Gluten, Allergies, Diseases, Fad Diets and Misconceptions

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Gluten Free Bagel

Perhaps you’ve missed this. It is what I like to call the gluten wars. Let’s get a few things clear. There are people walking around who have an allergy to bread. There are others who have celiacs. They are not the same condition, but both are treated the same way. Neither group of people should eat bread, or any product containing gluten. Those with an intolerance, when mild, could eat it, rarely.

Let’s also make this clear. This is a very small group of the population. Here from the Celiacs Foundation.

About 1 in 100 people — about 1 percent — have celiac disease, an inherited autoimmune disease that causes damage to the small intestine when gluten is ingested.

About .4 percent of people have a doctor-diagnosed wheat allergy, according to a 2006 study. In those people, a true allergic response to wheat (which contains gluten) can include skin, respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms.

A larger group of people is estimated to have what’s called “non-celiac gluten sensitivity,” which may also produce similar symptoms but is not very well understood by experts. “We don’t really know the mechanism by which this arises,” says Crowe. According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, as many as 18 million Americans have some non-celiac sensitivity to gluten.

I, and experts, I am not one, cannot stress this enough. If you think you are in this group, do not just cut wheat and other gluten sources from your diet. Talk to your doctor first. There are blood tests that can be done, that will not work if you are gluten-free. I know, I have an allergy diagnosis.

However, if you get your diagnosis, it can be tricky to be gluten-free with the modern food system.

So let’s start with some basic. What is this gluten you speak off? It is a protein, mostly contained in wheat and other grains. They encompass wheat varieties like spelt, kamut, farro and durum, plus products like bulgar and semolina, barley, rye, triticale and oats. The last one has a few qualifiers.

According to the Grains and Legumes Nutrition Council it is a composite term made up of a few proteins. It stands for the following proteins in different grains:

Gliadin in Wheat

Hordein in Barley

Secalin in Rye

Avenin in Oats

Avenin can be tolerated by some people with intolerance, in small doses, as long as it is not processed in processing lines that deal with the rest of the grains, leading to cross-contamination. I mean the small doses. Too much, and I will know if I had too much. So for the most part, I avoid it. An occasional cereal bowl is fine though, for me.

So if you have issues, be aware.

A gluten-free diet has become a fad with some people. It is far more than those who are actually allergic or have celiacs. Granted, it is easy to spot those who are doing it as a fad. Usually, they are the people going out for sushi and having a California roll with soy sauce. They never get sick. Or they eat something the rest of us know has gluten, and again are fine. The only thing they avoid is bread because it has gluten.

Those of us who actually have the condition know that the surimi meat in a California roll is fish, and the thickener used in its preparation is wheat. We also know that the second ingredient of soy sauce is wheat. They do make gluten free soy sauce, which is fairly expensive, and is what I use at home. They do not make Surimi that is gluten-free. Or at least not yet…could you? Please…

I know that following a strict gluten-free diet, which is a matter of survival, means reading labels, lots of labels. Wheat will be added in the most surprising of places, like salad dressings and soups. Cream soups are not surprising, but the other kind is. It is a commonly used thickener in the food industry because it is cheap.

As a consequence of this, I have become a good cook. It’s mostly the best way to make sure I remain safe.

But yes, there are people out there who are following a gluten-free diet because they feel better. A few of those may have a non diagnosed condition. But many are there because it has become a fad. One that people like me are thankful for. See that soy sauce? However, this means total bread sales were down. They have started their upward trend again. But for a little while, they were going down, and down.

This meant that the bread industry started to fight back. One way to fight back was a series of stories in the media that pointed to how wholesome bread is. And if you are not allergic to it, by all means, …enjoy in moderation. The industry started to plant doubt that real medical conditions were there. And in some cases, they pointed out that regular bread is fortified, while gluten-free is not. This is true, but in time the GF bread will be fortified. As to the argument about fiber…wheat bread has 1.1 grams in a slice. Baked beans have 14 grams in one cup. And a corn tortilla has 1.8 grams.

So you could get enough fiber from other sources. As is, Americans do not get enough dietary fiber, so whether you like your bread, or not, adding legumes is a good idea. I am not a dietitian, but this is a recommendation from health authorities. However, some of the arguments are easy to discount. The reason you are told but bread has fiber and the others do not, is partly to insert fear, doubt, and uncertainty. It is an old tactic used by many industries.

One of the funniest arguments I keep reading is how wheat is essential to the rise of civilization. It was one of the earliest grains to be domesticated, by one group of people. It quickly spread to a region of the world. It is familiar to Western Europeans and North Americans. And a nice warm piece of bread is delicious. However, the Middle East and Egypt are hardly the whole world. Other places of the world domesticated other grasses. These are collectively known as mother grains.

Rice, Corn, and Quinoa are the other three big ones. Taro root fulfilled the same role in Polynesia. And no, it is not a grass, it is a tuber.

Rice and wheat were among the earliest mother grains to be exchanged among divergent cultures.

Incidentally, pasta, that ever so lovely Italian staple, was inspired by rice noodles, brought back home by Marco Polo in the 14th century. He encountered them in China, where rice is still a staple of everyday life. Sure, there is wheat, but mostly in western style treats.

Then there is Mesoamérica. Until the Spaniards colonized the America's wheat was not known. The basis of the Mexican diet, going back about ten thousand years, are corn, squash, beans, and hot peppers. Tortillas are a flatbread that also provides as much calcium to the diet as milk, because of how it’s processed to make the cornmeal that is the basis of a tortilla. Together with beans, it provides a full source of protein. These are consumed together often. This is not a trick wheat can pull off, incidentally.

Mind you, Mexico has amazing bakers and baked goods. But things like cornbread did not exist in pre-Hispanic Mexico. That cornbread, common in the American south, requires wheat as one of its ingredients. The closest, but not really, is a tamal. These are steamed, not baked, for starters.

The fourth mother grain, that also built a civilization, is quinoa. This is a full protein. It is delicious when well done, and like corn and rice, it is gluten-free. It was the food of the Incas and remains at the heart of Peruvian cuisine.

This is what worries the industry. Thanks to the demand for these products we have seen a rise in the number of clearly labeled gluten-free products. These products range from things that have always been gluten-free, such as beans, rice, corn tortillas (read labels some corn tortillas have wheat added) and quinoa. Incidentally, except for quinoa, and a rising demand for another ancient grain, amaranth, they also have a bad reputation among foodies. Why? Like bread, they are believed to be fattening.

The other part of the market is what worries the bread industry. We have seen the production of cookies, bagels, bread, pita bread, and others. These are in direct competition with their best selling lines. Incidentally, if you are a diabetic, due to the grains used in producing gluten-free bread, they tend to have a higher glycemic index, so be careful. Oh, and from experience, they are better toasted. Incidentally, like bread, use them in moderation and be aware that they do have less fiber than even white bread.

This is the origin of the Gluten wars. It is about market share. This fad, it is probably passing. But remember, when you scuff at somebody for refusing a piece of bread…it could be deadly serious.

Here are some complications for people with Celiacs.

Malnutrition, low birth babies, inability to conceive, cancer, brittle bones, dental issues. The last two due to low calcium absorption.

People who have intolerance feel bloated have diarrhea, can have malnutrition, dental issues, brittle bones, low birth babies…

In other words, the effects can be very similar. The diagnosis is differential. And both are treated the same way. If you suspect you have either of these, see a specialist. And if you believe your young child has it, possible, again see a doctor. Getting a diagnosis matters.

I hope this helps to illuminate a serious matter and how the food industry felt threatened, and how it went to war. It used an old friend, FUD, fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

And if you like bread, enjoy. Just remember, some people really should not have any of it. Nor is wheat the only grain that led to the rise of civilization. What all these mother grains have in common is that they were local grasses. And with selective breeding, we find ourselves with modern varieties…some of which cannot reproduce without the help of humans. A few varieties of corn come to mind in this respect. The original grasses looked very different and had much lower yields. However, they provided the excess calories that allowed civilizations to develop.

Written by

Historian by training. Former day to day reporter. Sometimes a geek who enjoys a good miniatures game.

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