Gluten-ous

The first time I heard the word “gluten” it was so laced with bad ju-ju I figured it was an additive. The hate was so strong, it sounded like the tones I’d heard back when we were all discussing saccharin or Red Dye #5 (or #7…whichever one made us lose Red M&Ms in the ’70s).  I figured some over-zealous food exec had unleashed a horrible new compound on lovers of bread and pasta.

I decided to research this toxic tainting of our food supply.

I found a LOT of stuff! Hold on a minute…this can’t be right. I cross referenced. Every source I found told me gluten was a protein. Say what, now? Gluten is a naturally occurring protein composite made up of gliadin and glutenin. It’s not made in a lab. It’s in the fruit of regular old wheat. A grain of wheat is about 80% gluten. Gluten has been around since before human beings could walk upright. The name comes from the Latin for “glue”. It’s what makes dough elastic and gives baked goods a chewy texture.

So why is gluten being vilified like it kicks puppies?

In my search for information about gluten, I also came across several articles discussing how going “gluten-free” isn’t necessary and can actually be unhealthy. In the midst of the discovery of this information a Rice Krispies commercial came on with the message, “now gluten-free and EASIER for kids to digest!”

None of this was adding up. If monster cereal maker Kelloggs is going gluten-free, there must be profit in the mix. This wasn’t some gray pony-tailed woman in a hemp peasant dress selling gluten-free muffins at a Farmer’s Market. This was KELLOGGS!

I nuked a whole-wheat bagel and waded into the gluten debate up to my small intestine.

There are people who really can’t eat gluten. They have a condition called “celiac disease” or they are said to be “celiac”. Doctors estimate celiac disease occurs in about one out of 133 people. We’re talking LESS than one percent of the population.  In a true celiac, gluten causes extensive damage to the small intestine brought on by an abnormal immune response. Symptoms of the condition can include diarrhea, anemia, bone and joint pain, a bad skin rash, sterility and even carcinoma. In a strange twist, you COULD be celiac and have no symptoms at all. OR you could have a sampler platter of symptoms with only a few making an appearance. Since celiac symptoms can point to other more common conditions, celiac disease often gets misdiagnosed. Once celiac disease is suspected, diagnosing it can be done with a simple bloodtest.

Being celiac sucks. You can’t eat gluten, not even a speck. A celiac has to completely eliminate gluten from their diet or they wind up in a huge amount of pain and distress. Good to know they can now eat Rice Krispies….but something isn’t right here. Kelloggs would never market anything to less than one percent of the population. They definitely wouldn’t spend money on a national television commercial to appeal to fewer than 3 million Americans.

More than 3 million Americans are avoiding gluten…a LOT more. The ‘why’ of this whole situation gets a little murky. There was a book called “Wheat Belly” that blasted processed wheat and wheat hybrids. The book talked about ways gluten is used. Gluten, it turns out, is very versatile. It’s been in almost everything for a long time. Gluten is used as a thickener in soups and sauces and even has uses in coffees, teas, spices and processed meats.

If you’re celiac, that’s bad news. For everyone else, it doesn’t matter. And least it didn’t…until the internet got involved. Most Americans have some kind of a “gut issue”. We have problems with everything from ulcers to acid reflux. Much of it stems from our rich diet loaded with processed sugar, processed grains, high fat and carbs. A combination of ‘bloggers, “Wheat Belly” believers and marginal crackpots started blaming gut issues on gluten. Suddenly, avoiding gluten was supposed to do everything from clear up your skin to relieve arthritis pain.

“Gluten avoiders” declared their successes. A term was coined: NCGS, which means “Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity”. It claims that, even if you aren’t celiac, you still might be affected by gluten with some of the same symptoms as a person who is celiac.  I want to stress something here, and this is VERY important: “NCGS” is NOT a medical term. According to doctors, it doesn’t exist. There is no way to test for it and there are no indications gluten is in any way an irritant if you aren’t celiac (there are wheat allergies, but they’re a whole different deal). Celiac is a black and white, on/off condition. If you are celiac, then NO gluten. A little is just as bad as a lot. If you aren’t celiac, go ahead and chow down on that whole wheat bagel!

So why are people claiming huge health benefits when they reduce gluten? Because they’re doing what dieticians have been begging us to do since the ’50s. Avoiding gluten reduces the intake of processed foods. It means eating more fresh fruits and vegetables. Doctors say gluten-avoiders feel better because they’re eating better, NOT because they’ve reduced gluten.

The makers of processed foods felt left out. Enter the completely absurd “gluten-free” breads and pastas. Costs for “gluten-free” alternatives to normally gluten-rich foods can run as much as 450% more than the regular old gluten product. Most of them taste terrible and, to add insult to expense, they’re a nutritional nightmare. Removing gluten from bread means adding in either a tapioca or rice paste then upping the fat and sugar content. It’s hard to make, has a reduced shelf life and an 8 ounce loaf can run upwards of 6 dollars. Most celiacs avoid these products. “Gluten-avoiders” snap them up to the tune of millions a year.

Which explains Kellogg’s interest in this. Rice doesn’t contain gluten. Rice Krispies were able to go “gluten-free” by removing the gluten-rich barley malt flavoring. Rice Krispies have been flavored with barley malt for nearly a century and there’s a reason: gluten-free Rice Krispies taste terrible.

I’m all for eating healthy, but gluten doesn’t kick puppies…so stop messing with my Rice Krispies!

[Questions? Comments? Column ideas? I would LOVE to hear from you! Write me at: allen.stare@gmail.com]

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