Modified Wheat: Dr. Davis Weighs In

William Davis, MD, author of "Wheat Belly" shares his thoughts and opinions on the modified wheat controversy.

Posted on | By William Davis, MD

You know all those foods we were told to eat, all those “healthy whole grains” we were advised were better than white flour products? Well, let me let you in on a dirty little secret of agribusiness: It ain’t the same wheat. It is not the wheat of our grandmothers’ day because it was changed.

Wheat was changed in the 1960s and 1970s by agricultural scientists. They hybridized various strains thousands of times. They mated wheat with other grasses (wheat is a grass). They subjected wheat seeds and embryos to the process of mutagenesis, the use of chemicals, gamma rays and x-rays to induce mutations. These methods pre-dated the methods of genetic modification, and were crude, imprecise, and unpredictable and, in many cases, worse than genetic modification.

Many varieties of wheat that we eat come from plants that are no longer tall, but are short and stocky and high-yielding. Changes in outward appearance were accompanied by internal genetic and biochemical changes. One crucial change: new forms of the protein gliadin. Gliadin, when digested in the human gastrointestinal tract, is degraded to small peptides that can bind to the opiate receptors of the brain – yes: opiate receptors, not unlike morphine or Oxycontin. Gliadin-derived peptides, however, don’t make us high, nor do they provide pain relief; instead they may only stimulate appetite and cause us to eat more.

Remember this: “According to a nationwide survey: More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette”? In the mid- and latter 20th century, the national discussion went from gushing about the pleasures and health benefits of smoking, to studies documenting the health damage caused by smoking, to executives denying any wrongdoing to Congress, to uncovering concealed documents demonstrating the industry’s knowledge of the adverse health effects of smoking decades earlier.

I believe we are reliving the tobacco experience with wheat in its place. I think that smart food scientists stumbled on the potential appetite-stimulating effect of the gliadin protein in wheat 25 years ago. How else do we explain why wheat can be found in so many processed foods, from tomato soup to licorice? In 1960, you would have found wheat in bread, rolls and cake – obvious places that make sense. Go up and down the food aisles in your local supermarket in the 21st century and you will find that huge numbers of canned, packaged, and frozen foods contain wheat in some form: licorice, taco seasoning, frozen dinners, breakfast cereals, salad dressings – you’ll be hard pressed to find processed foods that do not contain wheat. Is wheat that necessary for taste or for texture? I don’t think so. I think it’s put there for one reason: to stimulate your appetite and increase sales.

I think that by putting wheat in nearly everything, the food industry ensured that you come back for more. Just as tobacco manufacturers increased nicotine content of cigarettes to help ensure addiction, so adding wheat to processed foods might help create an addiction to all things wheat. Not only could that add up to a lot of calories and a lot more food consumed, it could add up to a lot more weight. Alongside these changes in wheat, we have observed a nationwide increase in weight. An explosive surge in diabetes has followed the rise in obesity. We are now in the midst of the worst epidemic of diabetes ever experienced by humans, and rates are continuing to climb and are threatening our children and grandchildren's health.

I believe that the gliadin protein of wheat ensures that wheat products, such as whole grain or white breads, bagels and muffins, are addictive: They generate a need for more… and more, and more. Gliadin may act like an opiate with its own form of euphoria and its very own withdrawal syndrome when you remove wheat from the diet.

In my opinion, the inadvertent transformation of wheat gliadin into a potential potent appetite-stimulant, recognized quickly by observant food scientists, brought us here, to this overweight, diabetic situation that now plagues Americans and much of the rest of the developed world, all while we are advised to eat more “healthy whole grains.” No doubt, many people profited handsomely – and continue to do so – from this message, but the public has paid the price, both out of their pocketbooks and their health.  

Article written by William Davis, MD
Author of "Wheat Belly"