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?

Celiac Disease

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 conditionn in its most severe form, is called Celiac disease. It is a genetic autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine and interferes with the absorption of nutrients when gluten-containing foods are ingested. 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.

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 damage to the small intestine 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. Of course, you should always consult your health care provider with any questions or concerns about your health. Also, never disregard or delay seeking medical advice because of something you have read on the internet.

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, such as wheat, wheat germ and bulger, of course, are a good source of vitamins and minerals (especially Vitamin B6 and magnesium), iron and fiber. A diet rich in whole grains and low in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol may 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!2So those with Celiac disease must take care to consume whole grains that do not contain gluten, such as rice, quinoa and millet, so they don’t miss the good stuff 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.  Although avoiding gluten may not be critically important for everyone who chooses to eat a gluten-free diet, health experts now recognize a condition known as Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS).3  Research on NCGS is in its early stages, and there are currently no laboratory or histological tests that can diagnose NCGS, which makes it difficult to study this condition in well controlled clinical trials.

Big Money

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 wheat and other gluten-containing grains.

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 what-free 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 2013, the FDA published a regulation to define and standardize use of the term “gluten-free” in food product labeling.

Gluten-Free Gonzo

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 always evolving. 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 moving toward deeper understandings. It is certainly plausible that gluten may cause problems beyond those identified in 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? The body often knows before science does.

That said, the most important thing, from a nutritional perspective, is this: Cutting out wheat and other gluten-containing foods simply means the body isn’t getting any gluten. By itself, this doesn’t mean you’re eating a healthier diet. Many gluten-free foods are highly processed and packed with sugar, chemicals and preservatives. So, if you decide to go gluten-free, don’t forget to read the nutritional information on food product labels.  We must be as vigilant about filling our bodies with the good stuff as we are with saving our bodies from the bad.

References

  1. Rewers, Marian. "Epidemiology of Celiac Disease: What Are the Prevalence, Incidence, and Progression of Celiac Disease?" Gastroenterology (2005): S47-51. Print.
  2. Web MD. The truth about gluten. https://www.webmd.com/diet/video/truth-about-gluten
  3. Czaja-Bulsa, G. Non coeliac gluten sensitivity – A new disease with gluten intolerance.  Clinical Nutrition 34 (2015) 189-94.  
  4. 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/
  5. Gulli, Cathy. The danger of going gluten free. Maclean’s. Published Sept 10, 2013. https://www.macleans.ca/society/life/gone-gluten-free/