Under the microscope: gluten

So, I’ve noticed the big craze nowadays (dietetically speaking) is this “gluten-free” fad and, while I’m very health-conscious, I’ve felt a lot of skepticism about the whole ordeal. Namely because one generally likens gluten intolerance to individuals with celiac disease, and I’ve heard figures stating the incidence of the disease itself only affects .8% of the general population. Anyway, there’s definitely enough talk about it to warrant and investigation; so, investigate I did.

What the heck is gluten, anyway?

When I think “gluten,” I immediately think of dough. I used to work in a pizza place (okay, several pizza places), and I’d often see “such and such high-gluten flour.” Well, gluten is the stuff that gives bread the texture we know it to have. It makes dough stretchy, and ultimately makes it rise when in an oven. It’s a protein, composed of glycoproteins called gliadin and gluenin and a protein called glutelin. On its own, gluten is actually pretty good for you; it has huge helpings of selenium and protein (albeit “incomplete protein”), and not a whole lot of calories.

What’s so bad about it?

Besides the obvious danger of bleaching/whitening/bromating of flour, what could be the big deal about one of its core components? Well, turns out it’s really bad for sufferers of the aforementioned celiac disease as well as people with dermatitis herpetiformis (you know who you are, jump up and say WOOO!) which is oft-times linked with celiac disease itself. “Gluten psoriasis” is another type of malady reported in the intake of gluten, and though there are studies pointing to a gluten-free diet helping in its cure, the psoriasis has not necessarily been proven to be caused by gluten intake itself. Celiac sufferers are obviously badly impacted by the ingestion of gluten, as they cannot digest the gummy gliadin contained within the substance; and so it sits within intestine walls, blocking the absorption of key nutrients into the system. This leads to malnutrition, weight loss, and in the case of dermatitis herpetiformis sufferers, terrible and growing rashes throughout the body. These diseases and their relation to gluten sensitivity/allergy have been well-documented and proven, but what about the latest links to gluten and disease?

The role of gluten in autism

There has been growing concern about the potential role of gluten in fostering autism, causing many people in this country to swear off the stuff; especially for their children. Despite all the hype, however, there is little evidence of any concrete link between the two, with most studies having been done showing no correlation at all, neither between autism and gluten intolerance nor autism and celiac disease. Even the more “pro-gluten free” for autism study cited above claims the efficacy of a gluten free diet poor for autism symptoms, with the other studies actually saying autism behavior worsened in a gluten-free environment! Scientists all-around seem to admit that the studies are not as far-reaching as they would like i.e. not enough subjects or meta-analysis to come to a definite conclusion. As this “preliminary” stage has been going on since at least 1992, however, it seems that time is not really on the side of the gluten-autism linkage.

The role of gluten in weight gain

Another charge against gluten ingestion is its supposed role in weight gain. As far as I can tell, there is no evidence to support this. Most studies on gluten-free diets have to do with weight gain themselves rather than weight loss. Gluten-free diets are mostly prescribed to those suffering “failure to thrive” symptoms within celiac disease i.e. they’re malnourished and need some meat on their bones, and gluten freedom is the way to go. In fact, the only related study I could conjure that had anything to do with gluten ingestion and weight gain while simultaneously having nothing to do with celiac disease was this very damning one (to the gluten-free weight loss theory). It basically says gluten added to heated oil can assist in weight loss rather than weight gain. Also, to add fuel to the fire is the fact that many gluten free foods in stores nowadays are junk produced for the trendy consumer. For example, I used to work in a cupcake shop. I saw folks coming in for our Friday and Saturday gluten-free cupcakes, and boy were they serious about gluten content. Not so serious about the influx of detrimental calories and sugars they were soon to be eating, however. What any truly informed celiac patient knows is this: The chance for cross-contamination in such an environment (the cupcake shop) is immense. Nothing against my co-workers, but the chances of them not cross-contaminating in a place where there is constant cupcake and cake production, especially when said gluten free cupcakes are right next to the regular variety on the shelves, in open air are infinitesimal. A person who truly has celiac disease cannot cope with even tiny amounts of the stuff, so they know not to go into such a place. Perhaps gluten free health benefits lie in the fact that many new-found aficionados of the lifestyle are becoming more aware of what is in their packaged foods, reading labels and so forth. There are bound to be numerous health benefits to those who avoid the host of toxins found on the huge ingredients labels in our supermarkets, opting instead for organic foods and those which have ingredients they recognize. For the gluten-conscious, however, I cannot find any rigorously peer-reviewed study that even slightly defends the claims about weight loss or autism improvement in a gluten free diet.

Conclusion

Well, I was honestly hoping this article would be longer. I had a very genuine curiosity regarding this topic, but I come out of the study haus for it feeling about the same way as I came in. I suppose whereas before I was in the dark about the whole ordeal and slightly skeptical-but-hopeful, now I am simply confused as to why anyone would believe the hype surrounding the defamation of something as innocuous as a protein in wheat/starch. Here are the only points I can really make:

• Gluten is seriously dangerous to the well-being of those with celiac/coeliac disease and related complications having to do with the skin. If you have any of these symptoms: weakness, being obscenely underweight, or unexplained skin lesions and/or extreme rashes, please ask your doctor to run tests regarding celiac sprue.

• That last part said, if that is not something that sounds like you or your children, it is highly likely that a glutenless diet would mean little to your well-being unless your well-being is somehow related to spending big dollars on gluten-free junk food alternatives. Gluten allergy symptoms in adults are unlikely to simply pop up out of nowhere; that is, if you have gluten intolerance (a better term, as even celiacs aren’t truly allergic.) now, it should have been a part of your life as a child and adolescent. Again, even the most liberal estimates of the potential number in the general population with celiac is .8%; that’s less than one in one hundred. Feel free to get the diagnosis of a doctor, by all means, but most likely you are just dandy.

• In any case, maintaining a healthy diet means avoiding highly-processed foods like white breads, sugars, and not overindulging in any particular food item. As a non-celiac, this should be a primary goal for optimum health.

• There’s the old adage, “If he jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?” Be sure to do your own research regarding any diet plan. Word of mouth from neighbors and especially getting into a diet based on its popularity and apparent selling value is always questionable. Weigh the options.

• As also stated, gluten itself is actually seemingly healthy. It is used by many vegetarians/vegans as a meat substitute (though, as I mentioned, it is not a “complete protein” with all necessary amino acids for tissue growth), and it is an option used for farm animal feed in lieu of terrible (for the animals) corn and soy. One might mention the lower glycemic load seen from gluten-free baked goods vs. their white bread-type counterparts. This is true, but just as low (if not lower) on the GL scale are whole grain and rye breads, so why sacrifice a protein source and risk having calories added from extra fat put in gluten-free items to make up for lost taste? Also, the omega 3 to 6 imbalance in most gluten free flours (made with garbanzo beans and arrowroot) is about equivalent to that in regular flours. I am not being paid by some gluten council, honest, but from all angles it just seems like the stuff is only truly dangerous to celiacs.

That’s all for today; now go out and make yourselves a nice loaf of (whole wheat whole grain) bread! Hasta Luigi, Mario.