually cultivated the ancestors of juicy modern wheat from tough, wild grasses with small, hard seeds. Some relatives of these early grains such as einkorn, emmer, spelt and durum wheat are still grown around the world, but the wheat that the West consumes is, almost exclusively, common wheat (Triticum aestivum), a cultivar that contains chromosomes from all these ancient relatives.

Interestingly, common wheat has a glycaemic index similar to sugar and a greater tendency to raise blood sugar than ancient varieties.

Common wheat has been selectively bred by farmers from a combination of the ancient wheat strains into a grain with a very complex genetic structure. Earlier versions were lower in gluten, higher in protein and had a close-fitting hull that made threshing difficult. Common wheat has been bred to increase the grain size, gluten content and starchiness, and for easier threshing. The issue with all this selective breeding is that the type of wheat our bodies got used to, which had stayed roughly similar for thousands of years, changed quite radically over the course of a couple of hundred years as farmers became more skilled at plant breeding.

With a more complex genetic structure, there are new elements in common wheat that our immune systems can react to. This may explain why some people react adversely to common wheat and yet they can eat some spelt or emmer bread without issues. Interestingly, common wheat has a glycaemic index similar to sugar and a greater tendency to raise blood sugar than ancient varieties. Coeliac sufferers would still react to ancient varieties of wheat as they contain gluten, but others may find that seeking them out is worth it. It is possible to find einkorn and emmer flour for sale, and spelt is now commonly available.

As grain evolved, so did baking methods. All whole grains naturally contain the wild yeasts and lactic bacteria necessary to start fermentation; breads and pastries made using these, rather than cultivated yeast, are known as ‘sourdough’. When the grain is mixed with water, the yeasts start to digest the starch in the grain, while the bacteria digest the various anti-nutrients that can interfere with digestion and absorption of nutrients. For thousands of years, people around the world have been using this type of fermentation to make porridges, puddings and breads that are easy to digest, with a deeply savoury flavour.

All European breads were sourdough until the middle of the twentieth century, when we discovered how to isolate the most aggressive yeast strain, baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), and we embraced it wholeheartedly to make lighter, sweeter breads. When sourdough was the norm, it was seen as a sign of social status to eat fluffy white bread, so we aspired to leave our heavy sourdough loaves behind as we climbed the social ladder. In the late nineteenth century, when bicarbonate of soda became commercially available, bakers were also able to make soda bread: this is the least digestible of all bread types – gluten free or not – as it eliminates the need for any sort of fermentation at all.

The problem with this quantum shift in bread making is that by editing out the bacteria, and cultivating yeast for speed and growth, we lost the most beneficial aspect of the sourdough process: the removal of anti-nutrients and hydrolysis (breaking down) of gluten. Modern bread is fluffy but often, paradoxically, difficult to digest. Made from genetically complex wheat, it contains all the things that our ancestors had managed to remove through years of experimentation.

Happily, sourdough is enjoying a much-needed renaissance and can now be bought in many bakeries and supermarkets. Recent studies of sourdough have shown that after a long ferment, most of the gluten has been digested and broken down by the bacteria into a form that is much less likely to trigger reactions. Coeliac sufferers, however, should wait to see more evidence before chomping through a slice of standard sourdough!

Coeliac disease and gluten intolerance

You could imagine gluten sensitivity as one of those paint colour charts, ranging from deep blue to bluebell white. Where you are on that chart will depend on lots of factors: your genetic heritage, DNA, stress levels and general health. At one end are people who don’t have to avoid gluten but notice that they feel lighter and more energetic if they do. At the other end are those who have autoimmune reactions to gluten, and possibly many other substances too. Gluten proteins can be difficult to digest for everyone, so unless you have a cast-iron constitution, chances are that you show up somewhere on the paint chart.

Gluten is a protein complex found in the following grains: wheat (and all wheat relatives such as spelt, emmer, einkorn, kamut and farro), rye and barley. There is also a type of gluten found in oats called avenin, which some people react to and others do not. People may react to all gluten proteins (gliadin in wheat, secalin in rye, hordelin in barley and avenin in oats), or they may react to some, depending on their particular intolerance.

With coeliac disease, gluten proteins cause an autoimmune reaction in the gut, destroying the little villi that absorb nutrients and often resulting in malnutrition. Symptoms can be wide ranging, from fatigue and joint pains to painful gastrointestinal issues and skin conditions. The treatment is to avoid gluten for the rest of your life (no great hardship, in my opinion). Many coeliac sufferers can tolerate oats that have been screened for gliadin contamination from wheat, even though they contain avenin naturally – these are called gluten free oats.

If you have coeliac disease, it is important that your flours and other ingredients are not contaminated with gluten during their processing. Some flour may have been contaminated in the field, mill or processing plant, although it comes from an inherently gluten free source. Aim to use ingredients that you know are 100 per cent gluten free.

Rose and pistachio cake

Although distinctions are often drawn between those who have coeliac disease and those who do not, I am wary of lumping everyone into the same camp, because it appears that someone without coeliac disease can also have autoimmune reactions to grains and gluten. For example, the tests for coeliac don’t show up for people with a newly discovered condition called “non coeliac gluten sensitivity” (NCGS), even though they may react to even smaller amounts of gluten than those with coeliac disease. The symptoms appear to be more neurological than the gastrointestinal issues that are common with coeliac disease. If you suspect this might be you, even if you do not have a diagnosis, it’s worth finding a doctor who understands the condition.

For those who can eat a bit of gluten and feel fine, but notice that increased quantities trigger bloating and tiredness, my new book River Cottage Gluten Free will open up a world of alternative flours and baking methods to extend your repertoire. You are lucky, in that you won’t need to be so careful about obtaining your ingredients from a certified gluten free source. Increasing the number of grains you eat reduces over reliance on the same few that make up the modern diet and can help with intolerance issues. Check out sourdough bread, soak your porridge overnight to reduce anti-nutrients and eat as many vegetables as you can – you’ll soon feel the difference.

This is an edited extract from River Cottage Gluten Free by Naomi Devlin (Bloomsbury, hbk, $45). 

Cook the book 

Author Naomi Devlin has been gluten-free for more than a decade; as a coeliac, she understands the emotional and kitchen challenges facing those diagnosed with the disease. But as Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall says in his introduction to this additon to the River Cottage book stable, a lot of people choose to eat less gluten for other reasons. "Whatever your reason for choosing to eliminate or reduce gluten, you will doubless come up against the view that doing so is a penance... you may even find yourself taking a step away from nourishing, delicious food." It shouldn't be the case, he says - while learning to cook can be a challenge, it can also lead you to "delicious, simple, health-enhancing food". 

River Cottage Gluten Free covers a lot of the topics that face those who need or want to avoid gluten, from the evolution of wheat to when going gluten-free doesn't work, the benefits of soaking and fermenting and the many types of gluten-free flours. There are also 120 recipes for sweet and savoury gluten-free dishes, from breakfast risotto to 11 different breads, tarts, cakes and puddings, and savoury dishes such as lasagne and fish pie. Here are three to try:


1. Almond flatbread

2. Chocolate and chestnut fondant

3. Rose and pistachio cake

Images from River Cottage Gluten Free by Naomi Devlin (Bloomsbury, hbk, $45). Author photograph by Philiy Page.