Is Organic Wheat Gluten-Free?

This is a persistent myth, but it's simply untrue

Getty Images/Michael Pohuski

No, organic wheat most definitely is not gluten-free, despite what you might have heard. Growing wheat organically (meaning without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides) might be better for the environment, but it doesn't change the structure of the gluten proteins that develop as part of the grain. Therefore, all wheat—including organic wheat—will contain gluten.

But it's certainly true that there's some confusion on this subject.

To understand why this confusion exists, it helps to know a little bit about wheat, how it's grown, and how it has changed in recent years. It also helps to know the culture in which the current gluten-free diet trend has bloomed.

First, The Basics

As you may or may not already know, gluten is a type of protein molecule that forms within the kernels of grain plants. It's found in three grains: wheat, barley and rye. People with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity need to avoid wheat (and, of course, the other gluten grains) because their bodies react badly to gluten.

But others are avoiding wheat because they believe the gluten-free diet is healthier ... and those others also tend to choose more organic foods and other products.

That, I believe, is where the confusion between "organic" and "gluten-free" began—people began to actually equate "organic" with "gluten-free." Many foods are both organic and gluten-free, of course, while some products are one ("gluten-free") but not the other, ("organic"), and so it's understandable that some people got confused.

Okay, What About Ancient Wheat?

This may be where more confusion about this topic arose.

Ancient forms of wheat, such as Einkorn and Kamut, frequently are grown organically, and some people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity report that they can consume baked goods made with these forms of wheat without getting symptoms.

However, research shows that ancient wheat strains do in fact contain gluten—although the forms of gluten they contain may be less toxic than gluten from modern wheat to those with celiac and gluten sensitivity.

But Isn't the Problem Really GMO Wheat?

Yes, some people do blame genetically modified (GMO) wheat (which by definition isn't organic) for the increasing numbers of people who have a problem with gluten. But this just isn't so ... for the simple reason that GMO wheat isn't in production anywhere.

There have been some major changes made to wheat crops over the last half-century or more. But those changes are the result of selective breeding of wheat strains by scientists in order to produce desirable characteristics—one of which happens to be very high gluten content, which commercial bakers want.

So the next time someone tries to tell you that organic wheat bread is safe on the gluten-free diet, you know they're wrong, and you need to steer clear of that organic loaf.

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