Much Ado About Gluten

My wife is gluten-free; has been since the start of 2014.

What I didn’t know until recently is apparently so are 18–30% of you.

I try my hardest to follow suit, and would estimate that 98% of the time I eat a gluten-free diet — soy sauce, microbrews, & the rare unicorn chipotle burrito have been known to sucker punch me during times of dietary vulnerability.

Nonetheless, we are still in the minority which means we will undoubtedly encounter many pundits dispelling gluten avoidance as nothing more than the latest la-la land dietary fad.

When I witness this skepticism first hand, I will often get tested about why I make a concerted effort to eat gluten-free.

Popular comments include:

  • Do you even know what gluten is?
  • Bread is in the bible, how can it be bad for me?
  • My grandma is 95 and has eaten her coffee cake every morning for the past 50 years, why should I give up gluten?

While I usually don’t bother to ask if this is the same genetically gifted grandmother that can still smoke a pack a day, I welcome this skepticism and consider it a hallmark characteristic of any informed consumer.

It has also made me realize that since I regularly condone the avoidance of most wheat products, it is probably worth formally organizing my thoughts and openly sharing them on Medium for those seeking a bit more clarity.

What is Gluten?

Wheat itself is a cereal grain composed of an endosperm, germ, and bran. Below is a picture of wheat berries or what I would consider real “whole” wheat, as a wheat berry contains every piece of the grain as mother nature designed it.

Gluten is Latin for “glue,” and signifies the doughy complex of proteins within the wheat plant.

There are two main classes of gluten proteins, they are named gliadin and the glutenin. Within these two classes alone, over 20,000 different chemical forms of gluten have been discovered.

As you can see, gluten itself is a bit mercurial, but for dietary purposes, I usually consider wheat and gluten synonymous, i.e., if it contains wheat, I won’t eat.

While there are many types of individuals who are actively avoiding gluten these days, roughly around 1% of the population suffers from a wheat-related autoimmune disorder referred to as celiac disease. These individuals cannot eat any gluten, as it causes an extreme inflammatory response in their small intestines.

However, what is now being discovered is that improperly prepared gluten proteins may actually wreak havoc on the epithelial lining of everyone’s gastrointestinal tract.

The upshot being that gluten is now being considered as a lowest common denominator behind very common, albeit hard to treat, inflammatory & digestive disorders.

Where Did Wheat Go Wrong?

Hold on a second!

Grains have been consumed by humans for over 10,000 years — making them a staple product in our diets for as long as history has been documented. So what exactly has changed with wheat to make it a hazard to our health?

To be blunt, basically everything from farm-to-table. The way wheat is grown, processed and eaten is just plain different from the practices of our relatively recent ancestors.

Looking back over the past couple hundred years, we can see that industrialization essentially created two separate technological revolutions in wheat processing; the first was in milling, the second in cultivation and farming.

In the 1870’s, the invention of the modern steel roller mill revolutionized grain milling making industrially refined wheat flour available for mass market consumption.

While many now know the dangers posed by bleached flour, the misconception of whole wheat flour as a healthy dietary choice remains.

The truth is, grains that have been pulverized into flour, whether “whole” or not, get rapidly digested due to their expanded starchy surface area, and cause blood sugar levels to spike dramatically.

To further understand how food affects blood sugar, you can research a measurement tool called the glycemic index.

The glycemic index (GI) is used to rank carbohydrate foods based on how quickly the body turns them into glucose (blood sugar). High GI foods are rapidly converted into glucose, while low GI foods are digested at a slower rate.

As a rule of thumb, nutritionists recommend that high GI foods are best eaten in moderation as overconsumption can lead to obesity, systemic inflammation and increased risk of diabetes.

What may surprise you is that “whole-grain” products such as whole wheat flour and whole wheat bread, actually have a glycemic index which is nearly as high as refined white flour.

Either this information is unknown or largely being ignored as wheat — almost exclusively in the form of flour — accounts for three out of every four servings of grain consumed in the United States today.

The second technological advance in the production of wheat had to do with a reinvention of cultivation and farming techniques.

This change occurred in the 1960s when the father of the modern wheat movement, Norman Borlaug, implemented initiatives to increase the yield of wheat crops in an effort to help millions avoid starvation.

His initiatives involved the development of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, and the distribution of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides to farmers.

While this advent should be lauded from the standpoint that it helped millions avoid starvation, it has obviously since had many unforeseen long-term consequences on public health.

For one, today’s hybridized wheat has been found to contain a higher percentage of gluten proteins than wheat that was grown just 100 years earlier, leading some to theorize that our genetic tinkering could be at the source of the widespread increase in the prevalence of celiac disease.

Exceptions to the Rule

Can you eat wheat and still follow a healthy diet?

Yes, absolutely you can — but I would argue that it takes a concerted effort.

For starters, I would recommend that you steer clear of “industrial” flour that has been processed to oblivion and focus on cooking or processing your own einkorn or spelt.

In the case that you love sourdough bread, you may be in luck as the production of sourdough bread involves a fermentation process that “predigests” gluten proteins, making them much less inflammatory.

I have heard multiple accounts from individuals with celiac disease claim that while almost all wheat products make them violently ill, they can safely consume traditionally prepared sourdough bread — assuming that it was prepared from scratch and made with organically grown heritage wheat.

Michael Pollan talks about how learning to make sourdough bread was one of the most difficult, yet rewarding experiences of his culinary life. I have yet to explore, but am excited to do so.

Don’t Knock It ’til You’ve Tried It

My father, a man of strong conviction, is now giving up gluten after 72 years of bread-loving life. If he can do it, anyone can.

I promise you, giving up gluten is not synonymous with misery. The market for gluten-free alternatives is flourishing, so much so that you can purchase or reinvent any glutenous recipe your heart may desire.

In the past, my wife & I have consistently used Elana’s Pantry as our go-to website for literally any dessert or baked good recipe that we want to make gluten-free. No kidding, her banana bread is some of the best bread I’ve ever had.

If you’re at all inspired or curious about giving up gluten, I would challenge you to cut wheat out of your diet for 30 days, and just see how you feel.

I’d also be thrilled to hear more about your personal experiences in the comments section below.

Happy eating!