A specter is haunting our stomachs: the ghost of gluten. And some people have become downright terrified of it. Gluten, a small protein composite that helps dough rise and gives it a chewy texture, is found in wheat, barley, rye and other grains. It is a vegan source of protein for the human body and is used extensively in non-edible products, especially cosmetics and dermatological treatments. As a food, it has most likely been consumed for about 11,000 years, ever since our Neolithic ancestors began to cultivate grain.
So why is gluten under attack? And why are Americans now spending billions of dollars a year in an attempt to avoid it?
The evolution of our bodies did not happen perfectly. Just as some people are allergic to nuts or are lactose intolerant or have any number of troubles with processing certain foods, some people cannot properly digest gluten. The condition is called Celiac disease. It is a genetic autoimmune disorder occurring in the small intestine. Its modern description goes back about 150 years, but researchers have concluded that a fitting description of the disease occurs in ancient texts. The reality of Celiac disease is no specter.
Gluten consumption in those with Celiac disease can cause extreme discomfort, diarrhea, constipation, anemia, fatigue and vitamin deficiency. The disease, if untreated, can lead to a heightened risk of osteoporosis, sterility and intestinal cancer. Diagnoses (due to improved screening) are on the rise worldwide and it is now thought that 1 in 105 people in the U.S. suffer from the disease.1 The severity of the disease ranges from serious to mild, with some sufferers able to trade off a little gastric discomfort for the pleasure of an occasional slice of pizza, while others must completely avoid grain.
Treatment of Celiac Disease
The good news about Celiac disease is that it’s easy to treat: just avoid gluten. That doesn’t mean avoiding gluten is easy. Giving up bread and cereal products is just the beginning; many food products contain gluten, even ones that logically shouldn’t, such as frozen vegetables and ice cream. But avoiding pain and osteoporosis should be strong enough motivators. Going gluten-free usually relieves the body of symptoms, especially when the disease is noticed early, although some very strong forms of the disease may continue to cause problems.
The Problem with the Gluten-Free Diet
While gluten itself does not contain many healthy nutrients besides protein, the near-ubiquity of gluten in whole grains means you avoid a lot of good foods when you avoid gluten. Whole grains, of course, are a rich source of vitamins and minerals (especially Vitamin B), iron and fiber. A diet with an appropriate amount of whole grains is believed to help ward off heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer. In fact, most respected dietary guidelines advise us to take in half of our carbohydrates through whole grains!2 So those with Celiac disease must take care to supplement all the good stuff they miss because they can't have gluten.
What About the Rest of Us?
Celiac disease, as we have learned, affects about 1 percent of the U.S. population (the rate is a bit higher in the UK and Scandinavia, for some reason). But countless more people claim to be “sensitive” to gluten. Recent surveys have revealed that 30 percent of Americans want to cut gluten from their diets. This from a country with a celiac disease rate of 1 percent!
Many people believe they are sensitive to gluten, or they simply feel better without it in their diets, even though there is no evidence to support the existence of "gluten sensitivity." Researchers recently released a study that found “no evidence of specific or dose-dependent effects of gluten in patients3” who were on non-celiac gluten-sensitivity diets. Basically, the study found that people who do not have Celiac disease but who do claim to have a “gluten sensitivity” did not show any adverse effects to consuming gluten.
With a population of about 316 million, there’s money to be made in the U.S. in developing products that cater to people who want to go gluten free – whether they actually have Celiac disease or simply want to cut out grains. But billions of dollars? Yep.
According to an article by Steven Ross Pomeroy in Forbes, the market for gluten-free products is expected to reach $15 billion by 2016, which will represent a 50 percent gain over 2013.4 From imitation bread (the gluten-free equivalent of “soy burgers” and “fakin’ bacon,” etc.) to modified food products, from trade shows and ever-multiplying publications, the move to eradicate gluten from our lives is on. Even giant corporations like Kellogg’s have provided gluten-free twists on familiar items.5 In August, the FDA published guidelines to standardize gluten-free product labeling in the food industry.
There are a few theories about this new fascination with going gluten-free:
- It’s just another fad diet. As we have seen so many times, our increasingly overweight country is desperate for a solution. Maybe gluten-free diets are just the fad of the moment.
- Gluten is a stand-in for carbs. Because we have heard so many times that carbs are bad for us, maybe focusing on cutting the gluten helps people cut the carbs. This is understandable, but it’s not the healthiest shorthand to use when trying to reduce carbs. Remember: Whole grains are not the enemy. The carb enemies are soft drinks, beer and the kind of processed and refined sugar found in so much junk food.
- Gluten-free as a status symbol? From cigarette smoking to tanning beds to reverse-osmosis bottled water and beyond, the human spirit knows no bounds when it comes to seeking status, whether it be from a peer group or the person in the mirror.
But perhaps there is another explanation, still.
There May Be Something We Don’t Know
The science of proper nutrition is fairly new. With increasing public awareness of the importance of nutrition and with recently advanced modes for testing both what we put into our bodies and what our bodies do with what we put into them, researchers are racing toward deeper understandings. It is certainly plausible that gluten causes problems beyond Celiac disease that we have not yet understood. If so many non-Celiac disease sufferers claim to feel better having gone gluten-free, who are we to contradict them? They body often knows before science does.
That said, the most important thing, from a nutritional perspective, is this: Cutting gluten simply means the body isn’t getting any gluten. It is a negative step. Just a because a food product is gluten-free does not mean it provides any nutrients at all. It also doesn’t mean that gluten-free products are not harmful in some other way. Many gluten-free foods are tremendously processed and packed with chemicals and preservatives. We must be as vigilant about filling our bodies with the good stuff as we are with saving our bodies from the bad.
- Rewers, Marian. "Epidemiology of Celiac Disease: What Are the Prevalence, Incidence, and Progression of Celiac Disease?" Gastroenterology (2005): S47-51. Print.
- Web MD. The truth about gluten. http://www.webmd.com/diet/healthy-kitchen-11/truth-about-gluten
- Biesiekierski, Jessica R., Simone L. Peters, Evan D. Newnham, Ourania Rosella, Jane G. Muir, and Peter R. Gibson. "No Effects of Gluten in Patients With Self-Reported Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity After Dietary Reduction of Fermentable, Poorly Absorbed, Short-Chain Carbohydrates." Gastroenterology (2013): 320-28.e3. Print.
- Pomeroy, Steven Ross. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity may not exist. Forbes. Published online May 15, 2014. https://www.forbes.com/sites/rosspomeroy/2014/05/15/non-celiac-gluten-sensitivity-may-not-exist/
- Gulli, Cathy. The danger of going gluten free. Maclean’s. Published Sept 10, 2013. http://www.macleans.ca/society/life/gone-gluten-free/