Contributing Monkie Julie Morris
Published on August 20, 2008
It’s always possible there’s a corporate conspiracy at work, but all of a sudden it seems like everyone is avoiding gluten. And while the wheat industry may be stocking up on tissues, the rest of the food industry has forged ahead. If you look around, you’ll find the marketplace is flooded with thousands of gluten-free goodies — everything from gluten-free breads to gluten-free cake mix to gluten-free salad dressings. Retailers have dedicated entire sections of their stores to “gluten-free zones,” and according to the marketing research firm Packaged Facts, sales of gluten-free products have increased from $210 million in 2001 to just shy of $700 million in 2006. That’s a lot of not-gluten.
But here’s my question: why are we supposed to avoid gluten?
By definition, gluten is just a fancy name for a protein mixture found in wheat. It’s used very broadly in foods because it acts like a thickening agent or glue to help ingredients stick together (like in bread dough). Gluten occurs naturally in all forms of wheat, and can be found in trace elements in other grains like barley and rye due to the grains being processed on the same machines as their gluten-ridden counterparts. In the processed food world especially, gluten is ubiquitous: cereals, soups, ice cream, candy, pasta, pastries… McDonalds even admitted recently that their french fries had gluten in the flavoring.
Gluten is of primary concern to people who’ve been diagnosed with Celiac disease. These individuals must permanently eliminate all traces of gluten from their diet to avoid triggering severe autoimmune reactions within the gut. It’s a serious condition, and less than 1% of the population experiences it (but this number appears to be growing due to both increased awareness and better testing). Other people may find themselves diagnosed with food allergies or sensitivities to gluten and/or grains, and must therefore avoid the allergen. And, of course, there are people who just feel that their body functions better without wheat.
But what I find curious is the stigma that seems to have formed around gluten. The other day, a gentleman in a health food store offered me a sample. I asked if it were strictly plant-based (because that’s what I eat) and his response was, “No, but it’s got all natural ingredients and it’s gluten-free, so it’s healthy.”
How did gluten-free go from addressing the needs of a specific health condition to being synonymous with “healthy.” Coca-Cola is technically gluten-free, but that doesn’t make it good for you. All “gluten-free” implies is that the product doesn’t contain gluten.
So, if “gluten-free” isn’t necessarily good, is “gluten-full” necessarily bad? According to an article in the New York Times, the jury is still out. Researchers “have hypothesized that… wheat has become so prevalent in the Western diet that humans are actually overdosing on it. While debatable, this view could also account for [those] who believe they have subclinical gluten sensitivity.”
The article also provides theories as to why some people might feel better going gluten-free. Finding grains difficult to digest could be due to the bran and germ being a “natural broom to relieve constipation [which] can also cause gas and diarrhea.” Additionally, (if applicable), “processed and refined wheat products can cause a spike in blood sugar, followed by a drop, that can also make people feel ill.”
All good points indeed, yet it could be argued that a balanced dietary lifestyle rich in whole, plant-based foods (including grains) could provide relief for many of the aforementioned conditions. Furthermore, researchers have yet to find a direct, factual link between our 10,000-year-old relationship with wheat and universally adverse clinical conditions or disease. But we’re are all little different, right? Some people are allergic to nuts. Personally, I can’t digest onions. And clearly, some people do best avoiding gluten.
But for those without a problem, I’m not convinced that simply going gluten-free will make a clinical difference in one’s overall health.
It’s great that gluten-free products have found a place on the shelves. Choices are good. (And for those with sensitivities, they’re essential.) But until science has a stronger case for avoiding it, I plan to continue enjoying a balance of all the varieties of whole grain that nature has to offer.