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I have long been intrigued by shifts in popular taste like the growing aversion to gluten. I am also wary of the influencers amongst us, like talk-back hosts, and other well-knowns, who announce that they like or dislike someone or something, causing consumers to rush to emulate them.
Tennis star Novak Djokovic attributes his return to form to a gluten-free diet, and there follows a surge in the prevalence of gluten-free items. Every menu I pick up these days is peppered with the phrase ‘gluten-free’.
However, I may have to abandon my scepticism, and acknowledge the trend as reflecting a genuine medical condition, and not merely one more dietary predilection among thousands. I had a friend who suffered from irritable bowel syndrome, and his discomfort and debility was evident and real. It was a form of coeliac disease, a common condition in which the absorptive surface of the patient’s small intestine becomes damaged due to the body’s inability to process gluten properly.
Gluten is a mix of two proteins and is present in wheat, barley, rye, and other grains. Thus, popular foods like bread, pasta, muffins, cookies, pizza, and many brands of cereal have high levels of gluten.
The typical symptoms of coeliac disease include abdominal pain, weight loss, fatigue, irritability, chronic diarrhoea, and a sense of bloating and enzyme abnormalities.
Why should grains that we have been eating for as long as 14,000 years suddenly become too hard to stomach? What is it about the grain-based foods that most of us are eating which could be causing one in ten people to exhibit digestive difficulties?
Modern wheat has been bred to the requirement of industrial bakeries to have higher levels of stronger gluten to facilitate the so-called ‘gluten web’, the binding element in dough without which we would have heaps of crumbs rather than a cohesive loaf. Furthermore, our great-grandparents’ grain was not sprayed with pesticides. These days, it is common practice among non-organic farmers to spray their wheat before harvest with glyphosate. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. Debate rages about the long-term safety of these pesticides and possible effects on human health, especially when deployed close to harvesting.
What unintended mutations might this have caused in these new, often modified grain varieties, and what effects might they have on consumers? The more gluten, the fluffier and airier your loaf. Making your own bread in a bread machine offers no relief: look at the composition of popular formulas for domestic bread-making mixes, and count the additive numbers. The most crucial step in traditional bread making – long, slow fermentation, the ‘rising of the dough’ – has been stripped out of the industrial manufacturing process, making it possible to create finished loaves in two hours, as opposed to the traditional 16 hours or more. Fermentation, as used in the making of foods such as sauerkraut and sourdough, has been shown to contribute greatly to microbial diversity in our gut microbe, and the loss of a major source of this may be significant.
One study found that emulsifiers, common food additives found in industrial breads and baked goods, may promote intestinal inflammation by disrupting the barrier between the immune system and our microbiome, the collection of microbes that inhabit our bodies and control a large part of our metabolism. The primary factor associated with allergic and autoimmune disease is apparently loss of species diversity from the ecosystem of the human body, the human biome. Other medical conditions, such as autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, migraine, have been linked to disruptions of the biome.
Unfortunately it is not just the food we eat that may be to blame. There can be hidden gluten in medications and other products. Thus, patients with coeliac disease should avoid certain lipsticks, some mouthwashes, vitamin supplements, and medication. Given the rampant interaction between pharmaceutical chemistry and the bakery, this is hardly surprising. Nor is it surprising that the market, that never-resting sensor of opportunity, has picked up on this. Look for gluten-free toothpaste next time you’re shopping. I’m not kidding.
Henceforth I am going to be more sympathetic to those compelled to avoid gluten in their diets. They will need all the luck and sympathy they can get in today’s abundance of prostituted and over-manufactured foods. Finding a workable diet free from gluten is challenging if one wants to eat from a real-food menu and stay as far away from ultra-processed junk as possible.
John Fleming II
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