ColumnShould you eat gluten-free or is gluten sensitivity a myth? Maybe it’s time we re-framed the conversation.
The big headlines in the world of food media during the last couple of weeks were something along the lines of “gluten sensitivity isn’t a thing.” This was on account of new research out of Australia showing that non-Celiac gluten-sensitivity may not exist.
You can imagine what the internet did with that news.
It would be hard to deny that gluten-free has hit trendy status, with the variety of products, bakeries, restaurants and store devoted to gluten-free practices. And that annoys a lot of people, which meant that the reaction turned into an online mob of negativity.
Here are some of the headlines in reference to the new study:
Hello, nastiness! Granted, it’s the internet, so people are trying to get traffic, and all of those headlines are very clickable. But they’re also weighted down with some infantile name calling.
What are we to make of it all?
First let’s talk about the study. In 2011 Peter Gibson, a professor of gastroenterology at Monash University and director of the GI Unit at The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, Australia published a study which found that gluten affected people who didn’t have Celiac disease. This was research that was a strong argument for non-Celiac gluten sensitivity, in other words, people who wouldn’t have the debilitating reactions to gluten like those with Celiac, but nonetheless wouldn’t feel great eating it.
Like any good scientist, Gibson continued his research, and a few weeks ago published some new findings. His research group was comprised of people who had non-Celiac gluten sensitivity. They were all fed a high gluten, normal gluten, low gluten and placebo diet, each for a week period. The result was that Gibson and his team, “could find absolutely no specific response to gluten.”
Everyone jumped on that issue. Could we now all go back to eating doughnuts and bagels?
As usual, it’s not that simple.
What’s interesting about this study is what the researchers did think was causing the gastrointestinal issues: FODMAPs.
Wait, what? FODMAPs stands for Fermentable Oligo-Di-Monosaccharides and Polyols. Sorry, that’s still complicated. We’re talking certain preservatives like benzoates, propionate, sulfites, and nitrites, as well as things like lactose, fructose, and artificial sweeteners like sorbitol, mannitol.
While gluten didn’t affect the gastrointestinal issues of the individuals in the study, FODMAPs did. In fact according to Jessica Biesiekierski, a gastroenterologist and co-author of the study, “reduction of FODMAPs in their diets uniformly reduced gastrointestinal symptoms.”
You know what FODMAPs sound like? An ingredient list of processed food products. Something we all know we should avoid, whether we’re gluten-free or not. Take out all those additives and we feel better. It’s no surprise that this didn’t make the headlines.
Gluten has certainly been fueled by its rise to popularity. As Michael Pollan said, “Gluten, I think it’s a bit of a social contagion. I think that the number of people that are genuinely gluten-sensitive cannot be growing as fast as the market niche is growing.”
There’s no denying that argument, but while there is certainly a percentage of people who have jumped on the gluten-free train as a means of weight loss or as a “I want to be like all the cool kids,” there are plenty of people who have discovered that kicking conventional flour from their diet makes them feel better.
So be it.
We are all allowed to choose what we eat and don’t eat, especially if we don’t want to eat things that don’t make us feel good.
If we take a step back and look at the bigger picture for a moment, one thing is certain: as a culture we eat too much white processed flour and white processed sugar. Things that are inherently bad for us.
Personally, as someone who tends to avoid conventional flour it’s often in a search for a healthier less processed option, not because I have a crazy, severe reaction to gluten itself. Gluten-free cooking and baking for me means experimenting with buckwheat flour, seeing if I can make crackers out of ground almonds (yes, I can) and getting excited about putting quinoa in a cake. It means finding alternatives to processed food that I know isn’t good for me.
I recently went into a newly opened gluten-free bakery in Paris – Boulangerie Chambelland – and was thrilled when the owner excitedly told me about the rice and buckwheat flour that they were milling in their own mill in the south of France. The breads were beautiful and you could tell a lot of passion and energy had gone into launching a business to show that things can be done differently. The long term goal is to sell their flour in bulk in the bakery, so individuals have access to more than just industrial flour at the grocery store. That’s not a commitment to a trend, that’s a commitment to good ingredients.
I don’t have Celiac disease, and while I think I feel better without eating gluten, I don’t think I have a full-blown sensitivity (I would actually love to have been a participant Gibson’s study). But I do know that I won’t touch conventional white flour with a ten-foot pole. It’s not about being gluten-free, it’s about not using ingredients that are stripped of all of their nutritional value.
Which is also why I think that Gibson’s study aside, we should be skeptical of gluten-free food products. Some Girl Scout Cookies are now gluten-free cookies. Chex, the cereal that happens to be made from rice and not flour, rebranded in order to be more appealing to the gluten-free crowd. Turn a box of gluten-free crackers, cookies or any other product over and besides the omission of wheat flour, you might find almost the exact same ingredients as a box of regular cookies.
I think we can all agree that Girl Scout Cookies and Rice Chex do not a healthy diet make. Ultimately, gluten-free processed foods are still processed foods, and while it’s nice for people who are gluten intolerant to indulge in chips, crackers and cookies once in awhile, we shouldn’t let a gluten-free label mislead us into thinking that it’s the height of healthy living.
So what are we do to? Be gluten-free or not? That choice is a personal one, but as a culture we need to re-frame the question and the conversation.
If you’re pointing the finger and laughing at someone who chooses a gluten-free diet, you might as well be pointing that finger at yourself, because if you’re stuck on processed foods, and that includes pizza and doughnuts my friends, you are as bad off as anyone else.
It’s not about gluten-free bagels and regular bagels, it’s about what foods and ingredients actually make for a healthy diet. You know what that is? Not food products.
It’s real food.
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This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at www.foodieunderground.com.
Image: Anna Brones