Estimates suggest that one in 133 people have celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disease that literally allows gluten to lay siege on the small intestine. Another 1:7 people are intolerant to gluten. Still more choose to remove gluten from their diets without any sort of diagnosis, as a means to a healthier lifestyle. Gluten is a protein that is found in grains such as wheat, rye and barley. These grains are touted for their high relative protein content, supposedly between 8-15%. Unfortunately, modern agricultural practices and the processing of food have led to grains that have little nutritional benefit, despite common belief. Another important factor lies in the trend toward genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which are hotly debated.

Due to the large number of people who have trouble processing gluten, many researchers have begun to look at the human diet through the millennia in an attempt to understand why gluten makes people ill. In reality, celiac disease and gluten intolerance are largely misunderstood. To unravel this mystery, scholars have researched when gluten-rich grains first entered the diet of human beings. Humans have been eating grains that contain gluten for thousands of years, but only in certain areas of the world. About ten thousand years ago, people in the Far East began to cultivate grains for consumption. Prior to this, people foraged for fruits and nuts, and got most of their protein from animals that they hunted and found. As societies began to evolve and strengthen, new agricultural advancements allowed people to control what they grew and ate instead of relying on Mother Nature to provide.

As the Romans swept through and conquered Europe, they brought grains. As such, France, England and Portugal introduced wheat and other gluten-filled grains to the New World during the age of exploration. Although grains did make their way across the globe, it took thousands of years until they were affordable and easy enough to produce that they could be found in nearly every kitchen the world over. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the industrial revolution made grains this accessible. In the twentieth century, the USDA created the food pyramid, which further solidified grains into the diets of Americans. Research suggests that the incidence of celiac disease in people of European decent is tied to the introduction of the farming of grains across the globe, starting with the Romans. The suggestion is that groups of people with the shortest evolutionary exposure to grains are least likely to process it properly. In addition to that, today’s modern grains are more glutinous than grains produced in centuries past.

In short, Americans are eating more grains, and therefore gluten, than ever. Whether they’re genetically predisposed to gluten sensitivities or simply causing their bodies to revolt against an unnaturally gluten-filled diet, an increasing amount of people are finding it necessary to cut gluten from their diets. The benefits to a gluten-free diet are far-reaching and include resolved symptoms, increased energy and a general improvement in overall health. Celiac disease is one of the most common autoimmune diseases. Considering it was only in the last 50 years that there was even a celiac disease diagnosis, one in 133 is a number that can’t be dismissed. Whether or not humans are equipped to eat grains, the truth remains that many people can’t or they risk losing their health. Hopefully the next 50 years will show further strides in unraveling the mystery behind gluten intolerance, its cause and its treatment.