I lived in London for 8 long, adventurous years. While I was there I started my health journey, and when I came back in October 2013 I was enthusiastically waving my gluten free, lactose free, minimal refined sugar banner. My family’s reaction - who the hell is gluten and why did you have to free yourself from him!?
An understandable question, given that humans have cheerfully been eating gluten for at least 10,000 years with minimal issues, and the gluten free craze that has recently taken over South Africa has spread at the speed of Cape wildfires in a very short space of time. This gluten free hysteria feels, to a reasonable person, very alarmist. Google scientists are claiming that gluten is a culinary villain that is poisoning the minds of our children, and people are throwing themselves off the grain ship like it’s the Titanic. Even Southpark dedicated an episode to going gluten free – a sure sign that it has become a cultural zeitgeist.
It all reeks of several decades ago when scientists told us that saturated fats would kill us by the thousands, and people the world over waved crucifixes in the faces of butter and cream. Or rewind to the mid-2000s when celebrities like Jennifer Aniston spoke out for the Atkins diet, and suddenly carbs were being burned at the stake.
What is happening with gluten today is another example of a bandwagon being firmly jumped on. But is there any truth to the wide eyed whispers that gluten is a real threat? What is gluten really, and is the mass hysteria justified or are we going to think back on this period with our tails between our legs?
Let’s examine the facts as know them. Gluten is a two part protein found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. It is created when two peptides - gliadin and glutenin – come into contact during the kneading process and form a bond. This bond creates an elastic membrane, or stickiness, that gives baked goods their chewy texture. This is why amateur gluten free baking often resembles soggy concrete blocks - without the elasticity of gluten, it is difficult to achieve that desired lightness, as my own frequent flops can attest.
People who are diagnosed with celiac disease have an autoimmune response whenever they ingest gluten. This means the body recognises gluten as a threat and attacks itself in an attempt to eliminate it. This reaction destroys the brushlike surfaces of the small intestine and can cause extreme illness. Celiacs cannot have gluten of any kind, in any amount, ever.
But it’s people like me – people with gluten ‘sensitivity’, ‘intolerance’ or my personal favourite ‘anxiety’ – that have scientists’ panties in a twist. Doctors rarely diagnose it, and many believe it doesn’t exist. You are far more likely to be told that you suffer from IBS, as I was, than to have your gluten intolerance confirmed.
There are a number of theories for the recent spike in gluten related issues, however none of them result in clear, scientific answers, mostly due to the lack of time spent thus far on gluten studies.
1. The wheat that we were eating 50 years ago is not the same as the wheat we eat today.
Scientists for this theory claim that the wheat we eat today is a product of genetic research which has made it faster growing as well as drought- and bug-resistant. The modified gluten protein is vastly different to the protein of yesteryear and is not as easily digested.
2. The volume of gluten in modern diets has increased.
Dietary patterns have changed dramatically in the past century, but human genes have not. The human body is not equipped to deal with the vast amounts of gluten found not only in bread and pasta but in sauces, gravies and virtually every kind of packaged food.
3. The addition of vital wheat gluten to wholewheat products.
Vital wheat gluten is a powdered, concentrated form of the gluten that is found naturally in bread. Additional amounts of this protein are added to wholewheat products to make them softer and increase their shelf life. As obsession with healthy eating spirals, more people are moving from refined to wholewheat products, and therefore consuming vastly increased amounts of vital wheat gluten.
These are just three of the most popular theories, but there are more.
So what does this mean if you describe yourself as gluten sensitive – are you a hysterical trend follower, or do you have a valid point?
In the absence of medical answers, I follow a simple rule when it comes to determining what foods I eat. When I’ve struggled with bad digestion, low energy levels, skin breakouts and lethargy, I have eliminated a food from my diet, and I then compare how I feel afterwards to how I felt when I was eating it.
For me, no wheat gluten, very minimal lactose and limited refined sugar is a proven path to energy, alertness, good digestion and stable weight. Maybe I’m a freak in medical terms, but even the most cynical of doctors wouldn’t tell me I should be eating those things when I am so clearly better off without them.