An anti-wheat movement inspired by populist claims that gluten is bad for human health rumbles on, but scientists are now leading a strong campaign to refute trendy claims and promote the many nutritional benefits of wheat.

A vital food providing 20 percent of calories and protein in the human diet worldwide, wheat has taken a reputational beating from celebrity doctors who say it is responsible for causing obesity, mental malaise and other negative health conditions.

Scientists are concerned that false claims maligning wheat will lead to further food insecurity and poor health for low-income consumers with wheat-based diets who may reject this staple food due to misinformation.

Such assertions in “Wheat Belly” by William Davis (2011) and “Grain Brain” by David Perlmutter (2013) run counter to current medical and nutritional advice in international dietary guidelines established by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Much of the anti-wheat argument hinges on claims that the properties of current wheat varieties are somehow different and less healthy than the “ancient” wheat grains first grown and consumed 9,000 years ago, due to scientific intervention, according to Carlos Guzmán, head of the wheat chemistry and quality laboratory at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

“Since the anti-gluten movement began, scientific reports have shown that, contrary to claims stating otherwise, commercially available wheat does not lead to weight gain or chronic disease, and it’s certainly not transgenic,” said Guzmán.

Apart from the estimated 1 percent of populations in Europe and the United States with celiac disease and an estimated 5 to 10 percent who have gluten sensitivity, wheat is safe and healthy to eat, according to the authors of “Does Wheat Make Us Fat and Sick?”, a study that appeared in the Journal of Cereal Science.

“In fact, the research shows that regularly eating whole grain products is healthy and associated with significantly less risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain forms of cancer, and it can also help with long-term weight management,” added Guzmán.

Guzmán works with scientists researching ancient grains and landraces, the predecessors to contemporary wheat that are estimated to be available in about 25,000 different forms. Bread wheat arose from the spontaneous, natural cross-pollination of a primitive wheat with a wild grass, rather than through any scientific intervention.

A recent study titled, “The contribution of wheat to human diet and health” argues that dietary fiber in wheat makes such a vital contribution to human health that research should focus on enhancing the characteristic through breeding.

Nutritionist Julie Miller Jones spoke at CIMMYT’s 50th anniversary conference in September 2016, adding clout to the arguments in favor of whole grain consumption, pointing out benefits and showing how wheat surpasses beef in protein levels. Miller Jones argues that the key to weight loss and good health is to eat a healthy, balanced diet featuring smaller portions and to exercise.

Julie Miller Jones discusses the myths and facts about the benefits of wheat and grain at CIMMYT 50.

Text: Julie Mollins

Contributor: Carlos Guzmán

Photos: Alfonso Cortés, Timothy Krupnik

Graphics: Gerardo Mejía

Editors: Bianca Beks, G. Michael Listman, Julie Mollins, Geneviève Renard

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