I’ve talked about wheat allergies for what seems like forever, but it’s a hot topic and for very good reason. The more I research, the more I realize how the arguments for and against gluten are much more nuanced than initially presumed. It’s way too easy to say gluten is bad for everyone and we should all cut it out of our lives. It’s also way too easy to say everyone who has problems with wheat automatically has Celiac Disease.
What started this investigation was the fact that SO many people these days seem to be going gluten-free. But the National Whole Grain Council estimates that at most only 1-2% of general populations suffer from Celiac Disease. Just looking at the numbers, it simply doesn’t make sense that all these people are spontaneously on gluten-free diets for medical reasons. That’s why I’d like today’s post to delve a little more into the politics behind the gluten-free food trend and what you really need to know about gluten allergies.
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity: The Gluten Allergy No One Talks About
Surely you’ve heard about Celiac Disease. But have you heard about Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity? In general you’re about six to 10 times more likely to suffer from NCGS than full blown Celiac. Unlike Celiac patients who don’t produce the enzymes needed to break down the protein gluten, the origins to NCGS are pretty unknown. In other words, we don’t know why these people experience intestinal/abdominal discomfort when ingesting gluten. But we do know that people with NCGS are sensitive to gluten and also benefit from a gluten-free diet.
This isn’t to say that most people don’t have Celiac Disease, and please don’t think what I’m saying is a personal attack. But it might explain the surge in gluten allergy diagnoses and why every time you turn around someone is going gluten-free. Chances are, more people have NCGS then Celiac Disease. Figuring out what kind of wheat allergy you have is just as important as treating it.
How Wheat’s Protein and Structure Have Changed
I read an article on pubmed the other day where cases of Celiac can be traced back to 250 A.D.! Besides bringing up numerous questions about the origins of Celiac, it really makes me wonder if the wheat cavemen and cavewomen were eating was different than the wheat we consume today.
The research isn’t conclusive, but my hunch is that wheat isn’t what it was 100 or even 50 years ago. As wheat crops have continually been modified, they’re gluten content has increased. For instance, did you know some wheat-based grains have more gluten in them than others? The flour used to make traditional bread has a lot more gluten in it than a grain like farrow. Sure, farrow still has gluten. But it ranks much lower on the gluten scale than white flour. Why? Because, simply put, farrow hasn’t been f*cked with as much as other grains. There aren’t dozens of scientists trying to make farrow more resilient to drought and aphids, so farrow is probably much closer to its original genetic makeup.
I truly think part of our gluten allergies and sensitivities come down to consuming much more gluten than our bodies were designed to. The changes in current wheat crops have potentially played a role in our rising gluten allergies, intolerance, and sensitivities.
The Marketing Scheme
Do food companies really think we consumers are so dumb that they need to label potato chips as gluten-free? Did they not think we didn’t know already that chips are basically potatoes and oil?
This is perhaps one of the most controversial components of the gluten-free trend. Sure, it’s definitely important that food companies label products and take a lot of the guess work out for consumers. I remember a time where there weren’t any gluten-free labels, and I pretty much had to go to the grocery store with a long list of weird ingredients and additives that had gluten in them. Gluten is also in a lot of foods you wouldn’t think twice about like soy sauce or imitation crab meat. So to say that labeling gluten-free items is bad would be wrong. Labeling definitely helps people who need to stay away from gluten stay away from gluten.
The problem is when food companies use the gluten-free label as a marketing scheme to make their products appear healthier. No matter how you put it, potato chips will never be healthy—even if they’re gluten-free. Vanilla ice cream, gummy bears, and hot dogs are all gluten-free, but that doesn’t mean you should be eating them.
Gluten is a much more complicated topic in the health and fitness world. Today’s post wasn’t intended to downplay allergies, but rather illustrate that the gluten-free movement isn’t a black and white food trend where one size fits all. Whether or not you consume gluten is ultimately a personal choice between you and your medical practitioner. Good luck in all your future gluten (and gluten-free) endeavors!
Photo credit via Flickr