Unless you’ve been living in a cave somewhere, you’ve probably noticed the influx of gluten-free foods on supermarket shelves. Heck, even big chains like Dominos and Hooters are offering gluten-free options. Even though gluten-free foods cost an average of 242% more than their gluten counterparts1, consumers are still buying them up. According to one recent survey, nearly 1/3 of Americans are trying to cut down on gluten consumption2. So, what is the big deal with gluten and why are so many people going gluten-free?
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein which is found in some grains like wheat, barley, rye, and spelt. For the small part of the population who suffers from Celiac disease (about 1 in 133 people)3, gluten is a serious health threat. People with Celiac disease have an autoimmune reaction when they consume gluten. Their bodies begin to attack their own stomach lining. The lining is damaged and they can experience symptoms like rashes, nutrient deficiencies, heartburn, indigestion, and inflammation.
The Anti-Gluten Obsession
Most people in the world are not afflicted with Celiac disease. So, there should be no reason to cut out gluten – right? Well, things aren’t quite that simple.
The anti-gluten obsession can be traced back to The Weston A. Price Institute (WAPI). This organization has been around since 1999 and has had a vendetta against grains from the start. They are also known for saying that saturated fat is good for you (contrary to the advice of pretty much all respected health organizations), for promoting raw milk consumption, and for saying that there are health benefits to giving infants sea salt.
A lot of people have denounced WAPI as quacks (like here, here, and here). But, since the Institute promotes so many ideas which people would love to believe (like that bacon and butter are good for you), they have gained a strong following. They are at the heart of the paleo diet movement and are regularly quoted by paleo bloggers like Mark Sisson. For those who don’t know, paleo is the diet in which people “eat like cavemen”, which means a diet high in meat but excluding grains (amongst other foods).
It isn’t hard to find testimonials from people on the web claiming that the gluten-free diet changed their lives. The lost weight, cured diseases, got more energy, etc. etc. These people aren’t claiming that they had undiagnosed celiac disease. Rather, they say that they have “gluten sensitivity”.
What’s the Deal with Gluten Sensitivity?
Here is where things get controversial. According to certain “experts” (most of whom are paleo diet supporters), gluten can cause problems even in people without Celiac disease. Remember that celiac is an autoimmune disease, which means that the body attacks itself. With a gluten sensitivity, the body supposedly attacks the gluten. Note that I’ve got to say “supposedly” because non-celiac gluten sensitivity has not yet been confirmed.
Yes, there are some studies indicating that gluten sensitivity might be real. At this point though, none of the studies could be considered concrete proof that the “gluten sensitivity” so many claim to have really exists. Some of the frequently-cited studies aren’t even controlled and could be contributed to the placebo effect, like the often-cited study where one guy gave up gluten and dairy and claimed to experience health benefits.
With so little evidence, it is no wonder so many people are denouncing gluten-free diets as a fad (like was done at the Examiner and Telegraph). The main argument they have in their favor is this one: humans have been consuming gluten for thousands of years with no problems.
But We Haven’t Been Eating this Gluten for Thousands of Years
In light of the fact that we’ve been eating grains for thousands of years with no symptoms, it does seem pretty far-reached to completely ban gluten from one’s diet. Yet, that argument overlooks the fact that today’s grains are not the same as what we ate in the past.
Some disturbing studies have linked the rise of GMOs to the rise of digestive problems (including the “leaky gut syndrome” which gluten is accused of causing). The documentary Genetic Roulette: The Gamble of Our Lives discusses it in detail and links pesticides like Bt toxin commonly used on wheat with digestive disorders4.
There still aren’t any laws which require foods to be labeled if they are genetically modified. But brands are doing a good job of labeling when they are GMO-free.
So, should you give up gluten?
People diagnosed with celiac disease definitely stop eating all gluten products. For the rest of us, the answer isn’t so straight forward. If you try to research an answer, then you will probably go crazy trying to make sense of all the conflicting information. If you are the type to err on the side of caution and don’t find it a hassle to give up your favorite grains, then go ahead and give gluten-free a try. If you are worried that GMOs might be the real culprit behind those gluten sensitivity symptoms, then start buying only GMO-free gluten foods.
No matter what you choose, here is what you should know about going gluten-free: just because something is gluten-free, it does not mean it is healthy. With foods that traditionally contain gluten (like bread), manufacturers often have to load them up with unhealthy junk like corn syrup and hydrogenated oil just to make them palatable. You’d probably be better off eating your gluten-containing whole wheat bread with its iron, zinc, and protein than you would with the junk-infused alternative.