Gluten is one of the most consumed proteins on earth. It’s created when two molecules, glutenin, and gliadin, come into contact and form a bond. When bakers knead dough, that bond forms 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. Should you go gluten-free? Here’s how to figure that out.
Despite it sounding like humans have only been eating wheat for the past 500 years; humans have been eating wheat, and the gluten in it, for at least ten thousand years. For people with celiac disease – about one percent of the population – the briefest exposure to gluten can trigger an immune reaction powerful enough to damage the microvilli of the small intestine severely.
Meaning people with celiac have to be alert around food at all times; learning to spot hidden hazards in everyday products, such as hydrolyzed vegetable protein and malt vinegar. Eating in restaurants requires a level of caution. Even reusing water in which wheat pasta has been cooked can be dangerous.
Until about a decade ago, ninety-nine percent of Americans rarely gave gluten much thought. Now nearly twenty million people claim that they regularly experience distress after eating food that contains gluten, and a third of American adults say that they’re trying to remove it from their diets.
Sales of gluten-free products will exceed twenty billion dollars by 2020. The growing list of gluten-free options has been a gift for many children, who will no longer have to go through life knowing they’ll never eat pizza, cookies, or cake. As with organic food, which was first sold almost exclusively by outlets with a local clientele; the market is controlled by corporations.
However, wheat provides about twenty percent of the world’s calories and more nourishment than any other food source. The 2014/2015 harvest, of seven hundred and twenty-eight million tons; amounted to about a little over two hundred pounds for every person on Earth. In the United States, wheat consumption tends to fluctuate with the nutritional trends. It steadily rose from the nineteen-seventies to about 2000; a reflection of the growing concern over the relationships between meat and saturated fat, cholesterol, and heart disease. Since then, the number of people who say that wheat, barley, and rye make them sick has soared, though wheat consumption has fallen.
The thing about wheat is that it’s easy to grow, to store, and to ship. The chemical properties of flour and dough also make wheat very versatile. Most know that it’s essential to bread, pasta, noodles, and cereal. But wheat has also become a hidden ingredient in thousands of other products including soups, gravies, dressings, spreads, and snack foods, processed meats, and even frozen vegetables. Nearly a third of the foods found in the average American supermarket contain some component of wheat – usually gluten, starch, or both.
The most obvious question is also the most difficult to answer. How could gluten, present in a staple food that has sustained humanity for thousands of years; have suddenly become so threatening? There are many theories, but none are clear. Many have claimed the loaf of bread today is nothing like the bread found on tables fifty years ago. Arguing that wheat genes have become toxic, and with the ‘wheat’ we consume today being a product of genetic research; this may not be far off. Plus it’s not like we can obtain forms of wheat that were grown fifty years ago, let alone one hundred, one thousand, or ten thousand years ago.
Donald Kasarda, a researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has studied wheat genetics for decades. In a recent study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry; he found no evidence that a change in wheat-breeding practices might have led to an increase in the incidence of celiac disease. “My survey of protein content in wheat in the U.S. over approximately the past one hundred years did not support such an increase from historical data in comparison with recent data,”.
Joseph A. Murray, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic and the president of the North American Society for the Study of Celiac Disease; has also studied wheat genetics, and he agrees with Kasarda. “The wheat grain is not a lot different than it was fifty years ago,” “Chemically, the contents just have not changed much. And there is something more important to note. Wheat consumption is going down, not up. I don’t think this is a problem that can be linked to the genetics of what.”
However, there is more to wheat than just gluten. Wheat also contains a complex combo of carbohydrates. In a recent study, they recruited a group of thirty-seven volunteers who seemed unable to digest gluten properly. All of the volunteers were put on a diet that was gluten-free and free of a group of carbohydrates called fodmaps; an acronym for a series of words few people will ever remember: fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. Now before you go cutting all carbs out of your diet; not all carbs are considered fodmaps, but many types of foods contain them. Including foods that are high in fructose, like honey, apples, mangoes, and watermelon; dairy products, like milk and ice cream; and fructans, such as garlic and onions.
Most have no trouble digesting fodmaps, but these carbohydrates are osmotic, meaning that they pull water into the intestinal tract. Which can cause abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea. When these carbohydrates enter the small intestine undigested, they of course move on to the colon; where bacteria then begins to break them down. Which causes fermentation and one product of this process is gas. So when the volunteers were placed on a diet free of both gluten and fodmaps, their gastrointestinal symptoms abated. After two weeks, all of the participants reported that they felt better, but some subjects were then secretly given food that contained gluten; the symptoms didn’t recur.
Not to mention, fodmaps seem more likely to cause intestinal distress than gluten. Mainly because bacteria regularly ferments carbohydrates, but ferment protein less frequently. Although a fodmap-free diet is beyond complicated; it permits people to remove specific foods temporarily and then reintroduce said foods systematically to determine if any are the culprit behind the problems.
Eliminating gluten blew up in 2011, and it was all caused by an article. It stated something along the lines of, people are intolerant of gluten, and it was based on a double-blind study. When people were challenged with gluten by eating muffins, they got sick, but by the time the second study came around; everyone was already convinced that they felt better when they didn’t eat gluten – and they didn’t want to hear anything different.
Although I’d love to say the fodmap research is the end of the gluten trend; it involved fewer than a hundred people. Several groups are trying to repeat those results, but studies take time. As of now, there are no blood tests, biopsies, genetic markers, or antibodies that can confirm a diagnosis of non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Few studies are suggesting that people without celiac disease have a reason to remove gluten from their diet, but again the data is unclear or hasn’t been tested enough. Which is one of the main reasons doctors very rarely diagnose non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and many don’t believe that it exists. Few people seem to have been deterred by the lack of evidence.
What’re Your Thoughts?
At the end of the day everyone is trying to figure out what is going on, but very few – like .001% – in medicine, thinks this adds up to anything like the number of people who say they feel better when they take gluten out of their diet. In my opinion – and I’m not a doctor by any means – I think about 70% of its hype and desire; there is nothing clearly related to gluten that is wrong with most people. However, that shouldn’t stop you from asking if you should go gluten-free.
Ally Gonzales is the founder & editor-in-chief of RunningSoleGirl. Along with blogging she is also juggling attending college and majoring in Exercise and Sports Science with a Sports Management minor.