The history of bread and the rise of gluten intolerance

By Dan Hatch

4 minutes

01 December 2020

Cutting gluten-free bread

Humans have had a really long relationship with bread. Some researchers say we might have started that relationship around 14,400 years ago.

Loaves have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs, dating back to around 1500 BC but it wasn't until about 300 BC when we discovered adding yeast made the bread rise.

By the nineteenth century, our preference for fluffy white bread grew so much we started to mass-produce bread in factories. Then, finally, in 1928, sliced bread became the best thing since… well, whatever the best thing was before sliced bread.

But sliced bread wasn’t the only thing that changed in breadmaking in the last century. Over the decades, we’ve created new strains of wheat, making the grains larger and, at the same time, increasing the amount and changing the composition of the gluten they contain.

What is gluten, and what does it do?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and other grains commonly used to make bread. In bread dough, it’s the gluten that helps the dough maintain its shape and gives it that sticky consistency.

But for people with gluten intolerance, gluten can have unfortunate effects on their digestive system.

What is gluten intolerance and coeliac disease?

For some people, gluten is a real pain. Eating foods containing gluten can have them doubled over with stomach pain and experiencing symptoms as diverse as bloating, diarrhea, constipation, skin rashes, headaches, tiredness, weight loss or weight gain, and even depression.

People experiencing these symptoms could have a form of gluten intolerance.

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease causing the body’s immune system to react to gluten. Specifically, the gluten causes damage to the small intestine and the villi (which line the intestine) become inflamed and flatten. This reduces the surface area of your bowel and stops you absorbing nutrients efficiently.

What causes gluten intolerance, and whom does it affect?

We don’t actually know yet what causes gluten intolerance or coeliac disease, but we know it can affect people of any age or gender, and it does run in families. It has been linked to two genes common to 50 per cent of the Australian population, and those who already have a relative who is gluten intolerant have an increased risk of also being affected.

Why are so many people gluten intolerant these days?

A study conducted in the US has shown that gluten intolerance is four times more prevalent than it was 50 years ago, and it’s unclear why.

One potential theory goes back to the fact we’ve altered wheat itself, changing the composition of gluten — although there’s not much evidence for that as yet, either

Another theory is that modern medicine means we’re simply better at diagnosing conditions like gluten intolerance, and modern communications allow greater awareness.

Whatever the truth, as gluten intolerance has become more common, we’ve seen a rise in gluten-free options on menus and supermarket shelves.

A recent study published in the Australian Medical Journal found a quarter of Australians are eating gluten-free food, but only one per cent of us are coeliacs — suggesting that for many people going gluten-free is actually a dietary decision rather than a necessity. This is despite the fact a gluten-free diet isn’t necessarily superior to a diet including gluten for people who are not gluten intolerant.

Thanks to gluten-free bread, we can now all continue our long relationship with bread, even if we’re gluten intolerant.

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