Rethinking Gluten-Free

Modern wheat has been shown to cause inflammation; ancient wheat actually reduces it

Heated Editors
Published in
4 min readMay 16, 2019


By Bob Quinn and Liz Carlisle

As a farmer and agricultural researcher from Montana, we grew up with a deep respect for wheat, the staple grain that provided the foundation of our state’s farm economy. We also learned to revere it as the staff of life that had nourished humankind for some 10,000 years.

But recently, many of our friends and neighbors have been telling us they can no longer eat wheat without having digestive problems. So what has broken the staff of life, and how can we fix it?

Gluten-free diets simply sidestep deeper problems in our food system, problems that wheat points out to us. As one of the most intensively industrialized crops in the world, wheat is giving us a glimpse of where we’re headed as we continue on this path with other foods. If we ignore these warnings, we’ll soon add other foods to our list of dietary sensitivities. But if we heed them, we have a golden opportunity to address many other pressing problems linked to our food system, including its climate footprint and its devastating impact on rural communities. So instead of ditching wheat, let’s fix the way it’s bred, the way it’s grown, and the way it’s processed.

The wheat you eat in a typical store-bought cookie or hamburger bun is very different from the wheat your great-grandparents ate. Over the course of the 20th century, wheat was aggressively bred to improve crop yield and loaf volume — the number of loaves of bread industrial processors can squeeze out of each bag of flour by pumping as much air into the dough as quickly as possible.

In the process, the chemical composition and nutrient profile were significantly changed. Medical trials with subjects who alternated between a modern wheat and ancient wheat diet have demonstrated just what a difference these breeding programs have made to our ability to digest this staple grain. While modern wheat has been shown to cause inflammation, ancient wheat actually reduces it, improving outcomes for patients with chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and irritable bowel syndrome.