Gluten: Let’s Talk About It

When I was writing a (recently published) post on the difference between food allergies, and food sensitivities, I initially started down the gluten rabbit hole as an example.  However, I quickly decided gluten deserved its own post.

I want to be clear, that I am not trying to tell anyone about their own body or how it reacts to things. I’m not a doctor or a scientist, I’m just someone who pays attention to things happening around me and then looks at all the sides of a given issue. I apologize in advance for offending anyone, which I’m sure I will do. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get into it…

What is gluten?  If your answer to this is “it’s in bread”, please keep reading – people in your life will wind up hating you a lot less!  “Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat (wheatberries, durum, emmer, semolina, spelt, farina, faro, graham, KAMUT® khorasan wheat and einkorn), rye, barley, and triticale (Celiac Disease Foundation website)”.  Yes, gluten is in bread.  It’s also in a bunch of other stuff that the average person doesn’t realize. Commercially produced French fries, salad dressings, beer, marinades, soup bases, and even soy sauce all contain gluten, but most “gluten-free” people consume these, problem-free (again, I said most, not all).

Before I go any further, this seems like a good time to draw the distinction between someone who is “gluten-sensitive”, and someone with Celiac Disease. Celiac Disease is a very real thing, that can cause deterioration of the small intestine, and serious subsequent health disorders in people who have it when any gluten in any form is consumed.  Conversely, when I was working at a restaurant that served a primarily Japanese-fusion menu, and we’d sometimes get a ticket that said “gluten-free, soy okay”.  That person did not have Celiac disease, they’re just an uneducated, and likely self-diagnosed person on a diet.

I also understand that most grains (especially corn and flour) contain high amounts of carbohydrates, which your body turns into glucose.  Glucose is the “blood sugar” that your body converts into energy.  When your body has more sugar than it needs, it’s stored in fat cells that your body creates to save excess “energy”.  I’m telling you this to show that I understand why people go on low-carb weight-loss diets, and that some of the more common things with gluten in them are major sources of carbohydrates in our society’s food ecosystem; this might be a reason why a lot of people (incorrectly) adopt the mindset of “gluten-free”: mistakenly using it interchangeably with “low-carb”. 

Most people who are “gluten-free” have decided to cut things like pasta and bread out of their diets — and good for those people! Do what you think will keep you the healthiest. But more often than not, this is not going “gluten-free”, it’s going “flour-free”.  This leads me to the driving point I want to make here:

In 1906, a law was passed in the US that allowed commercial flour mills to
add traces of chlorine bleach to their flour, both to preserve it, and to enhance the white color (organically milled flour is in fact light brown).  In the 1940’s, that law was upheld in a failed legal attempt to suppress the commercial production and sale of white bread, due to its lack of nutritional content.

Combined with the Baby Boom era, women remaining in the work-place (so, not at home all day cooking and baking as they traditionally had been up to that point) and the expansion of easily available ready-made food, the consumption of store-bought bread soared.  So, a generation after bread stopped being a home-made commodity, and instead purchased from commercial producers, using commercially milled (ergo: bleached) flour, people started to notice they were having reactions to things with flour in them (go figure!!!).

Various levels of gluten sensitivity have become widely and increasingly diagnosed over the last several decades, and for the last few years, has been at the center of countless dietary fads, but I don’t believe there is an extensive medical record of significant occurrence of this phenomenon in the US prior to (I would guess) 1980.  I have a theory…

In the interest of making sure we’re all on the same page, I trust we can all agree that bleach is poisonous and ingesting poison is bad for you.  According to the NorthShore Healthcare Systems official website, common symptoms of toxic ingestion include: “Nausea/vomiting, dizziness/disorientation, trouble breathing, pain, headaches, and disorientation”.  If we then just do a cursory search for “symptoms of gluten allergy”, countless online resources provide a list that looks really familiar: “bloating, gas or abdominal pain, diarrhea or constipation, nausea, headache, brain fog” you get the idea.  To me, it sounds like some “gluten-sensitive” people are may be displaying symptoms of mild but gradual bleach poisoning.

Somehow, the response to the society-wide spike in these symptoms (likely inspired by the existence of Celiac Disease) was, “blame gluten!” and ironically not, “blame the bleach in flour”. The USFDA allows for the bleaching of commercially produced flour, but the EMA (Europe’s counterpart to the FDA) doesn’t seem to. Coincidentally I’m sure (sarcasm), “gluten-sensitivity” does not exist in Europe (or anywhere else outside the US) — at least not to anywhere near the extent it supposedly exists in the States. And, very interestingly, I’ve encountered several people who claim to be gluten-sensitive, but somehow, they miraculously can, without incident, eat the bread from their local bakery, which proudly uses locally milled (ergo unbleached) flour.

Just to recap: gluten is only the severe enemy of Celiac victims.  Carbohydrates are the enemy of anyone trying to lose some unwanted belly fat.  But it may be possible that bleached flour is what many “gluten-sensitive” people are actually sensitive to.  If eating bread from the store causes a threat to your physical health, then I encourage you to see a doctor and get to the bottom of what is ailing you.  In the meantime though, before you villainize gluten, sample a product made with organically-milled, unbleached flour, and find out how your body reacts to something that contains gluten, but might not be saturated with poison.

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