Amy Burkhart  MD, RD  Articles/Media

Pesticides, Wheat And Gluten Sensitivity: What Is The Connection?


If you like this article, please follow me on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter for similar information. 

Updated 2016

wheat blue sky

Investigators are diligently looking for a cause of Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS), and may be close to an explanation that doesn’t involve gluten at all. Non celiac gluten sensitivity occurs when a person experiences symptoms related to eating gluten, and celiac disease has been ruled out by validated testing.

We don’t know the underlying mechanism of NCGS, but this is being intensely investigated and the symptoms may be due to more than one culprit.  I discussed FODMAP  intolerance in a previous article. It may  be the reason for many cases of gluten sensitivity, but not all.

There is a family of proteins contained in wheat itself called “ amylase-trypsin inhibitors” or ATI’s for short. These are “natural” pesticides found in wheat. Yes, natural. Many plants have natural pesticides. They are not pesticides added by humans for farming purposes, but an inherent part of the plant, put there by nature. They are nature’s way of allowing plants to propagate by making them resistant to certain insects and pests.

These particular proteins, ATI’s, are the wheat plants’ defense mechanisms against particular invaders. It appears, however, that ATI’s may also be a problem for some humans and may be a factor in some cases of non-celiac gluten sensitivity. A  paper by Y. Junker et al. found these ATI’s actually may be recognized as foreign by our immune systems, thereby triggering an immune response in the intestine. This reaction occurred in both celiac and non-celiac patients and the authors hypothesized that it may play a role in other intestinal inflammatory conditions as well.

cakeCurrently, ATI’s are thought to be involved in “baker’s asthma,” one of the leading causes of occupational asthma, but their role in non-celiac gluten sensitivity has yet to be fully defined. I think we may be hearing more about them in the near future.

Their possible part in the conundrum of non-celiac gluten sensitivity suggests that NCGS may be caused by many different factors. In some people, it may be caused by the carbohydrate component of wheat, such as in FODMAP Intolerance. In others, it may be caused by ATI’s or wheat agglutinins. The information behind non-celiac gluten sensitivity is rapidly emerging.

I am pleased that NCGS is finally recognized by the traditional medical community as a valid condition. Now it is up to science to define exactly what it is and how to best treat it.

Due to the fact that gluten may not be the reason for symptoms in NCGS at all, it has been proposed by some that the name of this disorder be changed to “Non-Celiac Wheat Sensitivity” going forward. The voice and experience of the gluten-free community is an important adjunct to this quest.

*Addendum Regarding Diagnosis and Testing for NCGS

Currently there is no laboratory test for NCGS.  A single test cannot be developed for what appear to be different disorders arising from wheat.test tubes  Despite the fact that some online labs offer tests that diagnose “gluten sensitivity”, there are no validated tests for it. It is impossible to devise a test for an entity where the cause is not clearly defined and the reasons may be many.