Gluten

How does the Anthropocene taste? Inspired by Stefan Helmreich’s meditation on the sounds of the Anthropocene, I probe another sense—taste—as part of the embodied experience with which humans engage with an anthropogenically shaped world. Is the taste of the Anthropocene the taste of grapes grown in Scotland, a crop out of place in a human-altered climate? Or a meal served without bread, when drought in major wheat producing countries sends world wheat prices skyrocketing and bread becomes an expensive addition to the table? Or a menu comprising only local foods to minimize the carbon emissions embedded in foods transported from around the world?

What if the taste of the Anthropocene is something harder to detect? Take gluten, my starting point for thinking about the taste of the Anthropocene. A set of proteins found in wheat and other grains, gluten does not have a taste, per se. Even when eaten directly in the form of seitan, wheat gluten does not have an intrinsically strong flavor. If we think of taste more broadly, though, as a matter of texture and aroma as well as the sensory perception of flavor, the taste of gluten becomes more apparent. Gluten has important elastic and adhesive properties; we taste its imprint in a risen loaf of bread or chewy pizza crust. For many, given the recent growth of gluten-free diets, the taste of gluten is defined by its alternatives. These gluten substitutes, which act as texture replacements or fillers to make up a meal, take on different tastes: a cake made with almond flour, spaghetti from spiralized zucchini, a sandwich served on cornbread. Gluten is thus visible both in its presence and its absence: as a core component of foods that helps them cohere and take shape, and as something to be avoided, labeled on food packaging and noted on menus. Like carbon, gluten is all around us, but it has to be made visible through practices of measurement and identification. Just as some people try to modify their lifestyles to minimize the carbon they produce, others try to modify their lifestyles to minimize the gluten they consume.

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Freshly cut wheat, Egypt. Photo by Jessica Barnes.

Gluten has been a central part of human diets since wheat was domesticated in the Near East around ten thousand years ago. Over the past decade, however, gluten has come to be associated with a range of health concerns beyond its long-identified link with celiac disease. One popular narrative links this rise in gluten sensitivity to an Anthropocenic culprit, that is, human-induced changes in the gluten structure of wheat. In his best-selling Wheat Belly books, for example, William Davis (2011) argues that modern breeding over the last half-century has altered wheat so much that it may no longer be safe to eat. In response to a frequently asked question on his blog about whether wheat can really be so bad, he writes: “First of all, it ain’t wheat. It’s the product of forty years of genetics research aimed at increasing yield-per-acre. The result is a genetically unique plant that stands eighteen to twenty-four inches tall, not the four-and-a-half-foot tall ‘amber waves of grain’ we all remember.” Davis’s assertion that the wheat of today is no longer wheat assumes that there is a pure and stable form of wheat (over four feet tall; amber)—a notable contrast with Lesley Head, Jennifer Atchison and Alison Gates’s (2012, 37) notion of wheat as being in a “constant process of becoming.” While Davis recognizes that farmers have long engaged in seed selection and thus that the anthropogenic influence on wheat is not new, to him the introduction of what he calls science marked a break in the equilibrium. This was the point—a shift, perhaps, from the anthropogenic to the Anthropocenic—when the crop’s gluten structure started to morph.

The scientific evidence supporting Davis’s argument is limited. The chemist Donald Kasarda (2013) found no significant difference between the gluten content of wheat grown today in the United States and that grown in the early twentieth century. Yet the wide circulation of this narrative raises some interesting questions. The paleoclimatologist William Ruddiman (2003) has posited a link between wheat and the Anthropocene, dating the advent of the Anthropocene back to the start of settled grain cultivation. But could there be a link between gluten and the Anthropocene? If we understand the Anthropocene as an epoch of unprecedented human intervention in the natural world that is not limited to anthropogenic climate change, then could gluten epitomize the Anthropocene? Is there something about the current moment that lends credence to the idea that we are changing our world so fundamentally that a grain central to human diets for ten thousand years is no longer good to eat? Might gluten avoidance encapsulate a way of being, eating, or tasting in the Anthropocene?

In the future, changes in the global climate are likely to affect both the amount and type of gluten in wheat; gluten, like wheat, is not singular in its identity but takes on different characteristics (Barnes, forthcoming). Studies have shown a significant relationship between growing temperature and the quality of gluten in wheat (Moldestad et al. 2011). Experiments have also shown that increased atmospheric carbon dioxide can lead to a decline in gluten content in wheat (Högy et al. 2008). So will we see a change in the nature of gluten in a warming world? 

Gluten highlights the complexities at the heart of the Anthropocene. On the one hand, we have human interventions in the natural world and efforts to breed wheat that may or may not affect the gluten content or structure of a staple crop. On the other hand, we have human changes to the atmosphere that may also affect the quantity and quality of gluten in our wheat. Yet what remains unseen in these sorts of stories are the other dynamics that shape the way we grow and consume food. A focus on gluten alone is reductionist in the same way as a focus on carbon alone. Gluten is not just a chemical constituent of grain. It is also an object of socially shaped perceptions, commercially driven food processing, and culturally inflected dietary trends. The tastes of the Anthropocene, therefore, are at once material and imagined, sensorial and metaphorical.

References

Barnes, Jessica. Forthcoming. “Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: The Social Worlds of Wheat.” Environment and Society: Advances in Research.

Davis, William. 2011. Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health. New York: Rodale.

Head, Lesley, Jennifer Atchison, and Alison Gates. 2012. Ingrained: A Human Bio-Geography of Wheat. New York: Routledge.

Högy, P., H. Wieser, P. Köhler, K. Schwadorf, J. Breuer, M. Erbs, S. Weber, and A. Fangmeier. 2009. “Does Elevated Atmospheric CO2 Allow for Sufficient Wheat Grain Quality in the Future?" Journal of Applied Botany and Food Quality 82, no. 2: 114–21.

Kasarda, Donald D. 2013. “Can an Increase in Celiac Disease Be Attributed to an Increase in the Gluten Content of Wheat as a Consequence of Wheat Breeding?Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 61, no. 6: 1155–59.

Moldestad, Anette, Ellen Mosleth Fergestad, Bernt Hoel, Arne Oddvar Skjelvåg, and Anna Kjersti Uhlen. 2011. “Effect of Temperature Variation during Grain Filling on Wheat Gluten Resistance.” Journal of Cereal Science 53, no. 3: 347–54.

Ruddiman, William F. 2003. “The Anthropogenic Greenhouse Era Began Thousands of Years Ago.” Climatic Change 61, no. 3: 261–93.