Many people who are sensitive to gluten find that they’re able to tolerate wheat in Europe but have a gluten reaction from bread and pasta in the U.S. No one knows for sure what explains this phenomenon but there are three theories that are commonly put forward. Let’s get into it.
Gluten Reaction Theory #1: American wheat is higher in gluten.
If you do a quick google search, this is the first and most common explanation offered for why people with gluten/wheat sensitivity are able to enjoy bread and pasta on a daily basis during their European getaways. In the United States, most of the wheat grown is Hard Wheat, which is a higher protein, higher gluten wheat. The EU, on the other hand, primarily grows soft wheat, which is lower in gluten. On paper, this theory seems to make sense – less gluten, less problems.
But, if we take a closer look, there are some big holes in this explanation. First of all, soft wheat is not used to make pasta or bread, even in Europe. Pasta is made with Durum, a type of hard wheat (it’s literally the hardest of all wheat varieties). Bread uses hard wheat too, especially those handmade rustic artisan loaves that you’ll find in bakeries like Poilane in Paris.
All of that soft wheat they’re growing overseas is used to make other stuff, like cakes, cookies, and pastries.This raises another question. If Europeans are using hard wheat for their breads and pastas, why are they growing so much soft wheat? It’s a tricky question to answer because both the U.S. and the EU are major wheat exporters, and the EU also imports a ton of wheat. What they grow is not directly tied to what their citizens consume.
Here’s a fun fact I came across. The EU is a net importer of Durum Wheat, with 80% of their imports going to Italy. Most of those imports come from Canada and the U.S., so there is plenty of North American wheat winding up on European dinner plates.
The TLDR: The high-gluten-hard-wheat-thing doesn’t explain it.
Gluten Reaction Theory #2: American Wheat is heavily sprayed with glyphosate.
The idea here is that a gluten reaction may not have anything to do with gluten or the type of wheat we’re eating, it’s actually a response to the pesticides and herbicides – particularly glyphosate – that is sprayed on American wheat.
Conventional wheat is one of the most heavily sprayed crops on the planet, and the U.S. uses more pesticides and herbicides than any other country in the world, besides China. This would be a compelling case if European wheat was not sprayed, but glyphosate is used pretty abundantly in Europe as well.
In general, EU countries have more strict regulations about pesticide use, and some countries have already banned glyphosate (this is actually a hot button issue right now because Glyphosate is currently approved in the EU until 15 December 2022). While European wheat as a whole is not chemical free, it’s likely that there is a higher proportion of organically grown wheat on the market relative to the U.S.
The TLDR: It might play a role in your gluten reaction, but it’s probably not the whole story.
Gluten Reaction Theory #3: You’re eating better quality food. You’re less stressed.
This is probably the most plausible explanation of the three. Travelers are likely to eat higher-quality foods and experience lower levels of stress while vacationing in Europe. People tend to visit renowned restaurants and local bakeries that probably use exceptional quality ingredients, traditional techniques, and minimally processed foods. You’re also more relaxed, spending time outdoors, and not at a desk staring at a screen for hours on end. All of those factors can have a profound effect on how we feel, the state of our gut microbiome, and overall well-being.
The bottom line: why do people report a gluten reaction in the U.S. but not in Europe?
There may be a combination of factors at play, but I believe the quality of ingredients and context matters the most. For starters, restaurants and bakeries overseas likely have better access to high quality wheat, the kind that’s grown organically and stone-milled. And wholesome European meals, made with simple ingredients and shared with loved ones in a relaxed (and probably active) vacation setting, will always hit different.
So, is there a difference between American wheat and European wheat?
There isn’t some elusive, more digestible wheat variety that’s grown and served in Europe that we don’t have access to in the U.S. Instead, Europeans seem to have greater access to wheat that is organically grown, stone milled, and traditionally prepared, and you’re certainly more likely to eat that kind of wheat when you’re dining out overseas than you are in America. But, like Europe, the U.S. is home to communities of farmers and millers who are growing exceptional quality organic wheat and producing fresh, stone-milled whole grain flours. This type of wheat accounts for barely 1% of total wheat agriculture in America, so you probably won’t bump into it by accident, but it exists.
Finally, it’s worth noting that many people who struggle with wheat in the U.S. do NOT feel any different when they’re in Europe, but they are able to enjoy real sourdough bread – anywhere in the world. This is something I hear about frequently and it makes a lot of sense. Even the best quality wheat can be hard to digest if it has not been naturally fermented with a sourdough culture. Wheat benefits tremendously from a long and slow fermentation process that activates dormant enzymes, degrades gluten, lowers antinutrients, synthesizes prebiotic fiber, and improves the bioavailability of proteins, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
TLDR: Organic wheat is better than conventional wheat. Fermented wheat is way better than unfermented wheat.