Written for Public Goods
The architecture, the shopping, the food… There is no shortage of reasons to visit Europe. But as a mostly wheat-free girl living in America, one of my favorite things about crossing the ocean is that I can eat the bread.
Now to be clear, I do not have Celiac nor have I been diagnosed with a gluten intolerance, although various doctors and naturopaths suspected my wheat sensitivity was partially to blame for a treacherous bout with leaky-gut a few years ago. For years before gluten became a scapegoat for the world’s problems, I complained of severe bloating and a feeling that I’d “swallowed bricks” whenever I ate wheat products.
But on my annual trips to Europe, I had no problem eating daily baguettes and bowls of pasta. Having just gotten back from a week of indulgence without immediate consequence again, recently I wondered, “How could it be that my reaction to the same products could be so extremely different, with the only variable being the location of consumption?”
As it turns out, I am not alone. There’s a huge propensity of travelers reporting less or no sensitivity to wheat products in Europe, when they suffer from major digestive reactions in the U.S.
So what could be causing this sudden invincibility? Is European wheat less glutenous? Is their bread made more naturally? Is it actually just all in your head? The answer is: It’s complicated.
The first theory is that you don’t really have a sensitivity if your vacation indulgence yields no consequence. There is definitely truth to the importance of a mindset toward food, in believing that something is good for you and allowing yourself to enjoy without guilt. On vacation one might take the time to experience a meal rather than mindlessly consuming “fuel” on the go.
However, the theory that it’s “all in your head” is quickly debunked by visitors from the other direction: coming from Europe to visit the United States and experiencing new problems that they do not have at home. My sister, brother-in-law and teenage nieces live in Brussels and spend at least a month or two every other summer visiting my parents and brother in California. Time after time, they report digestive distress, skin breakouts and weight gain after their time in the states, despite actually trying harder than usual to eat “California clean.” Things they take for granted at home like a simple sandwich become a subject of distrust and debate.
In the depth of my own battle with bread a few years ago, I went to Italy for a story on Brunello Cucinelli. While there, I made a point of asking all of the employees about their experience of food in the U.S. versus at home in Italy. Everyone I spoke to reported weight gain and general digestive distress during their visits to the U.S.
But was it the bread? The dairy? The general overindulgence while abroad?
So, with the American vilification of gluten, it stands to wonder, is the gluten content of European bread actually lower? In a word: yes. There are actually two main varieties of wheat: hard red wheat and soft wheat, the latter comprising the majority of European wheat and only around 23% of American wheat.
Contrary to what the name suggests, hard red wheat is actually responsible for the softer, fluffier, more protein-rich bread we Americans love — thanks to a less loveable ingredient, gluten. But the differences between European and American wheat go far beyond the gluten content. For many folks who can’t eat bread in the states but seem to have no trouble drinking rye cocktails, beer or other glutenous products, the culprit might be a different ingredient.
A huge factor in the quality of European wheat is not only the type of wheat that is grown, but in the way it is grown and harvested. The quality of European soil may translate into the enzyme and nutrient density of the crops, although it can also be argued that American soil actually holds more of certain healthy trace minerals like Selenium.
However, the use of pesticides such as Roundup — which are readily sprayed on the majority of our corn, soy and wheat crops — prove more problematic. Crops are sprayed in an effort to harvest more efficiently and yield product more quickly, but the active ingredient, glyphosate has been undeniably linked to the huge spike in gluten sensitivity and diseases like Celiac in recent years.
In fact, continued exposure to glyphosate can lead to a laundry list of even more serious and degenerative health problems. Not to mention, the use of genetically modified ingredients in general are much more heavily regulated if not entirely illegal in most of Europe, making that “simple sandwich” a lot less simple in the U.S. as it might be overseas.
And then there is the question of preservatives. If you’ve ever bought a baguette in France, you’ll know that it must either be consumed before the sun sets or be turned into croutons the next day. That limitation does not mean said baguette is less fresh than its American cousin, but quite the opposite.
The concept of our “daily bread” refers to freshly baked bread without the use of preservatives, that therefore must be purchased daily. Preservative-free bread may not be as shelf stable as a sliced American sandwich bread, but it avoids negative health effects ranging from gastrointestinal distress to hormonal imbalances, skin and respiratory ailments and even cancer. Given the choice, I’ll take the bread that goes stale in a day.
Practices like pesticide crop dusting have increased exponentially in recent years and may explain not only why some of us may have more food issues in America than Europe, but also more issues than our parents and grandparents did.
Have you experienced problems like these in the U.S. but not abroad? Do you find a difference between countries within the EU? Have you found imported flours to be a helpful alternative back home? We want to hear about your experiences, too.
PHOTOS BY: Eneida Cardona