Wading through the hype

For some people, -gluten-free may be exactly what the doctor ordered

The food industry is rife with buzz words and labels, and to those unfamiliar with celiac disease or the slew of related illnesses, a fear of “gluten” seems to be just another health trend for paranoid eaters. Boxes of crackers, cake mixes, sauces and beers with gluten-free claims line grocery-store shelves; the gluten-free industry has made nearly $7 billion from products sold in the past couple of years.

Cute phrases like “g-free"—coined by The View co-host Elizabeth Hasselback—are thrown around, to the chagrin of some doctors and their patients who take the term “gluten-free” quite seriously. With celebrity endorsements and foodie blogs more highly publicized than scientific evidence, it can seem that cautionary statements about bread, pasta and pastries are unfounded.

But the current relationship between many Americans and their food has resulted in a rise of obesity and diabetes, and an addiction to sugar and processed foods. An epidemic of gluten intolerance has come to the forefront of medical research.

While conventional wisdom says a well-rounded diet full of vegetables is the key to keeping illness, premature aging and weight gain at bay, grains are a mixed bag. On the updated food plate designed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a suggested serving of grain takes up a little more than a quarter—nearly equal to the suggested amount of vegetables. The old food pyramid recommended six to 11 servings of grains per day. That means that the past couple of generations have grown up eating cereal for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and carbo-loaded meals for dinner.

Some scientists claim that some grains are OK to digest, and can contribute to long-term heart health. San Francisco neuroscientist Darya Pino argues that intact, legitimately whole grains, the ones that still maintain their natural shape and nutrients, are good for humans to consume—it’s the ones incorrectly labeled “whole” that are the problem, because they are often simplified in the process of inserting them into whole-grain pastas or breads.

Researchers are divided about when grain was first cultivated for consumption by humans, and whether it’s even necessary at all for humans to incorporate into their diet. This has led to the establishment of diets like Paleo, a revised caveman-esque diet, which advocates veggies and meat over corn and wheat.

Some scientists claim that it’s not just the wheat itself wreaking havoc on bodies, but the way it’s used in modern flour. Bread used to be made with slow-rise yeast, allowing it to break down more easily in the body, but packaged bread is often made to bake faster, which requires an excess of gluten to help the dough maintain its consistency. Wheat is often bleached for products like white bread or packaged pastries.

In a 2010 article published in the Huffington Post, physician Mark Hyman stated, “American strains of wheat have a much higher gluten content É than those traditionally found in Europe. This super-gluten was recently introduced into our agricultural food supply and now has ‘infected’ nearly all wheat strains in America.”

While it is estimated that almost 40 percent of the population in America suffers from a form of gluten intolerance, a lack of reliable testing by medical professionals makes it hard to know just how serious this may be. And, quite simply, many people are reluctant to give up the foods on which they have come to rely. Mac-and-cheese is an American staple.

But for the 2 million Americans living with celiac disease, epilepsy, migraines and other disorders, staving off gluten can save their lives. And for the rest of us, it’s hard to admit that the foods we love are making us chronically sick.

The Food and Drug Admini-stration defines gluten as complex proteins found in grains like barley and rye that, when mixed with water, thicken and create a sticky substance. It’s what gives dough its gummy texture.

An overabundance of gluten in a person’s digestive system can lead to an attack on the tiny villi that line the stomach, which filter out the nutrients from food. When the villi are destroyed, people develop a leaky gut, which sends the toxins of foods into the bloodstream. The immune system goes into overdrive to prevent the person from getting sick, which can result in constant pain and fatigue, or make other existing conditions worse.

The amount of villi damaged is what distinguishes an intolerance from a full-blown disease, but many who are already sensitive to gluten are at risk for developing celiac disease later on in their lives.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the healthy bacteria present in the stomach can’t properly absorb the nutrients from food, leaving a person sick and tired. According to the medical journal Lancet, 30 percent of people of European descent possess the gene for celiac disease.

Wheat allergy is essentially like other food allergies and affects people differently, but generally contributes to an increased likelihood of nasal allergies, headaches and migraines.

Gluten intolerance is often linked to other ailments such as low gland activity, including adrenal and thyroid disorders, but can also worsen symptoms of neurological disorders like epilepsy or fibromyalgia.

“A review paper in The New England Journal of Medicine listed 55 ‘diseases’ that can be caused by eating gluten,” according to the Huffington Post article. “These include osteoporosis, irritable bowel disease, inflammatory bowel disease, anemia, cancer, fatigue, canker sores É rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and almost all other autoimmune diseases. Gluten is also linked to many psychiatric and neurological diseases, including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, dementia, migraines, epilepsy and neuropathy.”

How many times must humans be told that the things to which we get addicted are poisonous before we stop ingesting them? People still smoke cigarettes, still refuse to exercise, still drink and eat to excess. Americans are conditioned to live in opulence—which has resulted in millions living shorter, painful, disease-ridden lives.

A longer version of this story originally ran in the Reno News & Review.