June 15, 2021

Excess nitrogen in wheat crops would explain the high prevalence of celiac disease

The wheat It is currently the most widely planted crop and continues to be the most important food grain for humans. In addition, on the one hand, the direct consumption of foods derived from wheat has decreased in some countries (such as the USA) but, on the other, flour used as an additive causes a net increase in annual intake per capita of this cereal.

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This causes that humans have increased the gluten net that we eat per person from 4.1 kg in 1970 to 5.4 kg in 2000. The crops of this essential cereal in our diet today occupy an area of ​​217 million hectares worldwide.

Eating gluten, a wheat protein, can trigger various intolerances and allergic diseases, including celiac disease it is the most widespread in humans. Its average prevalence in the general population of Europe and the United States is approximately 1% (in the United States it went from 0.2 to 1% in just 25 years).

Although there are some regional differences: the prevalence of celiac disease is between 2 and 3% in Finland and Sweden, and 0.2% in Germany. Science is still careful to indicate the causes, but they are probably related to the environmental components of celiac disease, such as changes in the quantity and quality of ingested gluten, infant feeding patterns, spectrum of intestinal infections and colonization by intestinal microbiota.

Now a study published in the journal Foods and led by Josep Penuelas, a researcher at CREAF and the CSIC, confirms that since the 1960s until today, the world has multiplied by 10 the use of nitrogen to fertilize wheat crops to improve soil yield.

Higher consumption of gliadins

According to the work, wheat grown with excess nitrogen transfers more of the amount of nitrogen to the grain and its flours. gliadin, a group of proteins involved in the formation of gluten. Thus, the intake per capita of products derived from wheat in recent decades has remained more or less constant, although the gliadin concentration in the wheat it has grown.

As a consequence, the average per person consumption of gliadins has increased, approximately 1.5 kg more each year. Likewise, the research confirms that the soil fertilized with nitrogen is practically the same and what has been intensified are the applied kilos of this element. The authors have also taken into account factors such as possible new additives in bread that can cause allergies and better precision and efficiency in the diagnosis of celiac disease.

“Nitrogen fertilization translates into a possible direct global health problem,” he says. Penuelas, although it insists on the necessary prudence when drawing conclusions and recalls that there are few studies in this regard. “We do not carry out the medical study, but we warn of a new consequence. The relationship that we have identified does not imply the existence of a single direct cause: there may be other factors, although this is important,” he continues.

And he adds that “the nitrogen fertilization that we ecologists study has very relevant effects on microorganisms and the functioning of the earth, and we add that it also has an effect on human health.”

A global health change

The impact and damage Excessive nitrogen fertilization has been observed mostly on an environmental scale (eg eutrophication and acid rain), and a direct human health effect linked to this disease is now also possible.

“Everything suggests that we have another risk factor caused by a world richer in nitrogen through the increase of gliadins in wheat, an important risk factor that may explain, at least in part, the increase in the prevalence of celiac disease” , says the researcher.

The ecologist’s interest in a health issue is forcefully explained: “Global change is leading us to a change in global health.” The scientist argues that “as ecologists we are dedicated to global ecology, we are interested in working with all organisms, not only with bacteria, plants, arthropods or birds, but also with humans.”


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