Gluten free

Gluten, a protein found in barley, oats, wheat and rye, is in a bad place right now. Gluten-free seems to have somehow become aligned with healthy diets. You stumble upon cafes lined with bamboo, smelling of grass, with a sign in the window that avows no trans fats, no artificial ingredients, no GMOs, no MSG… and now no gluten. Regardless of any argument about the others, gluten stands out.

The argument seems to be that we’re not designed to eat it, and it messes us up. Here’s a fairly representative quote from a website I suppose I should reluctantly link to that came up when I searched for “the problem with gluten” that takes that route.

Our distant ancestors ate almost no gluten grains.  Grains started to be cultivated only ten thousand years ago, and even then, only in some parts of the world. The American continent, for example, had no gluten grains until they were introduced a few hundred years ago.

OK, lady who is wearing a doctorly lab-coat but isn’t a qualified doctor.  Sure, maybe, but that’s also true of most of the food lining the shelves of the average grocery store.

Modern wheat is also very different from the wheat that grew in the Bronze Age and before because the United States genetically modified the grain to contain a higher percent of the wheat protein under the misguided premise that it would “feed the masses better” and be more nutritional. What they did not realize was the digestion of this protein was too broad a step for our genetics to go from hunter-gatherer and expect the body to genetically adapt to a higher concentration of this protein in the grain.

The recurring notion that our diet was somehow “right” when we were hunter-gatherers, and that since then we’ve been struggling to “genetically adapt” is clearly nonsense. Hunter-gathers didn’t have that diet because it was their favorite dish on the menu at a fancy health food restaurant.  They just ate what they could find, and that varied dramatically according to the local flora and fauna. Bob and his family over on that side of the hill lived mostly on berries, while Jill and her family dined on fish caught from the local stream, and Patel and his family munched on crispy bits of BBQ dinosaur[1] from the hunt. Since then our diets have improved immeasurably. Well, improved overall; we’ve also invented many more ways to make food unhealthy. But we now live considerably longer lives than Bob, Jill and Patel, who were all dead by the age of 7, after living what was, by the standards of the time a long life, and meeting their grandchildren.

Many of us have simply not yet adapted to tolerate grain, unlike ruminant animals that live off grasses and grains.

That’s obviously not true. I mean possibly you might say that relatively few people are genetically predisposed to have a reaction to gluten proteins. That’s not the same thing.  In fact, if you want to be accurate, you might say “the vast majority of us have adapted to tolerate grain”. And throwing in the comparison to ruminant animals is disingenuous, implying that we lack the required digestive apparatus to eat gluten. We don’t merrily munch the kernels off stalks of wheat in the fields, and cows don’t go in for a grilled panini.  It’s a false equivalence. It would be like saying “we’re simply not yet adapted to swimming, unlike fish”. Sure, we don’t have gills and scaly fins, but most of us seem to manage to make it work. Ultimately where I’m going with this is: we’re a really adaptable species.

But hey, a lot of people are turning to gluten free diets these days.  It’s become something of a health fad.  This week, then, I adopted a gluten free diet and spent some time researching what it’s all about.

The villainization of gluten is a weird one. There seem to be a growing number of people who believe gluten-free is somehow a better diet. It really doesn’t take more than a few minutes of googling for authoritative sources to learn that it’s not going to help you lose weight, and it’s not generally healthier. The ingredients used to replace gluten tend to be higher in bad stuff like high-glycemic carbohydrates, and lower in good stuff like protein and fiber. Without gluten around to help the ingredients bond together, more other ingredients are added, like fats and xanthan gum (which by the way is a highly efficient laxative, prank fans, and itself a trigger for allergies). Food otherwise lacking in flavor is pumped up with sugars and flavorings. The resulting gluten-free alternatives tend to be higher in calories than the original recipes. Sometimes a lot more.

You’re considerably better off just eating a balanced diet. If you’re trying to lose weight, try eating a bit less, cutting back on high-glycemic carbohydrates, and exercising more. If you’re trying to improve your digestive system, just eat less processed crap. There’s an obvious exception to all this of course: those who for medical reasons actually can’t tolerate gluten. Those people should definitely cut gluten out of their diets. In fact, more broadly, if something makes you sick, you should stop eating it.

My Dad is a coeliac (celiac while he’s in the US), which sounds like a vegetable that would be wonderful when sprinkled with nutmeg and roasted, but actually means he can’t process gluten. There is no cure, and the only effective treatment is to cut out gluten. That is annoying. Happily, there are plenty of recipe books and alternatives, and life goes on. The average grocery store seems to have figured out that it’s helpful to label what products are gluten free, which is great. There are also an increasing number of gluten free products now on the shelves, which is fantastic for celiacs but probably a bad sign for the general population, reflecting general ignorance about what gluten actually is and the health benefits or otherwise of cutting it out.

Still, it makes my life easier as I try a gluten free diet. I ate gluten free Kind granola, which was delicious but calorific, and gluten-free burritos which were OK. Bread was dense yet crumbly.  I tried a gluten-free pasta from a local farmer’s market which was pretty tasty, but not as good as the regular stuff. That’s basically what you get with gluten-free foods that are positioned as alternatives to regular glutenfull products: they’re just not as good. They lack texture, and tend to taste a bit chalky, I assume from the rice flour. Eating only those gluten-free alternatives would be a bit like being a vegetarian and only eating veggie imitations of sausages and burgers.  Better to go for recipes that never had gluten in to begin with.  My wife does most of the cooking in our house (by preference and superior aptitude, not subjugation and gender stereotyping) and kindly picked out some suitable recipes, which were great.

I’m happy to get gluten back – I particularly missed good bread – but I had an interesting week trying it out, and if i were a celiac, I know I could eat well. Reading the nutritional information of food packages is annoying, and it’s amazing where gluten crops up. Would I recommend it by choice? Nah.

  • Difficulty: Moderate. Lots of good labeling and choices in the supermarket now, though it’s not exactly fun.
  • Worthwhiliness: Low. Unless you’re actually intolerant, in which case it’s essential, this is not a great idea on a long-term basis.

Header image by Lauren Tucker

[1] I was obviously joking about Patel and the crispy dinosaur meat, by the way. He ate it medium rare. Patel is a classy guy.