Gluten: Public Enemy #1?

rolls rising

I’ve been cooking from scratch with whole foods for more than forty years. I have been vegetarian several times, most recently for more than 15 years. Now I am experimenting more with vegan foods.

During these forty plus years, I have tried to stay current on what we know about food and its relationship to our health. I have watched food “issues” come and go, including eggs, on the “hit list” for so many years, now not necessarily. If I were to eliminate every food that we’ve been told to eliminate, either by the medical profession or alternative health gurus, there would probably be nothing left to eat.

In this country of plenty (for many), we are particularly prone to demonizing categories of food, and someday I will write a post about the impulses behind this self-deprivation. I think of Der Hunger Kunstler (The Hunger Artist) by Franz Kafka.

Still, I am considering a next step. As I contemplate removing another class of food items from my own diet, namely eggs and cheese, I am sometimes frustrated and sometimes amused by an ever-growing list of forbidden foods. Grains and gluten are just two of the more recent on the food hit list.

I continue to consider grains my friends, despite the fact that most have gluten. I eat and enjoy wheat, oats, barley and more with no debilitating after effects even though grains are theoretically new to human consumption entering our food supply just 10,000 years ago. That appears to have been long enough ago for my system.

One day in my cafe, I was told by a customer who requested gluten free products that everyone suffers gluten sensitivity nowadays. This surprised me, since I definitely do not. I couldn’t help but think of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a story I read as a child. Did I dare to contradict what is increasingly becoming universally accepted truth, that we are all suffering from gluten sensitivity? Could I possibly suggest that the emperor might be naked, or at least partially so?

Still, I believed I owed it to my customers and myself to go beyond the evidence of my own body and read up on what the issues may be for others. I did read as many articles as I could find dealing with the issue of gluten and grains from all sides and perspectives. I read reviews on the articles to be sure I wasn’t led astray by the hype on this issue coming from all directions. I spent many days on the project but in the end found little that sounded credible or made any sense to me. For every statement, there was a counter statement that made at least as strong an argument.

Finally I came across an article on the Weston Price website ( that had a ring of truth for me. It fit with my general ideas about the source of problems in our food supply: processing. Titled “Against the Grain,” it explores in some depth how grains have historically been prepared for consumption and in contrast how little of that correct preparation goes into them in contemporary times:

“Grains comprise a wholesome category of foods that must be respected for the complexity of nutrient contributions they can make to the human diet, and must always be prepared with care to maximize those nutrients’ availability as well as neutralize naturally occurring antinutrients. . .

“Growing and preparing food ought to be a sacramental service. It should not be based on violence, as is most of modern agriculture, factory animal farms and factories that produce finished food items like bread. All those processes are based on “conquering” the food item and forcing it into a form defined by commerce. There are no more subtle energies in these debased foods, let alone mere measureable nutrients or soul-satisfying taste and vitality.

“Food is holy. Its preparation and enjoyment constitute a daily opportunity to experience happiness, satisfaction and gratitude.”

Specifically grains have always been fermented (including raising breads several times) and/or cooked for long periods of time before use. In modern day processing, however, chemicals are used to advance the process.

Speeding the process has not always been a function of chemicals either. We all think sugar (a “natural” substance) is required to feed the yeast if the bread is going to rise properly, right? Actually, there are plenty of sugars in the grains, and no added sugar is required — yet try to find a bread on the supermarket shelves without sugar. Why? Because sugar will make the process go faster. Similarly, little or no yeast is required for bread to rise. Wild yeast is available in the air, and with time, dough can pick it up and will rise without added yeast — yet packages of yeast have almost a tablespoon in them. Why? Because more yeast will make the process go faster.  In factories, bread is rammed through the rising/fermentation process in almost no time.

It makes sense to me that our need for speed has made us neglect some age-old, important techniques in the handling of grains and development of the gluten in our bread. As I read this article, it occurred to me that those who suffer what they perceive to be gluten reactions may actually suffer from abuse to their systems from years of eating manufactured bread products. I also wondered if my own lack of issues with grains is because I have eaten whole grain breads for the last 40 or more years, most of the time made at home and raised the old-fashioned way?

Another experience in my life gave me more insight into the gluten issue. This summer I was sick for four months with an intestinal issue caused by antibiotics. Initially my doctor recommended a BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast).  The rice and the toast were both to be white.  This is considered a “low-residue” diet and theoretically puts as little stress as possible on the digestive system. It was kind of fun to eat store-bought white bread for the first time in forty years, and I ate it with relish. It made me sick. Suddenly I was very sympathetic with what all those gluten free people had been telling me.

Eventually I came across a diet that did work for me called The Monash University Low FODMAP Diet. FODMAP is an acronym that stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols. These are “dietary sugars that can be poorly absorbed in the small intestine and fermented by bacteria to produce gas. Current research strongly suggests that this group of sugars contributes to IBSS/FGID symptoms.” (from the App, available in the ITunes store). Many grains, including wheat, are excluded in this diet because they are high in FODMAPS. Bingo!

It seems to me likely that between improper handling of grains and the difficulty of digesting sugars in some carbohydrates there may be the beginning of an explanation for some of our problems with the staff of life. As some have said, casting a wide net over gluten products has probably taken an important element out of the diets of many people who didn’t necessarily need to remove that element. A vegetarian diet without grains is hard to do, vegan even more so.

The good news about the Low FODMAP diet for me was that it allowed me to be selective in a scientifically tested way about what I excluded from my diet instead of casting that huge net over so many foods. The even better news is that not all four sugars cause difficulty for everyone, so in time, it is possible to bring some foods back. Sometimes it is even possible to restore all the foods that were removed from one’s diet.

An excellent article I read recently in the New Yorker pointed to the same two pieces of the gluten puzzle that were verified by my own experience: “Against the Grain” discusses the improper grain handling described in the Weston A. Price article of the same name and the discovery of offending sugars in the Low FODMAP Diet from Monash University.

And now I’m going to go and enjoy one of my delicious 7-grain spelt muffins. Spelt is a type of wheat that is low FODMAP and therefore easier to digest. It makes a beautiful loaf, and although I can eat and enjoy regular whole grain bread, I enjoy experimenting with spelt. Sourdough, with its long fermentation and wild yeast, is better yet since the yeast “eats” the offending sugars.

Ideas? Would like to hear from you!