Everywhere I go these days I see the words “gluten free”. I thought maybe it was just a crunchy-granola-people phrase, but I’ve been seeing it in lots of other places besides the natural foods store. And then this weekend I was testing out my new bread maker and decided to actually follow the recipe. I have a problem with following recipes and tend to free hand things. But since this machine seemed pretty different from my old one, I decided to follow the directions and recipes that came with it. (I found this new beauty at the goodwill in pristine condition for $6.97!) The recipe called for a cup of gluten. This kind of shocked me. My old machine’s original recipe (which I looked up to be sure I wasn’t imagining things) called for 1 ½ tablespoons of gluten. At the time I didn’t have any gluten, so in my first attempts at bread with my old bread maker I just left it out figuring the whole wheat bread flour I was using had some gluten in it. My bread turned out fine, so I never got in the habit of using gluten in my recipes. But this recipe wanted me to put in a whole cup! This seemed crazy, so since as I told you I have a recipe-following problem, I just put in 1 1 /2 tablespoons of gluten. Bread turned out fine, but it got me wondering. What the heck is gluten anyway? And why do so many people pay lots of money for “gluten free” foods? Here’s what I discovered.
Gluten is actually a protein found in wheat, rhy, and barley. So it’s in just about everything we eat in the States – cereal, bread, cookies, most processed foods. Its primary purpose is to give flour elasticity and strength, which is why my bread isn’t as soft and flexible as store bought bread. I couldn’t find any information about how it affects taste, so I’ll assume it doesn’t.
Now comes the interesting part. There were skads of websites about gluten free products and the dangers of gluten. Literally tens of thousands of hits. So I tried to stick to the sites that seemed more mainstream. Celiac disease, which has just about every horrible symptom know to mankind, is basically an allergy to gluten. A person suffering from celiac disease has damage to the gut wall which results in difficulties absorbing certain nutriets like iron, calcium and vitamin D. Consequently patients develop conditions like osteoporosis and anemia, in addition to a whole host of gastrointestinal issues. Children with Celiac disease do not develop normally. Celiac disease shows up as gut damage in a biopsy. The treatment is very successful and includes removing gluten from the patient’s diet.
The estimates of how many people it effects are wide ranging - from 1 to 146 in 1000. But judging by the amount of webspace dedicated to celiac disease and the dangers of gluten combined with the number of gluten free products on the market, I’d say it’s affecting plenty of people in one way or another. Here’s a partial list of the symptoms. Some are things everyone experiences on an off day and some are really gross and horrible.
Change in mood
Pale, foul smelling or fatty stools
Bone or joint pain
Tingling numbness in legs
Pale sores in mouth
Tooth discoloration or loss of enamel
Failure to thrive in infants
It appears as though pretty much any complaint you can come up with could be tracked back to gluten. I’ve heard a fair amount about celiac disease. My son has alopecia areata (http://www.childrensalopeciaproject.org/ or http://www.naaf.org/) and a loud group of people in the alopecia areata circles I run in see a connection between their hair loss and celiac disease. It seems to be pretty common among people with autoimmune disorders, allergies, and eczema.
One of the websites I discovered was based on a book by two American doctors, James Braly and Ron Hoggan. The book is titled Dangerous Grains. Their research has led them to believe the gluten intolerance is much more widespread effecting 2-3% of the population. The book purports that “gluten sensitivity” is the root cause of some cancer, auto-immune disorders, neurological and psychiatric conditions and liver disease. The authors imply that the heavily wheat-based western diet – bread, cereals, pasta, cookies – is making people sick. Interesting theory, huh?
I’ve long believed that our lifestyles have created the rise in so many auto-immune disorders, cancers, and other diseases. I’m not saying it’s due to over-consuming gluten; there’s still too much research that needs to be done, but I do think we need to pay attention to what we are putting in our bodies and especially what we are putting in our children’s bodies. It’s not as hard as you’d think to cut out gluten and if you or your children are suffering from any of the symptoms listed above, it might be worth a shot.
There are lots of grains that don’t contain gluten – rice, corn, buckwheat, millet, quinoa (comes in a yummy flour form), oats, soybeans, and sunflower seeds. I love to use quinoa flour or garbanzo bean flours in my breads, and almost always add whole or crushed sunflower seeds. That’s the beauty of making your own food instead of relying on processed food – you can control what goes in to the food you put on the table.
Seems like the key here is much like other questionable foods – moderation. We really do eat too much bread and pasta. And most of us don’t feel well when we do. I’d be curious to hear from any of you who are more informed than I when it comes to gluten.