“I ate pasta every day on my trip to Italy, but I can’t eat it at all when I’m at home.”
“I can eat all the bread I want in France, but it makes me so bloated in the U.S.”
You’ve probably heard a friend say these things, or maybe you’ve experienced it yourself. Essentially the story goes like this: Someone who usually adheres to a gluten-free or low-gluten diet says eating items with gluten while at home in the U.S. causes bloating, abdominal pain and an upset stomach, but they can load up on the carbs while traveling in Europe without any symptoms.
Many believe this is because wheat grown in the U.S. has a higher gluten content, and that more herbicides are used in the production of wheat in the U.S.
But could this actually be true? It’s tough to say, according to nutrition experts, and some believe it could be a placebo effect.
“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,” said Claire Baker, senior communications director at Beyond Celiac.
Here’s a look at some of the factors that may contribute to the idea that someone can eat pasta, bread and pastries with no problems in Europe but not in the U.S.
First, why do some people have problems eating gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and other grains. More and more Americans are reporting gluten sensitivities and intolerances.
About 1% of the U.S. population — though experts say the number is actually much higher — has celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disease that causes damage to the small intestines when someone eats gluten. For people with the disease, consuming gluten can cause malnutrition, infertility and an increased risk of thyroid disease and other conditions.
“No one who has been diagnosed with celiac disease by a medical provider should eat gluten in any form, from anywhere,” Baker said. So, if you have the disease, avoid gluten at all costs, even when you’re traveling.
Not everyone who has problems with gluten has celiac disease, though. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) causes symptoms similar to celiac disease — including bloating, diarrhea, fatigue, headaches and a skin rash — but eating gluten doesn’t harm the intestines. Research also suggests that the symptoms of some people who suspect they have NCGS might not actually be caused by gluten.
People with NCGS should avoid gluten while abroad, but it’s ultimately up to the individual, Baker said. “Even with gluten sensitivity, while on vacation may not be the best time to test this theory, as being ill in your hotel room is probably not how you imagined your holiday.”
Different types of flour contain different levels of gluten
All wheat contains some level of gluten, but those levels vary depending on the type of wheat, said Alyssa Pike, senior manager of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council (IFIC).
“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,” said Christina Meyer-Jax, a standard process nutrition chair and assistant professor at Northwestern Health Sciences University.
But, there’s no way to say for sure that the bread you’re eating in Europe is made strictly from soft wheat. Both Europe and America grow different types of wheat, so some places in Europe grow hard wheat, Baker added. And, in 2021, 17.5% of U.S. wheat exports went to Europe.
She added that the incidence of celiac disease in Europe has been increasing at the same rate as in the U.S., and Europeans with the condition avoid gluten in their home countries.
Research also shows that the climate where wheat is grown can affect its protein composition, said Tamika Sims, senior director of food technology communications at IFIC. Other studies show that baking techniques could potentially lower gluten levels.
Chemicals may be more to blame than gluten
The digestibility of bread and other wheat products might not be related to gluten at all.
“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 compared to their European counterparts,” Meyer-Jax said.
Glyphosate is an herbicide that’s used on wheat and other products, and some scientists believe it’s potentially connected to increased reports of wheat products causing health issues. One study found that “fish exposed to glyphosate develop digestive problems that are reminiscent of celiac disease.”
The World Health Organization has classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” but the herbicide (the main ingredient in the weed killer Roundup) is widely used in the U.S. It’s also used in Europe —though to a lesser degree than in the U.S. But, many suspect the European Union might ban the herbicide soon. Europe also imports wheat from around the world, which has likely been grown with glyphosate.
Preservatives and other ingredients in wheat products could play a role, too. Preservatives must be approved as safe for humans by the European Food Safety Authority or U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Sims emphasized. But, they might disrupt gut bacteria for some people, Meyer-Jax said. This could cause diarrhea, constipation, bloating, rashes, headaches and inflammation, which might resemble a gluten intolerance.
How you’re eating in Europe may play a role
Lifestyle factors may contribute to how you feel when you eat gluten when traveling abroad. In Europe, you’re likely to eat fewer processed foods, smaller portions of gluten items and more fresh foods, Meyer-Jax said.
“If someone who is used to more processed foods visits a bakery where most items are fresh instead of from a grocery store or eats freshly made pasta without additives or preservatives, there may be a different reaction,” Baker said.
Movement is another factor. You might end up walking around museums or strolling through shops after you eat when visiting Europe. Research shows that walking after meals can help with digestion, which might relieve stomach aches or discomfort.
Stress can disrupt your gut and cause stomach problems, too. When traveling, you’re likely enjoying yourself and feeling less stress, Meyer-Jax said. “Being relaxed can help your digestion feel a lot better with or without gluten.”
So, bottom line: Experts say there isn’t a definitive answer to why you feel like you can tolerate gluten in Europe. Still, there are many reasons that you might feel better when you eat bread and pasta. Maybe it has to do with gluten, maybe it doesn’t.
“Being relaxed, eating fresh, unprocessed foods and walking more could help people vacationing feel better in general and aid in their digestion,” Baker said. “There could be a placebo effect.”