When I was in the Navy, half a lifetime ago, we had a game we called Buzzword Bingo. It went like this, during a lecture, every time the proctor would say one of our buzzwords, you would mark it off of your buzzword card. It never took too long to get a winner in this kind of bingo.
Our dietary media is also full of buzzwords, and buzz-concepts if you will. Yesterday’s trendy topic stays on the list and as science can isolate a new item, the buzzword for it goes on the card. Low-fat, Low-calorie, vitamin enriched, probitotic, Gluten-Free are all worthy buzzwords. The concepts are buzzy concepts too. Nobody needs to understand the actual science, just hearing the word is enough to get you to buy this one over that one, and for no other reason than there is a buzz word on the box.
Gluten Free is a really, really good example of this. Who out there really knows what gluten is? When you were a child, think back-way back. Did you eat biscuits, cakes, cookies? If so, you ate gluten. There are now millions of people that think suddenly gluten is a problem in their lives, and for no other reason than there are now all of these articles and trendy new foods that have made them aware that there is a thing called gluten, which for some people causes vague, general, common dietary symptoms. Gluten has not changed. Foods have changed, but gluten remains as it has been for ten thousand years. Of course, you have changed, as well. You are older and more aware than you were when you could eat gluten filled products. Back then you didn’t realize that it was possible that the tightness you were feeling in your stomach after having seconds of biscuits and gravy might not be from overeating, but might be from gluten. Perhaps eating gluten free biscuits and gravy will allow you to have a THIRD helping.
In the New Yorker magazine, Michael Specter takes on the gluten craze culture. He explains to us exactly what gluten is:
Gluten, one of the most heavily consumed proteins on earth, is created when two molecules, glutenin and gliadin, come into contact and form a bond. When bakers knead dough, that bond creates an elastic membrane, which is what gives bread its chewy texture and permits pizza chefs to toss and twirl the dough into the air. Gluten also traps carbon dioxide, which, as it ferments, adds volume to the loaf. Humans have been eating wheat, and the gluten in it, for at least ten thousand years.
There is an entire industry now of people enriching themselves on the newest food buzzword boogieman in the US. Nobody in the US had ever heard of gluten unless they watched a lot of cooking shows. Alton Brown informed us that gluten is what gave bread and cakes their fluffiness by making the carbon dioxide bubble in the leavening become trapped in the batter. That was the sum total of gluten knowledge that I had until just recently.
Nearly twenty million people contend that they regularly experience distress after eating products that contain gluten, and a third of American adults say that they are trying to eliminate it from their diets. One study that tracks American restaurant trends found that customers ordered more than two hundred million dishes last year that were gluten- or wheat-free. (Gluten is also found in rye and barley; a gluten-free diet contains neither these grains nor wheat.) The syndrome has even acquired a name: non-celiac gluten sensitivity. “I’ve been gluten-free these last four years, and it has changed my life,’’ Marie Papp, a photographer, told me at the expo. “I would have headaches, nausea, trouble sleeping. I know that I’m intolerant because I gave it up and I felt better. That explanation is probably not scientific enough for you. But I know how I felt, how I feel, and what I did to make it change.” She went on, “I’m a foodie. It’s been five years since I had biscotti. And I just had one here, gluten-free. And it rocks.”
No, Marie, that is not nearly scientific enough for me. “I gave it up and I feel better” is the very definition of pseudo science. A conclusion that is looking for proof.
Wheat has it’s problems in the modern western diet. I feel that there is sufficient proof already–scientific proof– that eating white bread which contains flour in it’s highly processed form is causing many of the same problems as processed sugars are causing, namely, hypertension, diabetes, and obesity. In my mind the problem isn’t the wheat, it’s the process. By diluting all of the protein containing components of wheat and just delivering in flour the starch–the sugar if you will–the food industry is producing a food that is bound to cause problems. Wheat’s problem is the industrial food production system. In third world countries there is no such thing as “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” and to suggest that people there find another way to survive without wheat or grains would be asking them to starve to death instead.
See, the thing is that here in America we know we are eating something that we shouldn’t be eating. We keep casting about looking for what it is that is making us feel awful, gain weight, get diabetes. This month it is gluten. Last month it was fat. Next month it will be some other new thing–perhaps a germ that can be combatted with this new probiotic that you take before every meal. In fact, we will find, if we ever dare to look at the truth, that the problem is processed foods. The problem is artificial ingredients. It was never fat or gluten, but MSG and HFCS.
Nobody can say for sure why the rise in celiac disease has been so rapid. The modern diet may be to blame. And there is also growing evidence, in animal studies and in humans, that our microbiome—the many bacterial species inhabiting our gut—can have a significant impact on a range of diseases. None of that, however, explains why so many people who don’t have celiac disease feel the need to give up gluten.
Why do so many people feel the need to give up gluten? In the advertising industry they call it “The Bandwagon Effect”. It’s the same reason why so many people here in Kansas City suddenly feel the need to watch the Royals play–because so many people are doing it.
I really recommend that you read the entire New Yorker article. In it there seems to be real scientific research that shows where your “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” may be coming from, but the quote is just too lengthy to copy into here. Suffice it to say that the culprit may be another chemical, but one whose scientific name is way too long to ever look good on the label. It will never be a health claim. “Fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols.” However, I may be underestimating the current crop of Don Drapers in the world to come up with a cute way to make FODMAP free foods the in-thing to buy next year.
This next quote, while long, explains very well the gluten-free craze as I see it.
“When I was a kid, I would watch National Geographic specials all the time,’’ Nathan Myhrvold, told me. “Often, they would travel to remote places and talk to shamans about evil spirits. It was an era of true condescension; the idea was that we know better and these poor people are noble, but they think that spirits are everywhere. That is exactly what this gluten-free thing is all about.” He stressed that he was not referring to people with celiac disease or questioning the possibility that some others might also have trouble eating gluten. “For most people, this is in no way different from saying, ‘Oh, my God, we are cursed.’ We have undergone what amounts to an attack of evil spirits: gluten will destroy your brain, it will give you cancer, it will kill you. We are the same people who talk to shamans.
“To find out the effect something like gluten has on people’s diets is complicated,’’ he said. “We’ll need long-term studies, and there won’t be a useful answer for years. So, instead of telling everyone you are going on a gluten-free diet, what if you said, ‘Hey, I am going on an experimental regimen, and it will be years before we know what effect it might have.’ I don’t know about you, but instead of saying ‘Eat this because it will be good for you,’ I would say, ‘Good luck.’ ’’
As depressing as it is, this is still true:
While there are no scientific data to demonstrate that millions of people have become allergic or intolerant to gluten (or to other wheat proteins), there is convincing and repeated evidence that dietary self-diagnoses are almost always wrong, particularly when the diagnosis extends to most of society. We still feel more comfortable relying on anecdotes and intuition than on statistics or data.
Read the article. Eat real food, don’t worry about gluten. If you quit eating added sugar, artificial ingredients, processed foods your “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” will go away as if by magic. Nature will take care of itself if given half a chance.