In the past few years the wheat protein, gluten, has gained a tremendous amount of popularity – but not the kind that will win it prom king or queen. Nowadays, there’s no trouble to walk through the health food section of a supermarket and see “gluten free” proudly displayed on any number of items from cake mixes to liquid seasonings. Actually, stroll through the chip isle and you’ll see “gluten free” plastered across bags of potato chips as if this label makes the fried potatoes or rice appear healthier.
“Gluten free” isn’t constrained solely to supermarket isles however; there are any number of gluten free options popping up at restaurants and cafes, if not entire gluten free bakeries or catering companies. But why the proliferation of gluten free groceries? How did a population become intolerant to good old Canadian wheat, seemingly overnight? Is it a health craze? A legitimate concern? Personally, I think it’s a mix of people getting better in touch with that they put in their bodies and how they feel afterwards, coupled with books like The Wheat Belly, advancements in diagnostics, celebrity diets, and your next door neighbour and yoga instructor boasting about how much better they feel living gluten-free. With all this, many find it difficult to get the straight goods on gluten. Let’s see if we can find some clarity.
An estimated 1% of the population (or 340 000 Canadians) suffer from it. Celiac disease is an auto-immune disorder where the little fibres (called villi) on the intestinal walls that absorb nutrients are damaged by wheat protein (gluten), leading to a myriad of health conditions, perpetuated in part by the malnutrition that results from improper assimilation of nutrients. Examples include gastrointestinal issues (chronic constipation and/or diarrhea), lymphoma, delayed puberty, and reproductive problems, not to mention the social anxiety from unpredictable stomach upset (to name a few). If you have celiac (and you would obtain testing for this through your family medical doctor) your only treatment is to avoid all gluten, whether as food or through body-care products (shampoos, moisturizers, etc). Gluten is traditionally found in kamut, barley, rye, oats, wheat, and spelt (“K-BROWS”).
How did a population become intolerant to good old Canadian wheat, seemingly overnight?
Recently, however, Health Canada and the Canadian Celiac Association (CAC) gave an update on their position on gluten due to new research on uncontaminated oats. CAC said, “[c]linical evidence confirms that consumption of pure, uncontaminated oats is safe in the amount of 50 to 70 grams per day (1/2 – 3/4 cup dry rolled oats) by adults and 20 to 25 grams per day (1/4 cup dry rolled oats) by children with celiac disease…A small number of individuals with celiac disease may not tolerate even pure, uncontaminated oats. To ensure that persons with celiac disease are not intolerant to pure and uncontaminated oats, proper clinical follow up with the physician is advised when introducing oats to a gluten-free diet.”
Different from an allergy – which triggers an immune response in our bodies – an intolerance is less severe, but nevertheless can carry similar reactions like rashes, constipation/diarrhea, nasal congestion, headaches, etc. Usually, you would pin-point a food intolerance by keeping a food diary or trying an elimination diet under the guidance of a health practitioner. In cases of gluten intolerance, a person may be able to tolerate low-levels of gluten without any adverse reactions; thus why you hear some folks say they can “tolerate” spelt bread or kamut pasta, as examples.
Going gluten free?
One should not approach a gluten-free diet simply because they think they will feel better or because they hear it’s a great way to lose weight. Going gluten-free without proper guidance from a health care provider, or understanding of nutritional needs, can leave you worse off – with vitamin and mineral deficiencies and the complications that go along with that. But, if through your own investigating you think you are sensitive to gluten, seek out guidance from a health care professional (preferably one knowledgeable of food allergies). Also, be mindful that many people feel better after eliminating gluten from their diet, not because of the gluten per se, but because of the by-products of many glutinous items that could be causing reactions: refined breads, cakes, and pastries made with refined sugars and oils, as examples.
It is important when wading through all the gluten-free hype not to get lost in a) the reality that gluten free is a necessity for some people, not some fad diet; and b) if tolerated, gluten-containing grains are part of a balanced diet as they offer essential proteins, vitamins and minerals, such as silicon. Further, traditional Chinese medicine boasts the healing properties of grains like rye and barley in bone formation and quelling fevers, to name a couple.
The goods on gluten
So that’s gluten. I hope this has been informative and if nothing else, you leave knowing that gluten is a very real source of angst for many individuals, but also that it isn’t humanity’s enemy. Although it isn’t a fad diet or a choice made out of privilege for those with celiac or gluten sensitivity, it is also a part of a balanced whole-foods diet where possible.
For those who want to explore some gluten free grains…
Gluten free grains, and pseudo grains such as quinoa and wild rice, can be found at your local supermarket, but for others try a bulk or natural health food store (or order online). Soaking all grains 8-12 hours is recommended (or at least rinsing in the case of quinoa), as this increases their digestibility and reduces their phytic acid content (which can inhibit iron absorption). Examples include quinoa, millet, buckwheat, wild rice, rice, amaranth, and teff (these last two may be too tiny to drain properly after soaking. You’ve been warned!).
When it comes to flours and baking, you can use all of the grains listed above, plus sorghum, coconut, almond, chickpea, and fava bean; and as binders there’s guar gum, potato or tapioca starch, and xanthan gum (this is most often made of corn, usually genetically modified, and known to upset some folks’ stomachs, so keep that in mind!).
Note that bean flours tend to lend a denser (heavier) feel to baked goods, whereas sorghum lends a lighter texture. I find the best way around gluten free baking is your own experimenting, but if you’d like other people’s insights, check out this site (Karina boasts 60 000+ Facebook fans if that’s any indication of her blog’s reputation).
Looking to sub oats somewhere, whether in baking or in burgers? Try quinoa flakes. In the meantime, take note of the new guidelines on oat consumption for those with celiac disease (stated above).
(Money saving point of interest: for the readers out there who have been diagnosed with celiac disease, or if someone you know is, be sure that they know about their right to claim “incremental costs” related to the purchasing of gluten free products. See the Canada Revenue Agency for more details.)