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Can I Eat Gluten When I’m In Europe?

Published date: May 16, 2023 | Modified date:
by Dr Stephen Wangen

Here’s what we’re going to cover

  1. Is The Food In Europe Different Than In the US?
  2. Is Wheat Genetically Modified in the US?
  3. Is the Wheat Different in Europe?
  4. So Can I Eat It?

If you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, you may have heard or read that some people go to Europe and eat gluten without suffering any consequences. I’ve heard this too, because patients have told me this. Can this really be true? I’ll tell you what I did when I lived in Europe and give you some food for thought.

Is The Food In Europe Different Than In the US?

This is really the question. You may have heard or been told that the food in Europe is healthier and less manipulated or modified than it is here. And there is a lot of truth behind that.

The European Union restricts or severely limits many food additives and preservatives that are commonly used in the United States. Many European countries also limit the cultivation and import of genetically modified foods. And the European Union also bans some drugs use on farm animals in the United States.

Is Wheat Genetically Modified in the US?

Commercial wheat has not been genetically modified in the U.S., at least officially. There has, however, been a lot of research by the big agricultural companies to study the genetic modification of wheat. And occasionally, genetically modified wheat has shown up in commercial wheat fields that weren’t supposed to have any genetically modified wheat.

This has caused a lot of confusion, but it appears that commercial wheat has not been genetically modified. However, wheat has certainly been hybridized, meaning that different varieties of wheat have been cross bred to create new varieties of wheat.

Is the Wheat Different in Europe?

In short, yes.  A majority of the wheat grown in Europe is termed a soft variety of wheat. And a majority of the wheat in the U.S. is a hard variety of wheat. And to make matters more interesting, the soft wheat in Europe has a lower gluten content than the hard wheat used in the U.S.  How much lower?  It may have as much as half or even a third the gluten content as the hard wheat that you’re more likely to come across in the U.S.1

This may be why I’ve had patients come back from Europe and exclaim how they could eat the wheat there and not suffer nearly the consequences that they did here. (Not that I had recommended it, by the way).

Or it may be that they were relaxed and having a great time on vacation, and the power of happiness and positive thinking made all the difference. Who knows, all of those things are valid and do have an impact on our health.

So Can I Eat It?

There certainly is a significant difference in the gluten content. And I can tell you a personal story about how gluten content can make a big difference in how you feel. In college I had a roommate who is still a good friend of mine to this day. However, there was a day that tested that friendship.

His mom loved to bake bread and send him treats. One day he received a couple of loaves of bread which he raved about. He kindly share it with me. I’ll never forget spending the rest of the day on the toilet with all the classic symptoms of IBS.

Years later I discovered that I was highly gluten intolerant. When I told him this, he told me how his mom had always used a special high gluten wheat flour in her bread. Immediately I flashed back to our college days when he received that bread from her.  Now it all made sense.

So back to the question at hand. Can you eat the bread in Europe?

First, let’s remind ourselves that it’s not actually gluten free wheat. It’s simply lower gluten content than we’re probably used to here in the U.S.

Second, and this is a really important piece of data, many, many studies on celiac disease in Europe have shown that the same percentage of people in Europe get celiac disease as we see getting celiac disease in the U.S.  That’s a clear sign that the wheat is not really any better, even though you may suffer a little less.

So although it’s tempting to get comfortable and try to eat the wheat in Europe, it’s not exactly good for you, even if you are lucky and don’t feel as bad as you do in the U.S.

I lived in Europe for a year before I knew that I was gluten intolerant, and I spent a lot of time being sick to my stomach and tired, and I slept way more than I do now and always needed a nap.2 And I’m sure it was the gluten. If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have eaten it.

I also won’t be eating it when I go to Italy later this year. Besides, Italy is basically the birthplace of celiac disease, and they have lots of good gluten free products there. So I’m not worried about finding plenty of good stuff to eat.

Don’t let your gluten reaction stop you from travelling, but don’t get lazy and eat stuff you know you shouldn’t. You’ll feel much better during your vacation, and you’ll stay on track and continue to be healthy when you get back too.

Are you thinking about travelling any time soon?

  1. https://blogs.extension.iastate.edu/answerline/2021/11/09/meet-the-flours-wheat-flours/#:~:text=Hard%20wheat%20has%20a%20higher,gluten%20development%20than%20soft%20wheat
  2. https://ibstreatmentcenter.com/ibs/celiac-disease-and-other-forms-of-gluten-intolerance/