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The Gluten Dilemma

August 11, 2012

Gluten is a complicated subject to bring up these days. The word has become almost taboo—shoppers wince and pass by wheat bread, forgo crackers and shun pasta. Ten years ago “gluten”—a protein in wheat that holds dough together—was hardly even in the American vocabulary. So how did a previously unknown culprit emerge as one of the biggest culinary pariahs in just under a decade? Are we as a nation being sold a gluten-free fad? Has the allergy been among us this whole time without our knowing? Or has something in our current food system generated new reactions in our bodies? Are we somehow more likely to develop allergies than past generations?

Not long ago, Americans considered red meat a killer and avoided eggs like the heart attacks they were thought to cause. Then, in the early 2000s  [or you  , there was a resurgence of the diet made famous by the late Dr. Robert Atkins. Suddenly the exact foods we were eating to stay thin—cereals, breads, pasta—became the sources of our rising weight. As Michael Pollan observed in his 2006 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma:


These high-protein, low-carb diets found support in a handful of new epidemiological studies suggesting that the nutritional orthodoxy that had held sway in America since the 1970s might be wrong…. Within months, supermarket shelves were restocked and restaurant menus rewritten to reflect the new nutritional wisdom.


The Atkins Diet paved the way for a new group of restaurant and supermarket products that capitalized on the low-carb diet trend. The “low carb” became the perfect bridge for “wheat free” food alternatives. Wheat and gluten-free breads, pastas and cereals rapidly made their way into restaurants and supermarkets across the country. The trend has continued and magnified to such a degree that we are currently in the midst of a sort of gluten-free craze. Now, a new self-diagnosed gluten-sensitive consumer base has started to see these products as a healthier alternative. What was once deemed healthy and harmless is now among the most avoided edibles. This culinary shift is also a means for companies to create a new wave of specialty products that appeal to a growing number of consumers. The more dangerous wheat appears to be for our collective health, the more wheat-free products companies can sell. General Mills is leading the race with over 300 gluten-free products—like Chex cereal, Bisquick pancake mix and Betty Crocker cake mixes—and has even launched a website, But is the allergy real, or is it a fad?

To determine what information was available on the subject I did a cursory Google search for “gluten allergy.”  Most of what I pulled up were extensive lists of potential symptoms of gluten sensitivity, anything from headaches and anxiety to autism or multiple sclerosis.

A particular favorite of mine comes from a Huffington Post article by Dr. Mark Hyman—a self-professed practitioner of “functional medicine” and founder of The UltraWellness Center—titled, “Gluten: What You Don’t Know Might Kill You.” The first line reads: “Something you’re eating may be killing you and you probably don’t even know it!” What might be killing you, according to doctor Hyman, is whole-wheat toast.

Most of the information I found online sided with the dangers of eating wheat, but little of the information explained what Wheat related diseases are, or how they affect the body. It doesn’t bother me that these blogs are discussing a potential food allergy, but it does bother me that they’re doing it with such fervor as to startle a devout cynic like myself into thinking I might have an obscure disease just because I read a list of relatively common symptoms. Suddenly otherwise healthy people are clamoring for gluten-free products as an assumed healthy alternative to one of the world’s oldest food staples.

In “Against the Grain,” an article published recently in Columbia University’s alumni magazine, journalist David Craig explains: “Celiac disease occurs when the small intestine, upon mistaking gluten for a toxin, attacks its own lining to diminish its absorptive power and thus seal off the rest of the body from the threat.” For the one percent of people with a sensitivity to gluten (approximately 300,000 Americans), the stomach reacts as stated above, by generating an allergic reaction. Craig goes on to quote a study done by the Mayo Clinic:


One study conducted recently at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and based on analyses of old, preserved blood samples, suggests that since 1959 the prevalence of celiac disease in this country has increased from 1 in 400, to 1 in 100. A major study in Finland in 2004 found the same rate of increase over that period. In both countries, diabetes rates also increased fourfold. A widely discussed hypothesis, offered first by the British epidemiologist David P. Strachan, is that people are becoming more prone to autoimmune disorders like diabetes and celiac disease because children are exposed to fewer germs and bacteria than in the past. This might stunt the development of the immune system, say many scientists.


In other words, our reaction as a society may be overblown, and it may be compounded by marketing, but in actuality we are four times as likely to be allergic to gluten now than we were 50 years ago.

So, if the allergic reaction to this relatively harmless protein has quadrupled in just over 50 years, perhaps the solution is not to buy into the gluten-free lifestyle, but to ask ourselves why we are so much more susceptible to allergens now than we were back then. Is it possible that our collective immune systems have gotten weaker over time?

As a society, we’re relying more on preservatives and sanitizers to keep us clean than during any other time in history. Most of the foods we eat are pasteurized, irradiated or otherwise sterilized to extend shelf life and maintain sanitation. This sanitation, however, deprives us of natural antibodies we’ve historically gotten from food—a little dirt on a freshly dug carrot or the naturally occurring bacteria present in fermented foods. As reporter Burkhard Bilger explained in “Nature’s Spoils,” an article for the New Yorker:


The immune system builds up fewer antibodies in a sterile environment; the deadliest pathogens can grow more resistant to antibiotics; and innocent bystanders such as peanuts or gluten are more likely to provoke allergic reactions. All of which may explain why a number of studies have found that children raised on farms are less susceptible to allergies, asthma, and autoimmune diseases. The cleaner we are, it sometimes seems, the sicker we get.

The microorganisms we pick up from the dirt on a farm can also exist in the air around us. Natural fermentation is a process that integrates our ecology into our bodies and may also help support our immune systems. This is why doctors tell us to eat yogurt after a stint of antibiotics. In his book Wild Fermentation, Sandor Katz touts the digestive benefits of fermented foods. “Eating fermented foods live is an incredibly healthy practice, directly supplying your digestive tract with living cultures essential to breaking down food and assimilating nutrients.” He mentions a study showing that “wheat that has undergone fermentation is easier to digest than unfermented wheat.” This suggests that gluten-sensitive people might have an easier time digesting sourdough, in which the wheat is fermented before baking, than they would with something like whole-wheat bread.

Fermented foods were a staple in all people’s diets until around World War II. G.I.’s returning from war coincided with the explosion of suburbs and with them came supermarkets. This suburban growth created a more homogenized customer base, and marketing became a driving force in consumerism during the 1950s. This affected the way Americans consume on a grand scale, but in food it ended up eliminating place-based diets. Up until that point most people bought meat from a butcher, bread from a baker and did much of their own preserving out of necessity using plants that grew in their region. New methods of canning and chemical preserving on a grand scale made it possible for things like pickles and hot dogs to be distributed all over the country from a single source. Branding became more important in the race to sell goods and name-brand items won out over local products. Meanwhile, scientists found more ways to extend the shelf life of foods, and things like fresh juice and cheese were replaced by Tang and Velveeta. Over the next 60+ years processed foods prevailed and fresh foods became less essential. Fermented foods are not shelf-stable and were traded for more supermarket-suitable goods. Thus, fermented pickles and fresh cheeses were replaced by vinegared pickles and the aforementioned “cheese product.” The live, active cultures of fermented foods and beverages may be what our immune systems need, but these things are harder to come by and sometimes have to be made at home. This takes time—time that many of us aren’t willing to spend.

Celiac disease is truly debilitating. I’m not offering a cure for the disease for those who have been diagnosed, but I worry that assuming the solution to any wheat sensitivity is to stop eating bread may only compound the problem. If you feel like you have a sensitivity to gluten, avoiding gluten may not be the answer. Buying heavily processed gluten-free snacks may be just as harmful as consuming any other processed snack food. By clamoring for gluten-free processed foods instead of looking at the real reasons we’ve developed these allergies, we’re only temporarily diverting the issue.  So, barring a home-cooked lifestyle, what can we do? To those who fear they may have gluten sensitivity: It may be that what you really need is fresh produce, exercise, and sunlight. And it is possible that eating some fermented foods will introduce your body to a better brand of bacteria that will make your stomach better equipped to process things like gluten.

Our food system is broken. It’s not a coincidence that rates of diseases like celiac and diabetes are on the rise. It’s because of what we’re eating. Replacing one packaged product with another is a corporation’s way of dealing with it. It doesn’t matter what you buy, as long as you buy it from them. The real answer is to take food seriously. Supporting local restaurants helps and supporting local food producers is key, but the best way to make change is in the kitchen. To change the system we have to buy more fresh food and we have to learn to cook and eat it. Advertising affects nearly everything we buy, from what we eat to what we wear to what soap we wash our hands with. The grander reach of the gluten dilemma is not to buy a new cake mix to replace the old, but to try instead to bake something from scratch. To consider our meals as entities that are important as our cars or the TV shows we watch. To sit somewhere comfortable and look at our meals with joy and appreciation. We have been trained to treat most of our meals as a nuisance—something we have to do grudgingly between our other priorities—rather than something to look forward to. As a result we eat for convenience rather than for nourishment. Unless we put our feet down and pick our forks up in favor of local, sustainable and homemade foods we won’t have access to the foods necessary to improve our collective diets .Now we need to collectively reach out to our friends and families and make a commitment not just to eat, but to eat well .

“There is no debating that it’s ‘better’ to cook at home whenever—and as often as—possible.”

–       Anthony Bourdain (2010)


“One of the strongest of human laws is that which commands respect for the life of any man with whom one has shared bread and salt.”

–       Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1826)


“The foregoing celebration of local food rests, admittedly, on the threatening assumption that someone will cook.”

–       Joan Dye Gussow (2001)


“I must eat to live; I want to live well; therefore I must eat well. And in these days of spurious and distorted values, the best way to eat is simply, without affectation or adulteration.”

–       M. F. K. Fisher (1950)


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