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What’s So Bad About Gluten?

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So should you “go gluten free”?

Obviously, if you have a medical condition that prevents you from eating gluten, the answer is a resounding, “Yes!” However, for most people it is a choice to eliminate gluten from their diets. This choice is based on scientific data claiming that gluten is “bad for you”. The following is an excerpt from an article written by Michael Spector from the November 3, 2014 issue of the New Yorker. Read the excerpt below and click the link to read the whole article.

Just after Labor Day, the Gluten and Allergen Free Expo stopped for a weekend at the Meadowlands Exposition Center. Each year, the event wends its way across the country like a travelling medicine show, billing itself as the largest display of gluten-free products in the United States. Banners hung from the rafters, with welcoming messages like “Plantain Flour Is the New Kale.” Plantain flour contains no gluten, and neither did anything else at the exposition (including kale). There were gluten-free chips, gluten-free dips, gluten-free soups, and gluten-free stews; there were gluten-free breads, croutons, pretzels, and beer. There was gluten-free artisanal fusilli and penne from Italy, and gluten-free artisanal fusilli and penne from the United States. Dozens of companies had set up tables, offering samples of gluten-free cheese sticks, fish sticks, bread sticks, and soy sticks. One man passed out packets of bread crumbs, made by “master bakers,” that were certified as gluten-free, G.M.O.-free, and kosher. There was even gluten-free dog food.

Gluten, one of the most heavily consumed proteins on earth, is created when two molecules, glutenin and gliadin, come into contact and form a bond. When bakers knead dough, that bond creates an elastic membrane, which is what gives bread its chewy texture and permits pizza chefs to toss and twirl the dough into the air. Gluten also traps carbon dioxide, which, as it ferments, adds volume to the loaf. Humans have been eating wheat, and the gluten in it, for at least ten thousand years. For people with celiac disease—about one per cent of the population—the briefest exposure to gluten can trigger an immune reaction powerful enough to severely damage the brushlike surfaces of the small intestine. People with celiac have to be alert around food at all times, learning to spot hidden hazards in common products, such as hydrolyzed vegetable protein and malt vinegar. Eating in restaurants requires particular vigilance. Even reusing water in which wheat pasta has been cooked can be dangerous.

Nearly twenty million people contend that they regularly experience distress after eating products that contain gluten, and a third of American adults say that they are trying to eliminate it from their diets. One study that tracks American restaurant trends found that customers ordered more than two hundred million dishes last year that were gluten- or wheat-free. (Gluten is also found in rye and barley; a gluten-free diet contains neither these grains nor wheat.) The syndrome has even acquired a name: non-celiac gluten sensitivity. “I’ve been gluten-free these last four years, and it has changed my life,’’ Marie Papp, a photographer, told me at the expo. “I would have headaches, nausea, trouble sleeping. I know that I’m intolerant because I gave it up and I felt better. That explanation is probably not scientific enough for you. But I know how I felt, how I feel, and what I did to make it change.” She went on, “I’m a foodie. It’s been five years since I had biscotti. And I just had one here, gluten-free. And it rocks.”

Sales of gluten-free products will exceed fifteen billion dollars by 2016, twice the amount of five years earlier. The growing list of gluten-free options has been a gift for many children, who no longer have to go through life knowing that they will never eat pizza, cookies, or cake. As with organic food, which was at first sold almost exclusively by outlets with a local clientele, the market is controlled increasingly by corporations. Goya and ShopRite both had booths at the expo; so did Glutino, which was founded in 1983 and has grown into a gluten-free conglomerate. “There were a lot of smaller gluten-free companies that were mom-and-pop-type shops,” Steven Singer, the co-founder of Glutino, said in an interview last month with the Globe and Mail. “So they had, like, a baking mix or a cookie mix, and they were all great people, but there was no business. And that is what drove us, the idea of being that one-stop shop in gluten-free, the category leader, the category captain.”

For many people, avoiding gluten has become a cultural as well as a dietary choice, and the exposition offered an entry ramp to a new kind of life. There was a travel agent who specialized in gluten-free vacations, and a woman who helps plan gluten-free wedding receptions. One vender passed out placards: “I am nut free,” “I am shellfish free,” “I am egg free,” “I am wheat free.” I also saw an advertisement for gluten-free communion wafers.

The fear of gluten has become so pronounced that, a few weeks ago, the television show “South Park” devoted an episode to the issue. South Park became the first entirely gluten-free town in the nation. Federal agents placed anyone suspected of having been “contaminated” in quarantine at a Papa John’s surrounded by razor wire. Citizens were forced to strip their cupboards of offending foods, and an angry mob took a flamethrower to the wheat fields.

“No matter what kind of sickness has taken hold of you, let’s blame gluten,’’ April Peveteaux writes in her highly entertaining book “Gluten Is My Bitch.” (Peveteaux maintains a blog with the same name.) “If you want or need to get gluten out of your diet, bravo! Kick that nasty gluten to the curb. . . . Not sure if gluten-free is for you? Perhaps gluten simply causes you some discomfort, but you’ve never been diagnosed. Then eff that gluten!’’

Read the whole article here

Illustration by Paul Rogers

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