To Be or Not To Be… Gluten-Free?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade, you’ve likely noticed the rising trend in gluten-free products. From cereal to bread and pasta, to chips and beer and dog-food, gluten-free alternatives have become popular among health enthusiasts, millennials, and those with self-diagnosed “gluten or wheat sensitivity.” Whereas few people paid attention to gluten in the early 2000s, gluten-free products have now become ubiquitous in American households, raking in billions of dollars in sales per year.

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If you’re like me, you may have noticed the gluten-free trend but not participated in it. For a long time, I didn’t even understand what gluten was. In any case, I figured it was a fad that, like all fads, would eventually pass and be succeeded by another.

It was only during my study of bread that I began to look more closely at gluten and the arguments against it. As anyone who’s made bread or studied it knows, gluten is fundamental to the fabrication of bread. Gluten is the protein that forms when dough is kneaded as the molecules glutenin and gliadin come together. It’s what gives dough its elasticity and volume during fermentation, and what makes bread airy and chewy. For thousands of years, gluten was consumed by humans in the form of cereal grains such as wheat, barley, and rye.

Recently, gluten has become a topic of controversy. It’s been held responsible for numerous health issues, including abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, migraines, fatigue, skin rashes, joint pain, autism, asthma, depression, and cancer. While those who suffer from celiac disease (1% of the population) can have life-threatening reactions to gluten, for many the decision to go gluten-free is as much a cultural statement as it is a dietary one.

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The gluten-free section at an organic shop in France

Whether the effects caused by gluten are real or imagined is not entirely clear; it’s probably a mixture of the two. Despite the claims put forth by those such as William Davis, a cardiologist and the best-selling author of “Wheat Belly”— not to mention the companies that are profiting from gluten-free products– there isn’t a whole lot of evidence to suggest that a gluten-free diet is healthier. In fact, avoiding gluten could even be harmful for one’s health as foods with gluten contain important vitamins and minerals.

Since when did gluten become so toxic to our bodies and, what’s more, feared by us as a society? There are several hypotheses. For one, we have a tendency to demonize individual nutrients, such as fat in the 1960s or carbohydrates nowadays. More likely than not, gluten will soon be shoved out of the limelight to make way for another victim. However, some think the rise in celiac disease and gluten sensitivity can be attributed to the modern wheat gene, which is perhaps different from the wheat grown in previous decades. Others blame industrialization and the highly refined methods and ingredients used to make bread. There is also research that points to FODMAP foods (onions, apples, dairy products, etc.), and not gluten, as being responsible for the distress people experience after eating foods with gluten. Nevertheless, gluten continues to get a bad rap, and about a third of Americans say they are trying to eliminate it from their diet altogether.

Personally, I have had little trouble with gluten. I grew up on the typical American diet of bread, pasta, pizza, cereal, and crackers– in other words, a lot of gluten– but when I moved to France three years ago, I began eating less processed foods and more fruits, vegetables, and legumes. My overall health improved dramatically, and though I developed some eczema and minor gastrointestinal problems after moving, I’m certain it had to do as much with stress and puberty as it did with gluten.

A few months ago, I cut down on my gluten intake and noticed that my eczema and stomach problems improved. Was it the gluten that caused them in the first place? Who knows. Maybe. I figure it doesn’t hurt to cut back on bread and pasta every once in a while so long as they’re being replaced with wholesome foods. In any case, I get to try my hand at making some gluten-free loaves!

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A recent loaf I made using buckwheat groats, seeds and psyllium husks

So what’s the verdict? To be or not to be gluten-free?

I’m not normally one to preach, but I will say this: if you’re considering going on a gluten-free diet, do your research first. Listen to both sides of the argument. If you’ve been experiencing bloating or headaches or any of the other symptoms listed above, try eliminating gluten or FODMAPs for a few days and see if it makes a difference. But please, don’t follow the trends simply because! Remember that every body is different, and what makes one person sick might be keeping you healthy.

What is your experience with gluten? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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