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The Curious Phenomenon of European Pasta


A plate of spaghetti. | Image by Cris Canton, Getty Images

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Have you ever traveled overseas and enjoyed two weeks of eating gnocchi with gorgonzola, but with none of the typical digestive issues you experience in the United States? If so, you’re not alone.

According to the phenomenon, certain foods, particularly gluten-laden pasta, are more inflammatory in the United States than in Europe. Now, some experts are weighing in on the popular theory.

HuffPost News reported that Americans traveling to Europe often return home recounting a vacation free of bloating and abdominal pain.

Some experts postulate that wheat grown in the United States contains higher levels of gluten and herbicides, which can stress the stomach. Others believe the phenomenon may simply be a placebo.

According to Claire Baker, senior communications director at Beyond Celiac, “While people with gluten sensitivity may report no or fewer symptoms when eating European products with gluten, there are enough variables in the mix that it’s not clear what’s at play.”

Roughly 1% of Americans have been diagnosed with celiac disease, HuffPost News reported. The autoimmune condition can produce minor intestinal damage when gluten is consumed. This can lead to malnutrition, infertility, and heightened susceptibility to thyroid disease.

A gluten intolerance does not necessarily mean that an individual has celiac disease. Similar symptoms, like bloating and headaches, can emerge with what is known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that these symptoms may not be caused by gluten at all.

The type of wheat commonly used in food may also play a role in how individuals’ bodies react. While all wheat contains some level of gluten, American wheat tends to possess higher levels.

Christina Meyer-Jax, a standard process nutrition chair and assistant professor at Northwestern Health Sciences University, told HuffPost News, “Wheat grown in the United States is typically higher in gluten content, since the majority is hard red wheat, while Europe grows soft wheat which has lower gluten content.”

Still, even within the U.S. and Europe the types of wheat vary, so it is difficult to identify what people are consuming. Not only that, over 17% of U.S. wheat exports went to Europe last year.

Chemical additives in wheat may also be to blame. “Gluten-containing foods in the United States also can contain higher levels of chemicals — herbicides, additives, and preservatives — that can interfere with gut health and increase overall inflammation in the body,” Meyer-Jax said.

Some experts believe the herbicide glyphosate is connected to the reported health issues. Researchers studying fish exposed to glyphosate found that they developed digestive problems “reminiscent of celiac disease.”

While glyphosate is the primary ingredient in the weed killer Roundup, it is also “probably carcinogenic to humans,” according to the World Health Organization. The substance is used at much higher levels in the U.S. than in Europe, HuffPost News reported, while the European Union is even considering an outright ban on the herbicide.

Preservatives, which are thought to disrupt gut bacteria, may also be to blame, Meyer-Jax said. When traveling in Europe, some individuals invariably consume fewer processed foods, resulting in fewer preservatives. The smaller portion sizes often associated with European cuisine may also play a role.

Increased physical activity when traveling may also be a factor. Research suggests that walking can aid digestion, and European cities tend to be more pedestrian-friendly. As a result, vacationers are often more active, resulting in fewer digestive issues.

Experts cannot agree on the actual cause of the phenomenon or if it even exists at all. Ultimately, if the authentic Northern Italian gnocchi doesn’t disturb your digestion like the lasagna in New Jersey, it’s a win, placebo or not.         

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