Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Gluten Free Craze; Is It Justified?

Everyone is talking about it, companies are marketing for it, restaurants are changing their menus to accommodate for it, the gluten free craze. Perhaps you've heard about gluten, read on bags of bread and packages at the grocery store, "gluten free". Maybe you are even one of the growing number of people who have chosen to go gluten free. So whats all the hype? Is gluten bad for your health? Should we all adopt a "gluten free" diet? Lets separate fact from fiction, reality from hype.

First of all, what is gluten? It is a complex protein found in all forms of wheat, rye, barley and triticale (a wheat/rye hybrid). Humans have been consuming these gluten containing grains in moderate quantities for an estimated 10,000 years. Some archaeologists even speculate that our ancestors could have been eating small amounts of foraged grains as long as 100,000 years ago. So why are we suddenly seeing an increase in people with gluten sensitivities and allergies? There is even a condition called celiac disease. People diagnosed with this disease have such a sensitivity to gluten, even trace amounts can be deadly.

To understand why we are seeing a surge in illness linked to gluten, we must first take a look at what has changed about our eating habits. If you compare the way we eat grains today, to that of our ancestors you will find many differences.

First, lets look at the form and quantity we are consuming gluten today. The average American probably eats some form of gluten at every meal. You'll find gluten in crackers, pastries, bread, tortillas. Also, companies are adding extra gluten to most breads to help them rise and deliver an even more chewy and airy final product. On top of this, you'll find it in an array of condiments and even meat substitutes. Most of these products are heavily processed and not good for your health in the first place.

The way gluten was consumed in past generations is very different from the commercially processed forms we see most of today. There are a few things people have done in the past that made grains and the gluten found in them, easier to digest.

One method that's making a comeback, is sprouting. Some cultures did this simply because soaking grain meant it took less time to cook and when resources were scarce, it just made sense. They did this without knowing that sprouting can neutralize some anti-nutrients present in grains and increases the availability of vitamins like A and C. Sprouting also breaks down a portion of the gluten, making it easier for some people to digest.

Another, more affective and even more common method, was sourdough fermentation or wild yeast culture. This may sound fancy and complicated to some, but it couldn't be more simplistic. You see, store bought yeast is a fairly new development. Before it came in a nifty little packet, it could be found on the grain itself. All one had to do was add water to ground grain, and voila, yeast would multiply. But yeast wasn't the only microorganism that would grow. I know what your thinking, ewe germs. No, this was a friendly bacteria called lactobacilli. Found in yogurt, good for the digestive system. But its good works don't end there. What happens when both these organisms are present in dough? A beautiful thing, a balance, a dance. The lactobacilli create an acidic environment. This keeps "bad" bugs out and slightly slows the yeasts rising action, leaving time for the lactobacilii to do its job, predigesting gluten for us! On top of that this action neutralizes an anti-nutrient called phytic acid up to 90%. What you get in the final product is  not only a much easier to digest version of gluten, but the acidity caused by the lactobacilli leave a pleasant "sour" taste that we recognize as sourdough. Oh and wait, there is one more plus, the acidic nature of the bread acts as a built in natural preservative. If this is not divine design, I don't know what is.

So, gosh, why did we ever stray from these traditional methods? Well that's industry for you. These methods take time and a certain know how. There used to be a time when people bought their bread at bakeries. Yes, God forbid, an extra errand just for bread. As lives became more crunched for time, these places slowly disappeared and in their place came loaves made in bulk, at huge factories, not even resembling what people used to consider bread.

What's the verdict then? Should we abandon gluten containing foods? I don't think that's entirely necessary. Lets use a little common sense and some critical thinking here. If you suspect gluten might be causing problems for you, try eliminating it for a time, see how you feel. If you are in the majority and gluten doesn't seem to affect you at all, should you continue as you have been? Not necessarily. Just because you think your fine with gluten, doesn't mean it doesn't affect you. I think grains in moderation is just a good practice in general. They will never be a dense nutrient source and most Americans eat to many grains and not enough fruits and veggies. So limit your grains. Try and avoid commercially processed foods containing gluten. Opt for whole grain sourdough bread, from a local bakery. Or if that's just not convenient, look for sprouted breads where gluten is close to the end of the ingredient list. Also, soak your grains, especially ones that contain gluten and if that's too difficult just buy the sprouted kind! And for goodness sakes don't go out and buy a bunch of "gluten free" processed foods. They can be even worse for your health in my opinion. Usually these items are full of things like potato starch, tapioca flour, dextrose. These are all highly refined substances that spike insulin and add calories without much fiber. If you do decide to avoid gluten, opt for less procecessed substitutes like steamed brown rice or quinoa dishes.