Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Considering a gluten reduction?

“Gluten-free” stuff is popping up everywhere. More and more foods on grocery store shelves are proclaiming their gluten-free status. In fact, the gluten-free sector of the food industry increased 20% in the 12-month period ending June 2011, to $1.75 billion from $1.46 billion a year ago. In 2007, 700 new gluten-free products were launched in the U.S., up from 214 in 2004. And at the recent Natural Products Expo West held this month at the Anaheim Convention Center, gluten-free products were apparently everywhere.

But what is gluten exactly? It’s a protein composite found in foods processed from wheat and related grain species including barley and rye. Gluten gives elasticity to dough, helping it to rise and to keep its shape, often giving the final product a chewy texture.

Gluten is found in pasta, crackers, cereal, breads and other baked goods, but also lurks in less obvious places such as malt vinegar, soy sauce, many flavorings and emulsifiers, beer, gin, whiskey, rye, gravy and sauces thickened with flour. Even ice cream and ketchup!

And more and more people are finding that they cannot tolerate gluten. In fact, some nutritionists put the number of Americans that might be gluten-intolerant at 30%! The suffering    varies. The worst of all are those that have been diagnosed with Celiac Disease: an abnormal immune reaction to gluten, a condition characterized by chronic inflammation of the intestine. Some suffer less and have what’s called gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance, where symptoms include bloating, abdominal discomfort, pain, diarrhea, headaches, migraines, lethargy, ADD, muscular disturbances, even bone and joint pain.

If you went to a nutritionist with some of these complaints, as I did, you’d be given an allergy-free diet to follow. Eliminating the common allergens from the diet (corn, soy, dairy, wheat) even for just a few months will often give the body the break it needs from what seems to be an almost constant onslaught of these potentially allergenic foods. Allergies start when we expose ourselves to an irritant over and over again. The body eventually cannot take it anymore - the immune system responds negatively to the invader - because it cannot fight it any longer.

If you think about what many people in the Western world eat almost daily: bagels, muffins, croissants or pastries for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, pasta with dinner, crackers or pretzels for snacks…it’s a constant barrage of wheat! What if all this wheat is causing havoc with our health?

Not only are celiacs and those with sensitivities interested in gluten-free products, but parents of children with autism are also snapping them up. In recent years, there’s been some debate over a possible connection between gluten and autism. Diets that eliminate gluten and/or casein (from dairy) are the most common alternative treatments tried for children with “autistic spectrum disorders”. Though there are no clinical trials evidencing that gluten-free diets work for these children, many desperate parents are not ruling out the possibility that it may help.

I applaud these parents for looking closely at what their children eat and giving it a try. It isn’t easy to be gluten-free. But the movement, even for “regular folks”, seems to be gaining momentum. Many who are not celiac or autistic are choosing a gluten-free diet simply because they hear it might be good for them. And perhaps there’s something to it. With our heavy reliance on a single grain crop (wheat), we might be compromising our health. Because of the prevalence of wheat in everything, we might be missing out on the vast array of healthy alternatives. Quinoa is considered an ancient grain, containing the most protein of any other. Quick to cook, its nutty flavor is delicious as a breakfast cereal, a base for veggies, or as a side dish for dinner and I love the stuff. Amaranth, millet, sorghum, taro, teff, and chia seed are other alternatives. Instead of wheat flour, there are bean and nut flours. Almond meal makes a great addition to cookies, cakes, and pancakes and has a low glycemic value. In spite of its name, buckwheat contains no wheat and is gluten-free, but many buckwheat products are mixtures of buckwheat and wheat, so they don’t qualify. Gram flour, derived from chickpeas, is also gluten-free, as is garbanzo flour.

Bob’s Red Mill is a trusted name in the grain business and their products can be found in many supermarkets and health food stores. They offer a very good assortment of gluten-free flours in addition to the regular ones. They are sticklers for quality.

Oats are still controversial, and their gluten-free status depends on numerous factors, such as cross-pollination, so many experts feel that they do contain gluten. So for those with seriously debilitating intestinal conditions, oats are not recommended. But I love oats, and am not prepared to give them up quite yet. I eat them less frequently than I used to, though. Bob's Red Mill offers a guaranteed gluten-free variety.

While many people are legitimately unable to digest gluten, others, who are completely "normal" are jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon. I think many are treating it like just another food fad. Gluten is the current evil food to avoid. Until the next evil food trend comes along, then they'll avoid that one. But maybe some are turning to gluten-free diets for the same reason I am considering it. 

I have been personally interested in experimenting with a wheat-free diet because I find that I feel better when I eat less of it. I have suffered for years with digestive issues and have had my fair share of bloating and painful intestinal cramps. When my nutritionist suggested the allergenic diet (only keeping small amounts of oats and brown rice in the diet while everything else was removed), I lost weight and felt great. But as soon as my digestive problems disappeared, I reverted back to eating the usual stuff. Though I have never gone back to eating bread (I was allergy tested and found to be very reactive to yeast), I still bake with regular flour, eat crackers and flour tortillas, and love pasta! But my digestion is acting up again.  

Since moderation is the key to everything, perhaps eating less gluten-containing foods and more of the alternatives is a step in the right direction. Rounding out the diet with a variety of wheat alternatives can't be a bad thing. In fact, it will provide us with greater nutrition the more variety we build in.

Sources and resources:

For a fantastic article on gluten sensitivities, I recommend the following reading:

For recipes and information on living the gluten-free life:

At a writing workshop I have joined, I have had the pleasure of getting to know a woman named Christina Adams. She has a son with autism and here is her story: She’s also written a book about her experience which can be found on her website.

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