Why European Bread Might Be Better for Your Stomach - The Public Goods Blog Why European Bread Might Be Better for Your Stomach - The Public Goods Blog

Why European Bread Might Be Better for Your Stomach

The architecture, the shopping, the food… There is no shortage of reasons to visit Europe.

four loves of bread in woven basket

But as a mostly wheat-free girl living in America, one of my favorite things about crossing the ocean is that I can eat the bread.

Now to be clear, I do not have Celiac nor have I been diagnosed with a gluten intolerance, although various doctors and naturopaths suspected my wheat sensitivity was partially to blame for a treacherous bout with leaky-gut a few years ago. For years before gluten became a scapegoat for the world’s problems, I complained of severe bloating and a feeling that I’d “swallowed bricks” whenever I ate wheat products.

But on my annual trips to Europe, I had no problem eating daily baguettes and bowls of pasta. Having just gotten back from a week of indulgence without immediate consequence again, recently I wondered, “How could it be that my reaction to the same products could be so extremely different, with the only variable being the location of consumption?”

As it turns out, I am not alone. There’s a huge propensity of travelers reporting less or no sensitivity to wheat products in Europe, when they suffer from major digestive reactions in the U.S.

So what could be causing this sudden invincibility? Is European wheat less glutenous? Is their bread made more naturally? Is it actually just all in your head? The answer is: It’s complicated.

The first theory is that you don’t really have a sensitivity if your vacation indulgence yields no consequence. There is definitely truth to the importance of a mindset toward food, in believing that something is good for you and allowing yourself to enjoy without guilt. On vacation one might take the time to experience a meal rather than mindlessly consuming “fuel” on the go.

However, the theory that it’s “all in your head” is quickly debunked by visitors from the other direction: coming from Europe to visit the United States and experiencing new problems that they do not have at home. My sister, brother-in-law and teenage nieces live in Brussels and spend at least a month or two every other summer visiting my parents and brother in California. Time after time, they report digestive distress, skin breakouts and weight gain after their time in the states, despite actually trying harder than usual to eat “California clean.” Things they take for granted at home like a simple sandwich become a subject of distrust and debate.

In the depth of my own battle with bread a few years ago, I went to Italy for a story on Brunello Cucinelli. While there, I made a point of asking all of the employees about their experience of food in the U.S. versus at home in Italy. Everyone I spoke to reported weight gain and general digestive distress during their visits to the U.S.

But was it the bread? The dairy? The general overindulgence while abroad?

So, with the American vilification of gluten, it stands to wonder, is the gluten content of European bread actually lower? In a word: yes. There are actually two main varieties of wheat: hard red wheat and soft wheat, the latter comprising the majority of European wheat and only around 23% of American wheat.

Contrary to what the name suggests, hard red wheat is actually responsible for the softer, fluffier, more protein-rich bread we Americans love — thanks to a less loveable ingredient, gluten. But the differences between European and American wheat go far beyond the gluten content. For many folks who can’t eat bread in the states but seem to have no trouble drinking rye cocktails, beer or other glutenous products, the culprit might be a different ingredient.

A huge factor in the quality of European wheat is not only the type of wheat that is grown, but in the way it is grown and harvested.

A huge factor in the quality of European wheat is not only the type of wheat that is grown, but in the way it is grown and harvested. The quality of European soil may translate into the enzyme and nutrient density of the crops, although it can also be argued that American soil actually holds more of certain healthy trace minerals like Selenium.

However, the use of pesticides such as Roundup — which are readily sprayed on the majority of our corn, soy and wheat crops — prove more problematic. Crops are sprayed in an effort to harvest more efficiently and yield product more quickly, but the active ingredient, glyphosate has been undeniably linked to the huge spike in gluten sensitivity and diseases like Celiac in recent years.

In fact, continued exposure to glyphosate can lead to a laundry list of even more serious and degenerative health problems. Not to mention, the use of genetically modified ingredients in general are much more heavily regulated if not entirely illegal in most of Europe, making that “simple sandwich” a lot less simple in the U.S. as it might be overseas.

And then there is the question of preservatives. If you’ve ever bought a baguette in France, you’ll know that it must either be consumed before the sun sets or be turned into croutons the next day. That limitation does not mean said baguette is less fresh than its American cousin, but quite the opposite.

The concept of our “daily bread” refers to freshly baked bread without the use of preservatives, that therefore must be purchased daily. Preservative-free bread may not be as shelf stable as a sliced American sandwich bread, but it avoids negative health effects ranging from gastrointestinal distress to hormonal imbalances, skin and respiratory ailments and even cancer. Given the choice, I’ll take the bread that goes stale in a day.

Practices like pesticide crop dusting have increased exponentially in recent years and may explain not only why some of us may have more food issues in America than Europe, but also more issues than our parents and grandparents did.

Have you experienced problems like these in the U.S. but not abroad? Do you find a difference between countries within the EU? Have you found imported flours to be a helpful alternative back home? We want to hear about your experiences, too.

Bio: Natalie Decleve is a bicoastal personal stylist and journalist specializing in living both sustainably and stylishly. Her global approach to style and commitment to the greater good are evident in her contributions to publications such as Mind Body GreenHarper’s Bazaar, SELF, Bon Appetit, A Hotel Life and her own site, Natty Style. Her natural philosophy on style is aimed at empowering her clients to look as authentically great on the outside as they feel on the inside. Follow @natty_style to get inspired.

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Comments (40)

  • Yes, I have Crohn’s disease and have cut out gluten and most dairy products because my body has a hard time processing it in large quantities. If I eat a wrap twice a month I’m fine but on a regular basis it causes problems. I’ve had zero digestive stress while traveling in Europe, except for maybe that one time I ate a really fatty piece of meat in Germany. I can eat pizza, pasta, croissants and other items and not worry. I still do mostly gluten-free to be in the safe side though.

  • I do not have Celiac disease, but have had plenty of digestion issues with American wheat products as well. I have had great luck eating Organically grown American wheat products, though I don’t know if they were made from the soft wheat or hard red wheat. They don’t bother me at all! This led me to believe it was the way they are growing and harvesting conventional wheat in the USA that was affecting me. I’ve read that for harvesting they first douse the wheat fields in glyphosate. This helps to loosen the hulls off the wheat kernels, before the machine comes through and separates the grain from the grassy part. Scary stuff!

  • I make a lot of my own baked goods so that I can eliminate preservatives. I have also switched to organic flour since learning about the Roundup in regular flour. I contacted a certain company (named after a character from Camelot) and asked them if their wheat was harvested using glyphosate. They said yes, but it’s within FDA approved safe limits for consumption. I said really? There is a safe amount of weed killer to consume! No thank you.

  • I moved to the US from Europe almost 20 years ago, and went from loving bread to not being able to eat it.

    Now I’ve found a French bakery that used imported flour and I can eat all of their products.

    However, I can also eat American sourdough and sprouted bread, and I recently read that both processes reduce the gluten content to almost nothing.

    • Not correct. Using a sourdough culture to make bread has no effect whatsoever on the bread protein (gluten) in the finished loaf.

  • I have this same issue. Gluten intolerance in the states but nothing in Europe, and I’ve been all over. My last 3 month trek I did 15 countries and only got sick once, off boxed pasta in Paris. Having learned this in been back in the states I have found that I’m able to eat Sour Dough without issue. Still figuring out how my body works. But it’s nice to hear other people have this same experience.

    • Thank you for commenting, Christoph! As a small token of our appreciation, you can use the coupon code, PGBLOGFAM, to save $5 on your next order.

  • We just got back from Europe and I say I agree with this article. Not only do I experience digestion issues while eating bread int eh US, but I was also recently diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes so I try to avoid carbs when I can (primarily bread and pasta). But in Europe I decided to drop the diet and enjoy myself. Low and behold, no stomach issues and my glucose levels were down when I came back from Europe. Since being home (int he US) my numbers are back up. Interesting.

    Thank you for the article.

  • We have had the same experience. Italy, Spain and France no issues, but as soon as we return to the USA, bloating and an odd feeling of fullness. I had no idea about the glyphosates although it doesn’t suprise me. Our local whole foods caries Caputo flour frome Naples, so we ae going to give that a try.

  • Our frequent trips to Europe are quite literally breadfests. It’s such a pleasure to enjoy what we cannot tolerate at home. Have taken to making our bread at home and tote home flour each time.

  • Same experience here. I mostly ate paleo for the last 10 years, can’t avoid bread in portugal and stayed there for almost two weeks. Went to Iceland a few weeks later and indulged in more bread. Lost weight since then. Last night I baked my first bread with flour from france, woke up even lighter. At this rate I’ll have lost like 10 pounds in a month. I know there’s a lot of theory out there, can’t put my finger on it. It is something that needs investigation, as I believe it could be one of the major causes of obesity in the US. That and the sugar and corn intake. I wish our FDA would look into it.

  • I just got back from Spain for 3 weeks and before that I was “gluten free” for about 8 years. I’ve been tested for celiac’s and allergies and all have come back negative but I would get horrible stomach pains and break out in hives all over my torso and arms if I accidentally ingested wheat flours. In Spain I ate EVERYTHING with no problems. Now I am so excited to start experimenting with sourdough and get my own starter. I am also thinking of having some Spanish flour imported for baking. My life has been changed. I’m so grateful to not feel limited anymore… Just need to be so much more deliberate with my bread, pasta, and pastry choices. Or maybe this country should just wake up and realize we’re poisoning ourselves with our harvesting practices.

  • Potassium bromate and folic acid are commonly added to AP flour in the US. The former is a carcinogen, banned almost everywhere else in the world. The latter is a FDA required synthetic (not found in nature) “vitamin” (also supposedly a carcinogen with many digestive side effects, see WebMD) that isn’t used in the EU. Thanks FDA, worthless bureaucrats.

  • This holds true for both myself and two other friends that I’ve traveled with! Both are SEVERELY gluten intolerant in the US but can eat with complete freedom in the EU. For myself, I traveled in the EU for three months and didn’t gain a pound while eating anything my heart desired and not exercising besides the touristy walks. When I returned to the US, my face broke out, and I gained weight despite consuming less food and exercising regularly. I also wish the FDA would look into it in greater detail.

  • I have no digestive issues with gluten but get horrific back spasms ingesting it late in the day in America but two months ago I ate my fill of bread products on a river cruise and experienced ZERO spasms. I finally am discovering why. Thanks for this informative article. I’m off to find a bakery that uses imported flour.

    • So glad to see others sharing this experience! I am surprised there is not more discussion on this on the web. I had gut-related allergies to many, many protein-based foods (wheat, dairy, soy, nuts etc) for about 8 years, but after landing in Switzerland, had to eat wheat, and surprisingly all issues faded away and were totally gone in a few days. Saw much of continental Europe with no problems anywhere: France, Germany, Netherlands,Czech Republic. I was most surprised the allergies stayed away for an entire YEAR when I returned to the US. My allergies are back now, so I super motivated to get to the bottom of it and wonder – what other countries outside Europe would not trigger my allergies?

    • I had sciatic nerve pain for six years until I went on a gluten free diet, and then it magically disappeared forever in a matter of a few weeks. It wasn’t until I spent time in Europe and experimented with their wheat that I determined gluten is a red herring, at least for me and probably for many others. Potassium bromate is likely the biggest culprit. It’s banned in most other developed countries. Our authorities say it’s okay because baking breaks it down, but when the O3 is cooked off you’re left with potassium bromide, an equally toxic chemical.

  • My husband gets eczema from eating bread here in the US. He’s had this problem his whole life, but his doctor just kept prescribing hydrocortizone cream to treat the problem rather than try to eliminate it. After eating whole30 and reintroducing wheat, he discovered what his trigger is; however, last year we took a trip to Switzerland and Austria and he tried bread there multiple times and had no eczema. As soon as he started bread again back home, the eczema came back. I would love to be able to figure out exactly what it is in the bread here that causes it! I suspect pesticides or higher gluten content but don’t know for sure. I actually haven’t tried organic flour, so I will do that.

  • So living in the states… how do I get bread from Europe? I typically buy the Ezekiel products. Is there anything else better? Any feedback is appreciated.

  • One key to this conundrum is that many European breads are very simple and have only four ingredients: flour, salt, water, and yeast. I agree European soft wheat may make a big difference since it has less gluten and that gluten breaks down easily. Glyphosate and possibly other pesticides are likely a problem as well.

    Additionally, I believe the following issues may create digestive issues in American wheat-based products:

    – potassium bromate which is used in American breads as a dough conditioner and whitener (as Eric mentioned)
    – European wheat’s “age” from farm to table is 8 months, while the age of American wheat from farm to table is 12 months
    – most European breads are made using the sourdough process which consumes much of the gluten
    – American bread makers eliminated a key type of yeast from bread making many years ago (I don’t know its name), while the Europeans still use it

    I cannot eat even a bite of bread or other wheat-based products made with American wheat without having severe stomach upset and diarrhea. However, I can eat bread in Europe without any problems. From 1997-2006 I visited Switzerland one to four times a year and found that eating bread, pasta and other wheat products was not a problem. In 2013 I was in Europe for 30 days and decided to do a test by eating breads, pizza, pasta, or pastries in every country I visited at least once a day. I visited Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Austria. Amazingly, I was able to eat wheat products during the entire month with no digestive issues.

    Please do some additional investigating based on everyone’s comments and write another article or update this one. Be sure to copy all of us on it. Many thanks!

  • I have had gluten issues the last three years or more and stopped eating wheat products in the US. I just came back from a trip to Tahiti a country owned by France. My sister-in-law went with me and suggested that I tried their wheat products. I was nervous to do so because I didn’t want to have the same digestive symptoms I normally have in the US. I tried a piece of bread and to my surprise had no issues. Each day I ate bread, rolls, pizza, anything I wanted. I couldn’t believe it! I wouldn’t have believed it unless I had experienced it myself. Now I am looking into buying Italian or other European wheat for cooking at home.

  • I have to stay away from breads here in the US, and only eat them occasionally. I get what feels like a lump in my stomach, or in my intestines. I’ve had numerous colonoscopy procedures, and reportedly no issues. When in France I ate their breads everyday, including some wonderful cheesier sandwiches. No issues at all, until one day we stopped at a MacDonalds. I hurt for several days.

    Since, I’ve been back here, I find breads a nu-sense. If I eat them discretely my suffering is lessened.

    I think I should just move abroad!

  • If I wrote my story, I’d be singing to the choir. I too have many of the same issues and noticed a difference while in Europe. I was wondering if anyone has tried ordering some of the French or Italian flours off of Amazon and if baking bread with it has made a difference? And if so, what brand do you recommend? Thanks

    • Yes, I cannot eat American flour. I’ve been GF for six years and recently decided that I’ve been hearing about hoe European bread doesn’t make you as sick. I’m very sensitive and get very ill with any flour from the US. I do not have celiac. I’ve successfully purchased both French and italian “00” flour from Amazon and made wonderful bread, cookies and cakes! It’s like a whole new world is available to me. I believe most French and Italian mills are shut down so Amazon is out of stock for most of it.

      • I’ve purchased on Amazon as well. I bought a 10 pack for $54. I just looked it up for a friend and it was $130! It was also out of stock.

  • I’ve been gluten free with leaky gut for 7 years in April. I believed that all wheat made me very ill. I heard about how people with gluten intolerance have successful eaten in Europe with no problems. I took the scariest risk of my life and purchased French wheat flour from Amazon and made my first ever loaf of bread. I took two days off work anticipating how ill I would be to eat wheat. I ate and I waited. I woke the next day feeling fine. Curious that I hadn’t eaten enough to make me sick; I ate my first sandwich in 6 years. Nothing happened. I was shocked, then mad and then excited. I make two loaves of bread a week, cookies, cakes and whatever else I want! It’s a little like living in the matrix. How did I not know this for six years? I missed out on so much and denied myself. I’m not gluten intolerant. I’m processing, enrichment and pesticide intolerant. European flour gave me and my family a chance to be less careful and cook together. I’m incredibly grateful. I’ve tried French, Italian, and German flour. I mostly buy from Amazon but, with COVID-19 most mills are shut down. I can buy Greek and Ukraine flour at my local Mediterranean market and I’ll try that this week.

    Best of luck to you and I’m out here spreading the word.

  • Same. VERY gluten intolerant for 19 years. Went to Europe and stuffed my mouth and my backpack with as much bread and pasta as I could. Two and a half weeks of heaven! Agree with comment above that FDA is worthless bureaucrats. Id like a better solution than buying small portions on Amazon.

  • I found this out in France back in 2018 and have been baking in america with european flour without any reaction!!! no more gluten free bread or pasta- my life is changed forever! I get asthma when I have american wheat and no reaction to european flour

  • I don’t have celiac disease and don’t show up allergic to gluten, however anything in the US that contains wheat gives me a migraine. After going on a cruise to Europe, I discovered I could eat all the bread and pasta without a migraine! Now my husband and I only go on cruises that don’t get their flour from the U.S. It is pure heaven!!! So sad because I suspect a lot of people are having serious health issues and don’t realize it’s our own food supply!

  • look it up NO SUGAR added to bread/products in england etc. we add sugar and corn syrup to everything. They find it disgusting. Will add bloat weight gain etc.

  • I get imported dry pasta from Italy. 4 simple ingredients. The dry pasta I get in the USA has 10+ ingredients. I have not been to Europe, but just based on this, it definitely does not surprise me.

  • I had never had a migraine until my family moved back to Canada after 4 years living in England and traveling in Europe at every chance. Within a few weeks of moving back I was being woken up by terrible headaches which often didn’t respond well to medication. After a few years, an MRI and treatment with Elavil I tried going gluten-free after hearing the author of wheat belly speaking on the radio. Gut issues hadn’t been a major part of my trouble but I did get bloating and so I tried it and suddenly no more migraines. For 2 years I was GF and headaches were infrequent and manageable. Then we went to Greece on holiday – I couldn’t pass up the bread and was anticipating migraine , but nothing – so I kept eating the bread and baked goods I had been missing and no trouble the entire time. Once back home I tried a few variations – organic unbleached flour- no good. I hadn’t thought of importing European flour!

  • Americans aren’t intolerant to foods, it’s the actual food system; it is poisoned. It is meant to make you sick to generate Healthcare clients.

    The USA poisons it’s citizens through food.

  • I don’t think the Hard/soft is the issuse, certianly in the UK.
    We have 2 flours on the shelf
    – Plain flour (or self-raising with baking powder already in) for cakes and pastries
    – Strong flour for breads.
    Strong flour is Hard wheat, plain flour is soft wheat.
    Bread in the UK is made of strong bread flour. If (?) bread in the US is made of AP flour, then this is a mix. So the UK bread is *more* hard wheat and more gluten.
    I think this will be more true of artisan bakeries than of commercial bread. None of the nice bakeries would consider using plain flour, they all use the strong bread flour as its optimised for the purpose.

  • OHHHH yeah! Brain fog, need to sleep, inability to concentrate, cannot construct nor say complete sentences, MAJOR problem with insulin overload.

    Im a non-cyst variety PCOS patient with also Trigeminal Neuralgia, Chronic Migraines, Alopecia, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, and Im basically a frigging guinea pig.

    For a solid 25 years, I have a fully clean intake, everything made from scratch at home, only dining at scratch-made kitchens, etc… I gave up gluten because of what that garbage was causing me to feel. It is a nightmare!

    My Endocrinologist was informed that I was heading to Scotland (this was June/July 2019) and I asked for her guidance with food intakes. Both the doctor and I researched that there is significant (you speak the truth!!!!!) regulation against GMO/RoundUp, etc… She advised me to just be cautious and to enjoy my time and experience there.

    I had fresh, homemade pasta and breads made with Tipo 00 flour that was organic/non-GMO. The alcohol in Scotland tasted UN-FREAKING-BELIEVABLE! Everything tasted so much cleaner there! And, I allowed myself two servings of real foods per day. I did drink quite a bit my first three days there, I wont lie! LOL!!!

    But, the common denominator was that, I should have had a gluten-related problem. I should have had reactions. I had NONE….. NONE. No brain fog, slept well, was able to have great conversations, no issues with speech, thinking nor the ability to concentrate – I was a fine-tuned machine! And, even with the more potency of liquor over there, I was not hung over!!!!

    When I came back to the States to see my Endocrinologist again, I shared with her my entire intake. I was VERY honest and upfront “my first time out of the country, I lived it like I was actually Scottish.” She knows I wont lie to her! LOL! I had ZERO reaction…

    Ive known all along that the American food supply has always been messed with, ever since the 1950’s. Thankfully, where I cook everything from scratch, I dont have issues.

    Tonight (6/4/20), I have imported Italian tipo 00 flour that I have used to make a table-side bread to go with dinner. Where it has been a year ago since basking in the glory of some of the most amazing Scottish foods, Im gonna see how I handle things. If I have no reactions… I am going back to my Endocrinologist, which is in two weeks from today…. and I will share with her my findings and get her imput.

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