During my recent trip to Japan, I noticed many people of all ages wearing surgical masks to screen out spring pollens and lower their chances of catching airborne viruses – and wondered if the heavy consumption of gluten in wheat and wheat-based products in the Japanese diet has been a significant factor in weakening people’s immune systems, making them more sensitive to pollens and contagious illnesses.
Japanese politeness and consideration of other people are traits foreigners are struck by when we visit there. This concern for others even extends to wearing a face mask to protect other people from catching one’s germs. Until 2003, the typical mask was cotton with a pouch the user could line with gauze. The gauze was discarded at the end of the day and the mask was washed between uses. These masks were worn only when people were ill and couldn’t take off from work or school.
In 2003 a Japanese medical supply company called Unicharm released a new kind of mask designed specifically for hay fever sufferers. The Unicharm mask is made of a non-woven material, is completely disposable, cheap to buy in bulk and more effective in blocking out pollens.
Sales of Unicharm masks more than tripled since their introduction in 2003. In 2009, Japanese fear that an H1N1 (swine flu) outbreak would spread there from elsewhere in Asia, worries about micro-particulate matter after earthquakes and the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear plant accident in 2011 all produced large spikes in sales.
And now that the wearing of surgical masks is a common sight in Japan, young people have started wearing them for another reason: To make it less likely that people will try talking to them in public. (Baseel, 2014)
So back to the question of gluten intolerance among the Japanese: The answer seems to be yes, it’s on the rise.
A 2013 article presenting results from a Japanese study published in the Journal of Gastoenterology concludes: “Despite the increased incidence of IBD and high positivity for serum celiac antibody in Japanese IBD patients, no true-positive celiac disease was noted, suggesting the presence of gluten intolerance in these populations.” (Watanabe, 2013)
HOW WHEAT BECAME POPULAR IN JAPAN
An article called Waves of Grain: How did Japan come to prefer wheat over rise? by Nadia Arumugam relates the history of how wheat has become such a prominent part of the modern Japanese diet. I found it a fascinating and worthwhile read – a page turner in fact.
In the early 1900’s the Japanese consumed small quantities of wheat in udon noodle dishes and in Western-style cafes serving pastries and cakes.
Japanese civilians began consuming a bit more wheat out of necessity during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). And during World War II in the Pacific, rice crops went to feed Japanese troops while Japanese civilians resorted to eating even more wheat in the form of breads, dumplings and udon noodles just to fill their stomachs.
The postwar period in Japan saw the population on the edge of mass starvation. American emergency aid delivered large amounts of wheat flour and lard. Breads became popular along with cheap, stomach-filling Chinese-style foods made from wheat.
In the mid-1950’s, the U.S. signed a series of deals with Japan to provide surplus American wheat to the Japanese. In return, we loaned money to the Japanese weapons industry. That was followed by greatly intensified American efforts to get the Japanese to trade their rice for bread. American scientists told Japanese citizens that not only was a rice-based diet nutritionally incomplete, but that it actually led to brain damage!
Then the coup de grace in the wheat-for-rice conversion was a school lunch program the U.S. initiated during our post-war occupation of Japan from 1945-1952. We provided their school children a daily lunch that included bread made from America’s surplus wheat, powdered milk and a meat-based stew. (Arumugam, 2013)
And now you see all sorts of mostly insipid-looking wheat breads, cookies and snacks for sale all over Japan.
AND MODERN WHEAT IS EVEN WORSE
Modern wheat is now being made even more problematic for human and animal consumption by a Monsanto-produced wheat seed that has been genetically modified to be glyphosate-resistant (often called Roundup Ready – ie, a seed that has been genetically engineered to be resistant to Monsanto’s popular herbicide, Roundup) – like their widely used genetically modified corn, soybean, canola, cotton, sugar beet and alfalfa seeds. Even organic wheat fields have become contaminated with Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds that have spread from other farmers’ fields. Japan is very concerned about the health dangers posed by genetically modified wheat so has taken the step of canceling its contract with American wheat farmers to avoid this additional threat to its population. (Connealy, 2013)
Read more about the dangers posed by GENETICALLY MODIFIED CROPS.
Arumgam, N. (2012). Waves of Grain: How did Japan come to prefer wheat over rise?. Slate.com. See http://www.slate.com/articles/life/food/2012/04/wheat_in_japan_how_the_nation_learned_to_love_the_american_grain_instead_of_rice_.html
Baseel, C. (2014). Why do Japanese people wear surgical masks. It’s not always for health reasons. JapanToday.com. See http://japantoday.com/category/lifestyle/view/why-do-japanese-people-wear-surgical-masks-its-not-always-for-health-reasons
Connealy, L. E. (2013). Why the rise in gluten allergies & celiac. HumanEventsHealth.com. See http://www.humanevents.com/2013/06/10/why-the-rise-in-gluten-allergies-celiac/
Watanabe, C., et al. (2013). Prevalence of serum celiac antibody in patients with IBD in Japan. Journal of Gastroenterology. Published online June 2013. See http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00535-013-0838-6#page-1
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