I’ve had to very closely examine my diet over the past while. I knew that wheat and oats caused me digestive problems, but I figured I was imagining things or that the problem was in other ingredients used with the wheat and oats. I’ve found propylene glycol in the most unexpected places, but one of the last I expected to find multiple allergens of mine was in wheat, and I never would have guessed why (it’s a whole lot more obvious in retrospect).
There is a raging debate in the chemical/medical/scientific world about glyphosate (Round Up), a herbicide. Intense lobbying and government infiltration by its original manufacturer, Monsanto, has lead to a lack of hard, impartial data concerning its safety or lack thereof. This makes it very difficult to confirm whether glyphosate is, in fact, safe for humans or the environment. It is possible that glyphosate in combination with chemicals commonly included in formulations has a higher impact on wildlife and the environment than glyphosate on its own. California courts recently tentatively ruled that glyphosate must be labelled as a potential carcinogen in California, a verdict that Monsanto fought against and is expected to appeal.
Round Up itself is not only used to kill weeds. One source suggested that sugar beets/cane are treated with Round Up to increase sugar production. In colder climates (north-central US and Canada) to kill grain crops all at once so that they dry evenly so that harvest is easier and faster. This is often mistakenly described as desiccation, which Reglone, another chemical, does do. By comparison, Round Up simply kills the entire crop at the same time to allow it to naturally dry out at the same time. Round Up can be sold as a dry, crystalline salt or as a commercial liquid mixture. The dry acid salt is mixed before use with water and adjuvants/surfactants. The adjuvants allow the glyphosate to more thoroughly wet and penetrate the plant, where the plant’s metabolism moves it into the seeds (the grain). Round Up’s company instructions clearly state when to apply the Round Up pre-harvest to allow for optimal seed growth and crop dryness. While proponents of this use state that the application guidelines prevent glyphosate take-up by the seed, Round Up takes 10 to 14 days to fully kill the plant, and in that time there is ample time for Round Up to make it into the seed before the plant’s metabolism has shut down. This concept is further reinforced by the guidelines that Round Up should not be used on seed crops (for replanting next year’s crop) because it will interfere with germination. Round Up cannot interfere with seed germination unless it is found in the seed.
Regardless of glyphosate’s safety or danger, most chemical allergy sufferers have learned to look beyond the active ingredients. I have not confirmed this outside of Wikipedia, but human irritant effects from Round Up are said to be linked to its benzisothiazolin-3-one content. Further, the long list of possible adjuvants for any herbicide application (including Round Up) include many chemicals listed as “ethoxylated alcohol.” Both propylene glycol and polyethylene glycol fit into that category of chemicals, and are used to enhance absorption of products through cell walls. We cannot assume that a product with that purpose would not be found in the plant after application. What is clear is that herbicides are used extensively on a wide range of food and fodder crops across North America, and around the world.
Why do I care? Not only am I allergic to isothiazolinones, but propylene glycol recently began giving me anaphylactic reactions. The order of symptoms that I experience from this propylene glycol allergy are identical to the symptoms I have gotten from wheat and other grains, leading to a possible connection or relationship. I haven’t been injected with propylene glycol, nor was I eating large amounts of glyphosate. When I learned about the heavy use of herbicides on wheat and other grains, and about the added ingredients in Round Up, I researched the connections. The list of crops on which Round Up and other herbicides are used is staggering, and volumes used are increasing as resistance of weeds to these herbicides increases. (Use of pesticides 1960-2008)
How can you avoid these chemicals? It’s hard, but your best bet is to eat organic and choose your foods carefully. That includes any processed food ingredients. I have been sourcing local, organic, free-range chicken and beef for a couple of years now, as well as growing my own vegetables and supplementing these with organic produce from a local farm. What I can’t get through those two sources I buy organic from the grocery store. This includes fruits and extra vegetables. What is more difficult is replacement of staple foods. I now have to source organic bread, pizza dough, flour, sugar, oats, tomato sauce, and more. Organic foods may not be the easiest choice, but I’m learning more and more that it’s the right choice for me and my family. My body’s certainly not giving me much choice.
So, in answer to the title, is wheat safe? It might be. It might not. For those with chemical allergies, anything treated with chemicals could be dangerous, and that includes the foods we normally consider part of a healthy diet.
- Instructions for pre-harvest use of glyphosate and Reglone on crops
- Rates of herbicide, fungucide, and pesticide application on different kinds of wheat in the United States, 2012. Glyphosate seems limited to winter wheat, though all herbicides likely contain adjuvants
- Same study but in 2009, glyphosate used on more kinds of wheat and in more volume than other herbicides. More information about the program as a whole