Read this excellent New York Times piece by Moises Velasquez-Manoff. Click, read, and consider, (and dig the marvelous illustration by Bruno Zocca).
Thanks to my friend, retired Journalist extraordinaire John Stark, for this link. I’ve had a piece in progress about this for quite a while now, but real cooking and current events writing have set in on a perpetual back burner – no mas.
The topic is still a hotbed, without a question. Rare is the day that a customer at my Cafè doesn’t ask about gluten and gluten free. In response, my staff is trained to ask the following, “Just so we know how to best help you, are you allergic or medically intolerant to gluten, or is this a dietary issue?” 99.9% of the time, the answer is ‘diet.’
My primary complaint with the trend is that it is exactly that – A trend and nothing more – No different than the Atkins, South Beach, or any other diet fad – Paleo, etc, etc. While all those things I mentioned may have nutritional value for some folks, they all became over the top sensations due predominantly to media hype, and that’s exactly what’s fueled the gluten free craze. So, the question naturally becomes this; is removing gluten from your diet actually beneficial? The answer is, ‘not necessarily.’ The fact remains that choosing a diet because of input from mass media is not a sound method. Choosing to remove gluten from your diet without understanding what that truly entails, and what it truly does and doesn’t do to your body is equally unwise. I’ll just come right out and say it – The vast majority of those 99.9% of folks going gluten free for dietary reasons are doing nothing more than lining the pockets of specialty food makers and diet book authors – If you’re cool with that, more power to you. If not, read on.
Beyond the health consideration, there lies the economic; gluten free stuff isn’t cheap. It’s found in stores in the health food section, and those products are generally quite a bit pricier than their pedestrian neighbors. While heading to that aisle for good dressing or other condiments makes sense, paying top dollar for some thing you don’t need and that isn’t necessarily better for you does not. You only need to note how many things now say ‘Gluten Free’ to understand the hype – From cat treats to popcorn, and bottled water to eggs, a blizzard of packaging now exclaims their virtue thus – And the scary thing is, I’m truly coming to believe that the average human doesn’t know that many, if not most of these items never contained gluten and never will…
Actually going gluten free means a hell of a lot more than giving up bread, pasta and frosty ales; it means reading the labels and excluding a myriad of stuff, from soy sauce to toothpaste, and vitamins to common medications. Without knowing the specifics of literally everything you ingest, it simply can’t be done; as such, presumed results, positive or negative, are more likely than not unattributable to the presumed removal of gluten from one’s diet.
Next critical aspect for consideration – What does removing gluten from your diet actually do? The answer is that it may well inadvertently remove things you need to remain healthy. Whole grains are an excellent source of dietary fiber, which your guts need to do their job correctly. You can certainly get fiber from fruit or alternative grains like quinoa, but again, that stuff is pricy and becoming radically over-harvested due to trendy popularity, stressing the environments of the countries that produce it.
Many, many folks in this country eat store bought breads and cereals daily. Most of those are vitamin fortified. If you don’t take vitamins daily, you need that fortification. Vitamin B9, (Folate or Folic Acid), is one of the critical things supplied thereby; pregnant women need it to help avoid birth defects. The folks at Gallup report that roughly 50% of Americans take vitamins, but that’s skewed notably by us folks over 50 years of age; the younger crowd is a minority in that regard, as the chart below shows. The bottom line for dietary considerations is this; you can compensate for all things gluten, but it takes serious work and focus to do it. If you don’t truly need to remove gluten from your diet, then why do it?
The fact remains that what is dooming the vast majority of Americans isn’t gluten, it’s the excess found in processed foods and drinks. Although it doesn’t cover the whole issue, my piece on Dissecting commercial ranch dressing is a good starting point. Drop the huge amounts of sugar, fat, preservatives and additives found in highly processed and refined foods, and your diet gets a lot healthier – My running joke about shopping, like all the best humor, is grounded in reality – Just go around the outside of the store, and avoid all the inner aisles – That way, you get your basic food groups and beer – All the other stuff is processed crap anyway.
So, who really can’t tolerate gluten? People with celiac disease or a genuine gluten insensitivity. Even a little bit of it will cause problems for those folks. In celiac sufferers, it triggers an auto immune response that physically damages the lining of the small intestine. That damage in turn interferes with the intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients from the food we eat, and triggers a potential raft of secondary issues, from osteoporosis to nerve damage and seizures. True gluten intolerants have symptoms similar to celiac, without the intestinal damage. I have three friends that have ciliac, and it’s a nightmare indeed.
So, in that regard, consider this: Were you truly to contract the disease, and had been pursuing a gluten free diet, you would have resigned yourself to roughly a year misery – It would take your system that long to recover sufficiently from that diet to be accurately assessed for celiac – No joke, in any sense of the word. Either condition can be identified with a blood test that checks for a specific antibody, tissue transglutaminase; if this is found, a biopsy of the intestine is done to confirm the diagnosis. Again, with a gluten free diet, the accuracy of that blood test is impaired enough that the results are at best questionable.
Folks who are burdened with the disease are easily the most intolerant of listening to others blithely ask about gluten free options. Having had to deal with with the long term frustration, cost, and restrictions of the diet they must follow to remain healthy, the last thing they want to hear is someone chirping about what a joy it is.