According to studies in the World Journal of Gastroenterology, about 6% of the world’s population is sensitive to gluten. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity, referred to as NCGS, is different from celiac disease, where the person has an autoimmune reaction involving IgA antibodies upon ingesting gluten.

What is non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS)?

It took till 2011 for there to be a medical consensus on the definition of NCGS. Doctors and researchers define it as a “non-allergic and non-autoimmune condition in which the consumption of gluten can lead to symptoms similar to those seen in celiac disease.”

Symptoms of NCGS can occur within hours – to days – following exposure to gluten, and symptoms can range from abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea or constipation, to headaches, foggy mind, fatigue, rashes, weakened and inflamed muscles, and more.

So, let’s look at what happens when someone with NCGS eats bread at the American dinner table, and when they are dining in Europe.

U.S. Wheat Versus European

Traditional bread, pasta, and pastries are made with wheat-based flours, but not all flour is created equal. We must look at the wheat itself.

Gluten is a protein in wheat, and various types of wheat have different amounts of protein (gluten). In the US, the most common wheat grown and used to make products is hard wheat. Hard wheat has a high protein, and therefore high gluten, content. European wheat is soft wheat and has a lower protein and lower gluten content.

You can easily understand that if gluten is what your digestive tract is sensitive to, that eating European bread made with lower gluten wheat is going to be more digestible.

What About GMOs?

Genetically Modified Organisms, referred to as GMOs, are a hot topic in the food world. A GMO is a plant, animal, microorganism, or other organism whose genetic makeup has been modified in a laboratory using genetic engineering or transgenic technology. Corn is the #1 GMO crop in the US. GMO corn is easier to grow, more disease and pest resistant, and its greater yield produces a higher profit. That said, many people do not like the idea of eating a genetically modified food.

Many people are under the impression that U.S. wheat is GMO, but that is not true. According to the National Wheat Foundation, “there is no genetically modified wheat currently commercialized anywhere in the world.” In addition, GMOs are not related to gluten, or gluten sensitivity.

So now that we know that GMOs aren’t an issue with wheat, what else might be going on in the US versus European bread eating experience?

Pesticides, Preservatives & Chemicals, Oh My!

At its most basic, bread is made from wheat, water, salt, and livener, such as a sourdough started or yeast. Certainly, you can get this type of high quality, artisanal bread from bakeries in the U.S. or Europe, but the majority of the bread Americans eat is highly processed.

It is most common to see a long list of ingredients on an American bread label with numerous preservatives, dough conditioners, flavorings, colorings, and various other chemicals added during the bread making process.

Not only that, but the wheat itself, before it is turned into flour, is often subjected to pesticides and herbicides at a much higher rate than its European counterparts.

These compounds, while approved for agricultural products and finished food products, can affect the gut microbiome. Some folks are more sensitive, and ingestion of these can lead to digestive upset.

Again, it is easy to understand that if you are sitting in a Parisian café, or an Italian piazza, enjoying a baguette or pizza made from wheat which does not contain any of these potential problematic ingredients, that your gut will have an easier time.

Is Gluten the Problem, Or Is It FODMAPs?

Maybe you have heard of the low FODMAP diet? FODMAP stands for Fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. Fructans are a type of oligosaccharide. A diet lower in FODMAPs can calm many digestive tracts.

While fructans and gluten are not the same thing, they are both present in wheat. In fact, many people who think they are reacting negatively to the gluten in bread find out that it was the fructans all along. If you have ever eaten sourdough, which has a lower fructan content but still contains gluten, and have digested it better than other breads, it would be worth speaking to a Registered Dietitian (RD) about your potential FODMAP intolerances.

And by the way, you can find European flours and prepared pasta made with European flours on Amazon, and even at Costco. 

What Else Is At Play?

Many dietitians and doctors have pointed out that in addition to the differences in US and European wheat, that the entire food culture is different as well. Europeans tend to have a very relaxed attitude at meals. They take their time. They snack less. They certainly eat on the move less. All of this can enhance digestion in general.

Americans chow down on burgers in a bun while in traffic and eat doughnuts while racing for the bus. Now that you read these comparisons side by side, it all seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? We Americans are not helping our digestion any which way.

And, if you are an American on vacation in Europe, your stress level is most likely lowered. Stress has a huge impact on digestion. We also tend to walk more, as we visit museums, gardens, and local attractions. Movement is great for digestion!

The Takeaway

There is a difference in the wheat used to make European flour-based products, such as bread, pizza, and pastries. European wheat has a lower protein/gluten content, which makes it more digestible for those with NCGS.

European wheat is also often treated with fewer pesticides and herbicides while growing, and the resulting bread, pizzas and pastries are subjected to fewer additives during their manufacture, which can also affect digestibility. You can find European wheat and products made with European wheat easily on Amazon and in stores here in the U.S.

In addition, if we are foreigners visiting Europe, we are probably more relaxed, being on vacation, and might be walking more, which also enhances digestion.

Some people think they have NCGS but are really reacting to the fructans in wheat products. A RD can help you figure out what your digestive tract is sensitive to. Don’t self-diagnose. Consult a RD. Eating as broadly as possible, without triggering digestive upset, is best for your microbiome – and for your enjoyment of food. That’s the goal!

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