The Slandered Gluten

It seems you can’t walk a step in the food world these days without stumbling over gluten-free issues.  Gluten-free products are rising in demand, and people buy them–at a stiff premium, I must note–and more interstingly, regardless of whether they suffer a gluten allergy to a particular species of grain, or coeliac disease.

Now, before I go any further, for those who are not familiar with terminology:  “gluten-free” in industry standards, refers to a product which contains no more than 20ppm of gluten protein by analysis.  That’s 20 parts per million or 20mg per 1kg.  (An amusing fact for the squeamish and morbidly curious among you–that’s far less than the tolerance for “insect parts” in most fresh produce you will buy anywhere.)  Leaving that aside–what this effectively means is that there can be no gluten-containing products (that is most food cereals for you) anywhere within airborne-particle contamination range prior to product packaging, nor within that range of the product ingredients prior to their arrival on processing site.

With the above, I have absolutely no arguments, because I am fully aware of the danger of gluten to those with coeliac disease, and by no means do I wish to inflict any pain upon them due to poor labelling.  For further clarification of the subject, one may have to note that the coeliac sensitivity is not an actual allergy and thus requires far higher levels of gluten to be triggered–nor does it cause anaphylactic shock.  Wheat or other cereal allergy is triggered by the respective protein (gluten) of that cereal, and can indeed cause anaphylaxis and death at far lower levels of antigen being present.  However, the latter is far, far more rare than coeliac disease.

My peeve to do with gluten is not to do with either of the above conditions, nor with people suffering from them.  It is with the vast majority of people who have bought into the “gluten-free” fad and are cutting gluten out of their and their children’s diet for no reason other than they heard something on TV about how it is bad, and gluten-free diet is supposed to cure autism, make one lose weight, extend life, expand consciousness… you get the idea.  If asked, most of those people don’t even know what gluten is, just that it is found in most cereals and is to be avoided.

The saddest things about the situation is not the monetary premium those people pay for their food.  It is the fact that gluten-free eating makes it very difficult for the individual to get all the proper nutrients, since so many foods which are normally eaten by the general population are excluded from the menu.  That, and the fact that there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support the idea that gluten is somehow harmful to anyone who isn’t affected by coeliac disease or allergies.  And there is plenty of such studies which show that gluten-free food is often less nutrient-dense than the food it is meant to replace.  The industry attempts to compensate, and there are some good developments being made to do so, but the keyword here is compensate for the deficiency–which is not something that people need to inflict on themselves, barring the two aforementioned health conditions.  It is a compensation for the voluntary step away from natural and balanced eating habit, done for no more reason than a media fad.

To this end, I’d like to demystify gluten a little and say a few words in its defense.

Gluten, simplistically speaking, is the protein contained in cereals.  It is its quantity that determines the grade of wheat flour–the more gluten, the more expensive and higher the grade is.  It is what determines the quality of the bread which can be made of it, and which gives artisan breads the moist, chewy texture and the shiny, hard crust.  It increases the nutritional density and value of the bread, and lowers its GI (more protein = less starch content), and provides many amino acids, much as far more expensive high-protein animal-derived foods (eggs, meat, fish, dairy, etc.) do.  And, until recently, it was considered by all those whom it didn’t make specifically ill (coeliacs and allergics) to be a good, positive thing.

I do not know where the slander of gluten has started.  It is perhaps a subject which bears some research, though I believe the research needed would be socio-anthropologic rather than food-science based, and is of interest to me.  If I should find out more, I will write about it.  But however this has started, I hope that what I write will inspire people to question it, and rethink their decisions, and perhaps stop eating gluten-free food without reason, and thus benefit their health at no extra cost–or perhaps, at a savings, something no one should overlook in the current economic climate.

And should anyone want me to go into greater depth on this, or another subject, please–do ask.  Good health through good food is a passion of mine, and I am always glad to answer any questions to the best of my ability.

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