Some people who avoid gluten in the US report being able to eat pasta and bread in Europe without the same issues. What’s going on?
A recent article unpacked some of the reasons why Americans traveling in Europe are able to eat gluten abroad, but not in the US. Experts don’t know for sure, but possibilities include differences in the type of wheat used, a higher presence of chemicals in US foods, and lifestyle factors when you’re travelling.
Between 1-5 percent of Americans have Celiac disease, but it often goes undiagnosed because people do not have obvious symptoms. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that causes damage to the small intestines when someone eats gluten. It can lead to several serious health issues. A large study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people with diagnosed, undiagnosed, and “latent” celiac disease or gluten sensitivity had a higher risk of death, mostly from heart disease and cancer. Many more Americans—as many as 30–40% of the US population, according to the research of a leading US laboratory working in the field—have gluten sensitivity (also called Non-Celiac Gluten Intolerance), which means that they, too, are sickened by gluten. It is also sometimes referred to as “silent” celiac disease, as the disease may remain latent for twenty years or more before becoming full-blown celiac disease if gluten consumption is continued.
People with Celiac disease should not eat gluten, period. But people who have gluten sensitivities in the US are sometimes able to eat gluten when travelling in Europe without any issues. This could be due to a few different factors. For one, gluten content varies depending on the type of wheat being used. Wheat grown in the US is predominantly hard red wheat, which has a higher gluten content than the soft wheat grown in Europe.
Europe has also banned many chemicals that are used in the US food supply such as: potassium bromate, red dye no. 40, yellow dyes no. 5 and 6, chlorine-washed poultry, rGBH or rBST growth hormones used in cows, genetically modified fruits and vegetables, BPA, and others. Glyphosate, for example is used far more in the US than in Europe, and is even sprayed on wheat and other crops prior to harvest. One study found that “fish exposed to glyphosate develop digestive problems that are reminiscent of celiac disease.” Other food additives that are used in the US but banned in Europe could be disrupting the gut microbiota and leading to digestive issues that do not present when eating food that is not as chock-full of chemicals.
Finally, lifestyle factors could be contributing to better digestion when traveling abroad. On vacation, you are likely eating fewer processed foods and more fresh foods. If you used to eat preservative-laden, factory-made bread at home, and then eat fresh-baked bread from a French bakery, you might digest the fresh bread better even if you have a gluten sensitivity. Stress can also disrupt gut health, so a stress-relieving vacation could improve stress and digestion. You’re also probably getting more exercise on vacation, which also aids digestion.
The staggering amount of chemicals in our food—chemicals that have been banned by other countries—should be a wakeup call. In 2016, US farmers used 322 million pounds of pesticides that are banned in the EU, 40 million pounds of pesticides banned or being phased out in China, and 26 million pounds of pesticides banned or being phased out in Brazil. It’s not just food: the EU has banned or restricted 13,000 chemicals used in cosmetics; the US has banned or restricted just 11.
It’s hard to stay healthy, naturally, when we are bombarded with dangerous chemicals in our food, cosmetics, cookware, water, and air. This speaks to the power of the chemical industry in influencing chemical regulation across many sectors of the US economy. Until this cronyism changes, you may have to wait to save indulgences in pasta and baguettes for vacation.