Beyond Wheat, Barley, and Rye: Factors Affecting Gluten Sensitivity in the U.S vs. Europe

EDITOR’S SUMMARY: Multiple scenarios exist that might explain why consuming gluten in Europe is easier on the digestive system, versus eating similar foods in the United States. One’s response and tolerance (or lack thereof) to gluten is individual, and may or may not reflect your personal experience. The research attempts to connect the dots between the contrasts and outcomes. Greater clarity and insights will surely be revealed as additional studies are implemented over time.

Amidst the surging wave of gluten sensitivity, it’s become somewhat of a phenomenon that while you may have difficulty digesting gluten products in the U.S., bakery-hopping in the U.K. may not give you cause for concern. Differences in wheat production on both continents emerge, along with food regulations and chemical processes. The contrast suggests potential reasons for feeling inexplicably better while savoring European pastries, compared to their American equivalents. 

Gluten Intolerance: Gluten, a protein found predominantly in wheat (including spelt, kamut, triticale, and all other varieties of wheat), barley, and rye, is present in hundreds of food products around the world. These include but are not limited to bread, pasta, muffins, cookies, cakes, pizza, cereals, beer, and other hidden sources

According to Gastroenterologist Alberto Rubio Tapia, M.D., non-celiac gluten intolerance is different from celiac disease and wheat allergies in the following ways:

  • Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that damages your small intestine when you consume gluten.
  • A wheat allergy affects your immune system from an overreaction to wheat consumption; this can be life-threatening.
  • Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS)/gluten intolerance/gluten sensitivity occurs when your body reacts negatively to gluten consumption, but you don’t test positive for celiac disease. 

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is a condition that occurs when the small intestine reacts unfavorably to gluten protein following ingestion. This reaction damages the lining of your small intestine over time, leading to nutrient malabsorption. Gluten sensitivity can also produce a wide array of symptoms, ranging from modest reactions such as fatigue, bloating, constipation, stomach cramps, and diarrhea, to much more serious difficulties including weight loss, skin problems, autoimmune disorders, and intestinal damage. Gluten intolerance affects approximately 1 in every 133 Americans. Unfortunately, if you find yourself contending with this condition, you may discover that diagnoses are frequently amiss or altogether absent. Unraveling the underlying causes behind your perplexing symptoms could in fact extend over several years.

Differences in Wheat Production

The differences in wheat production in Europe vs. the United States provide the first indication of what might be a factor in how you respond to gluten. With its 27 member nations, the European Union (EU) established the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This was a crucial step in bringing agriculture and society together to support European farmers in several ways, and to promote responsible management of natural resources. From the European Commission, Agriculture and rural development, “The common agricultural policy [CAP] at a glance”:

“The EU is known throughout the world for its food and culinary traditions and is one of the world’s leading producers and net exporters of agri-food products. Due to its exceptional agricultural resources the EU could and should play a key role in ensuring food security for the world at large.”

This comprehensive policy aimed to uphold rural landscapes, foster economic viability, and stimulate employment in farming, agri-food industries, and related sectors. It’s important to keep the CAP in mind when discussing family farms in Europe, given that a substantial 94.8% of the EU’s farms are family-owned. In addition, there is a unique stipulation that requires at least half of the workforce to be familial.  

In the context of farm size, the average European family farm spans only 47 hectares (approximately 116 acres), significantly smaller than their counterparts in the United States (464 acres). These small farms tend to have greater diversification of crops, are less focused on self-provisioning, and seek to protect biodiversity—indicating the health of an ecosystem.  

Consider the small farms that typically employ “peasant agriculture.” Through the production of food, a peasant farmer is someone who connects intimately with the land and surrounding nature, and considers themself a steward. They are keen to have a respectful relationship with humans, animals, and plants. Standards are set high for food sustainability, including adjusting farming techniques based on local conditions. And since food is “information,” and not simply calories for fuel, the source of where it all begins is influential on the bites you take, and how your gut responds.

Farmers, growers, production facilities, and essentially the entire EU community, are positioned to put food production at the forefront of society’s best interests. Simply defined, smaller farms result in less detrimental effects on the environment, including soil erosion, and the depletion of freshwater resources. In terms of pesticide use, a number of widely-used and previously approved pesticides are now forbidden in the EU. This occurred as a result of unanticipated and unacceptable risks that surfaced after the products were first released onto the market. 

Consequently, this guarantees the implementation of more sustainable farming methods and fewer health risks. Forward-thinking government agencies play a pivotal role in promoting healthier food outcomes, cleaner food options, and a general understanding that farming practices must prioritize the well-being of consumers. 

Consider the larger, industrial farms in America, which often cultivate higher percentages of red wheat—a heartier variety that can withstand various farming conditions—making it ideal for large-scale wheat production. Alternatively, Europe predominantly favors white wheat, well-suited for softer foods like pastries and pasta. This distinction, however, is not without consequence, as red wheat boasts a higher gluten level.

Adopting cleaner farming practices, coupled with the cultivation of wheat varieties prevalent in the European Union, elucidates why certain wheat forms in Europe might be more digestible. The synergy between progressive agricultural policies and strategic crop choices could potentially revolutionize the way food production is approached on a global scale. From “The Road to Green 4: Changing the way we farm – good for people and the planet”:

“​​In particular, the EU aims to reduce by 50% the overall use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers, reduce antimicrobials for farmed animals and in aquaculture by 50%, boost organic farming and bring back nature to agricultural areas.”

Take a look at a small, old time pasta shop in Italy, who by law uses durum wheat semolina only. Processed with cold water, this variety of wheat is higher in nutrients than your typical all-purpose flour. The pasta is hand-dried slowly, and thus, the quantity produced daily is significantly less than in big factories. On the other hand, large-scale, fast-paced production teams typically allocate less energy toward producing high-quality, nutrient-dense products. According to this pasta maker, these elements make gluten digestion far easier in Italy. The quality of flour you use does make a difference. From “Is Italian flour really better for you?”:

“As for flour, the European laws are ridiculously simple. 100% grain and nothing else. You cannot add any other organic or inorganic substance of any kind, nor treat the flour with any physical or chemical agent.

In the USA, on the other hand, flour can be treated with a long list of bleaching and aging agents: oxides of nitrogen, chlorine, nitrosyl chloride, chlorine dioxide, azodicarbonamide (the same chemical used to make yoga mats and shoe soles), and various benzoyl peroxide solutions. (You can also toss in some a-amylase to extend the shelf-life and some ascorbic acid as a dough conditioner.)”

gluten gut health

More Pesticides in the United States 

Aside from localized farming techniques and distinct varieties of wheat, differences in herbicide and pesticide usage may explain why gluten is friendlier on your digestive system in European countries. Glyphosate is a contentious, yet widely used broad-spectrum herbicide that has been utilized for decades. With conflicting perspectives on human and animal safety, numerous government agencies disagree on the optimal limits for human use. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established glyphosate limitations, and the FDA’s responsibility is to guarantee that you do not exceed those limits. The FDA has raised the permissible threshold of glyphosate for wheat by a factor of five from 2012 to 2015, hence increasing the “likelihood” of glyphosate contamination in flour.

One way you can navigate your glyphosate exposure is by testing with a home self-test kit. However, it’s worth asking if the tolerance levels themselves should be questioned. The fact that many tolerances of pesticides are deemed “safe” doesn’t explain the impact on humanity, noted in communities outside mainstream glyphosate supporters. 

Although the World Economic Forum (WEF), the United Nations Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR), and regulatory agencies in the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, and the European Union all agree that glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic, multiple studies show a variety of symptoms in both humans and animals. In fact, Monsanto hid and falsified data that their product, RoundUp, caused non-Hodgkin lymphoma in humans. Stated in “Roundup Trial: Monsanto Used Fake Data to Win Over Regulators”: 

“Wisner emphasized to the jury that Roundup does not come with a cancer warning on the label, nor does it instruct residential users to wear protective clothing or equipment while spraying it. Monsanto’s old television commercials meanwhile depicted consumers spraying Roundup in sleeveless t-shirts and shorts, leading the Pilliods to believe it was safe.

But Monsanto knew all along it wasn’t, Wisner said. The company has known for 40 years that Roundup causes tumors in rodents and for 20 years that it causes non-Hodgkin lymphoma in humans, but refused to include a cancer warning to safeguard the enormous profits generated by the most widely used herbicide in the world.”

From Berkeley Public Health, “Childhood exposure to common herbicide may increase the risk of disease in young adulthood”:

“New research from the UC Berkeley School of Public Health shows that childhood exposure to the world’s most widely used weed killer, glyphosate, is linked to liver inflammation and metabolic disorder in early adulthood, which could lead to liver cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease later in life.” 

In addition, recent studies also showed that fish exposed to glyphosate have digestive issues that mimic celiac disease. In “Glyphosate, pathways to modern diseases II: Celiac sprue and gluten intolerance”:

“The evidence from this effect on fish suggests that glyphosate may interfere with the breakdown of complex proteins in the human stomach, leaving larger fragments of wheat in the human gut that will then trigger an autoimmune response, leading to the defects in the lining of the small intestine that are characteristic of these fish exposed to glyphosate and of celiac patients.”

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which ordered that glyphosate be phased out by December 2022 [it wasn’t], may face opposition in light of the European Chemicals Agency’s (ECHA) assertion that glyphosate is not carcinogenic (but may be toxic to aquatic life and even cause possible eye damage in humans). Only a few European countries have outright banned glyphosate (France, Belgium, Netherlands, and Russia), and Germany has banned it only in public spaces. It is also banned in Asia, and although many other nations have tried to ban it, their decisions were eventually overturned.

Regardless of whether glyphosate is outright prohibited in Europe or not, one thing is certain: The quantity of glyphosate utilized on European farms is considerably less than that which is utilized on American farms. From “Glyphosate Use in the European Agricultural Sector and a Framework for Its Further Monitoring”:

“The volume of glyphosate sold [in the EU] in 2014 to the agricultural sector was estimated at 48,549 [tons] which is 7% of the glyphosate volume sold globally to the agricultural sector. Europe, therefore, is a minor market for this herbicide compared to other continents. In the same year, the USA accounted for 15% of the global glyphosate sales.”

Given the significant rise in glyphosate use in recent years, and the ongoing discussions about carcinogenicity by international health and environmental organizations, additional research is essential. A focus in this direction may help determine if your stomach, digestion, and gastrointestinal issues are in any way related to glyphosate versus gluten.

Differences in Food Regulations

In addition to pesticides, farming practices, and wheat types, the divergent approaches to food regulations between the United States and Europe may contribute to the complexity of addressing and understanding gluten-related concerns. These regulatory disparities could introduce additional factors, emphasizing the need for a comprehensive and globally-harmonized perspective on gluten sensitivity issues.

The most noticeable distinction is that of food additives, which are subject to significantly stricter regulations in the EU than in the U.S. The global food environment in Europe excels in all dimensions, with the Global Food Security Index (GFSI) ranking ten European countries higher than the United States. Categories include affordability, availability, quality and safety, and sustainability and adaptation.

Ingredients more commonly found in the U.S. than in Europe: 

  • Potassium bromate: Makes baked goods whiter and increases volume; found in many baked goods, including hamburger buns. 
  • Brominated vegetable oil: Used to keep flavors from separating in beverages; found in sodas and baked goods. 
  • Olestra: Fat substitute found in many brands of chips, processed foods, and baked goods.
  • Azodicarbonamide: Used to bleach flour; found in frozen foods and packaged goods. 
  • Coloring agents: Red #40, yellow #6, yellow #5, blue #1; dyes found in sports drinks, candy, and thousands of other products. 
  • BHA and BHT: Preservatives that extend shelf life in items such as gums, cereals, and conventionally-processed butter. 

With a more reactive approach to food additives in the U.S., many packaged foods’ ingredient lists are anything but similar between the two continents. Even a product like Kraft’s American Macaroni and Cheese differs immensely from its United Kingdom counterpoint, called Cheesy Pasta. The American version offers yellow food colorings #5 and #6, along with enriched “macaroni product,” and synthetic vitamins. Conversely, the U.K. offers coloring agents from paprika, and unbleached durum wheat semolina. The differences are striking.

Irrespective of the factors contributing to the increased tolerance of gluten consumption in Europe, it is essential to acknowledge that the American public deserves a higher standard of agricultural practices. The differences in farming and food production between the two continents, the extensive application of hazardous herbicides on farms, and the presence of lenient food regulations that fail to adequately safeguard consumers are all issues that warrant attention and improvement. Rather than providing subsidies to maintain the status quo, Congress could assist farmers in exploring alternative approaches to farming that prioritize health and sustainability, thereby yielding improved outcomes for future generations. 

european farmers market

Finding Your Groove

Experimentation is key in learning how your body and mind (food-mood connection) respond to the food you eat. How your best friend feels after eating a freshly-made baguette may not be the same for you. With multiple factors affecting your gut microbiome it can be difficult to parse out cause and effect. To get to the bottom of an unwanted symptom, consider eliminating plausible aggravators, such as refined sugars, chemical additives, processed carbohydrates, and of course, gluten. After four to eight weeks (non-celiac), add back in a clean source of gluten (Ex: organic sourdough bread made with just a few ingredients; prepared via slow fermentation) and see how you fare. Try this method with each item you eliminate.

As you delve into the intricacies of managing gluten intolerance, there are proactive steps you can take to make your dining experience more pleasurable, especially in the hours thereafter. When enjoying a pasta dish, for example, opt for locally-sourced, organic ingredients. Smaller farms often prioritize traditional cultivation methods, and may use fewer additives (or none) in their wheat production. Shop at your local farmers market, and ask bakery sellers about their products: How are they sourced? Where is the farm located? What type of wheat is used? What other ingredients are added? What have customers said about tolerating the gluten in their products? 

If activism is tugging at you, and you feel called to get involved, support your local independent food producers. They likely emphasize sustainable and organic farming practices, which contributes to a healthier and less allergenic food supply. Additionally, stay informed about herbicide usage in the regions you visit, and in your hometown. Favor areas and organizations that prioritize minimizing chemical contaminants that could exacerbate gluten sensitivity, and increase risks for multiple health conditions. 

If you’re a bread lover, consider making your own, with just a few organic ingredients—fermented sourdough starter, flour, sea salt, and water. Take to heart what cardiologist, Dr. William Davis, author of “Wheat Belly,” “Undoctored,” and “Super Gut,” said, “Be gluten-free but don’t eat gluten-free.” The meaning of his advice was a warning to not jump face-first, riding the bandwagon into an abundance of gluten-free muffins, breads, cakes, and cookies, and mistakenly think all of those baked goods are “healthy.”


If you’ve found value in this article, please share it!

To support the research and health education of AVFC editorial, please consider making a donation today. Thank you.