After centuries of safe consumption, Gluten is now getting a lot a bad press. But is it justified? Copywriter and fearless foodie Babu Basu, thinks that it’s time that someone stood up for Gluten.
The story so far
Our old friend Gluten has fallen out of favour. Yes, this ancient phenomenon that makes your bread brilliant and your pasta perfect is now being shunned. High profile celebs and fitness authors wishing to ride the gluten-free wave are cashing in – whether or not their thinking is sound or responsible.
According to market analysts, Mintel, 12 % of the British public claim that they or a member of their household avoids gluten. Sales of gluten-free products jumped from £160 million in 2013 to £247 million in 2016.
But what’s driving this demand?
Have the number of Coelics / Celiacs (people whose bodies who cannot tolerate gluten) increased substantially in the last few years or, are their darker forces at play?
The charity, Coeliac UK has suggested that 1 in every 100 people are Coeliac. Other organisations are slightly more reticent about the actual figure. Whatever the numbers, one thing is clear – medical intolerance is not the only force driving demand for gluten-free.
So what makes Gluten the new dietary no-no? Here’s what I think is driving the gluten-free juggernaut.
The Gluten Free Juggernaut – Will your meal make me rich?
Fashions come and go and that’s true of food as it is of clothing. For decades we were told to avoid butter and animal fats in favour of vegetable based oils. Now, it seems that at least when frying, animal fats are more stable. We were sold the myth that fats are bad. Then we were told some fats were good. Margarine was once hailed as a hero. Now butter is back in vogue. Many items fall out of favour, but not always for the right reasons.
Socially influential types (celebrities to you and me) and people wishing to make a name for themselves in the fitness world are to blame.
Plugging into our image obsessed collective psyche, these prominent but irresponsible individuals use a heady combination of physical glamour, social media and pseudo-science to make gluten-free the thing to be. They claim that gluten-free lifestyle is slimming and health enhancing.
But before you dive headlong into their anti-glutenistic tendencies, spare a thought for what science (yes, actual science), has to say about it all.
In the words of Jennifer Aniston, ”Here comes the science bit. Concentrate.”
What is Gluten?
Do a little research and you’d be forgiven into thinking that gluten grows naturally. Many do not realise that gluten doesn’t grow, it’s formed.
Most flour (wheat, rye, spelt, barley) contains proteins, Gliadin and Glutenin. When you combine these together with a little water this forms gluten.
What does it do?
Gluten improves and structure and elasticity of bread. Like the lightness of a loaf? Choose the chewiness of a bun? It’s gluten that produces the incredible texture.
Where do you find it?
In short, wherever you might use flour, you might find gluten. Bread, pasta, cakes, sauces, stock cubes, gravy, beer and most processed foods contain gluten. All pervasive you might say. But that shouldn’t be a problem for most people.
And for those that medically speaking, must steer clear of gluten, there are solutions.
Who should avoid Gluten?
For people with Coelic / Celiac disease, a hereditary condition, short term Gluten consumption is painful and damaging. In the long term it can lead to cancer, osteoporosis and death. For Coelics / Celiacs, gluten is definitely off the menu. For them, the rise of gluten-free products has undoubtedly made their life easier/safer.
Some people are said to be wheat intolerant. For them too, gluten is not recommended, though, on occasion, they can consume it.
So for both groups, here’s a list of gluten free flours recommended by from UK based charity, Coeliac UK:
Agar; Almond; Amaranth; Buckwheat; Carageenan; Cassava (manioc); Chestnut; Corn; Flax/linseed; Gram flour (besan); Hemp; Hops; Maize; Millet/bajra; Mustard; Polenta; Potato; Pulses (peas, beans, lentils); Quinoa; Rice; Sage; Sesame; Sorghum; Soya; Tapioca; Teff; Urd/urid/urad flour.
For safety sake I should note that for some people , even some of these flours may agitate. So consult with dieticians.
I had a colleague who was Coelic.
As a good foodie and friend, I was always trying to find new foods she could eat. During our time together I came into contact with foods created for her under the gluten-free banner.
On the whole, they were disgusting.
Removing gluten made biscuits and cakes desert dry and dusty in the mouth. To compensate some manufacturers would up the fat content, or the sugar. Healthy products, they weren’t.
If you’re unable to process gluten, but you fancy eating something naughty, might I suggest you making a cake from ingredients that naturally don’t contain gluten, rather than using ingredients that have gluten taken out?
Nigella Lawson makes fantasticly indulgent cake and brownie recipies made with ground almond flour, perfect for Coeliacs.
What happens if you avoid gluten but you don’t need to?
Ah, the multi-million dollar question.
According to Douglas Faughnan, the senior food and drink analyst at Mintel, “Increasing numbers of the general public are buying gluten free products because they believe [them] to be healthier.”
In Emine Saner’s piece for the Guardian, ‘Gluten free: Health fad or life saving diet?’, she states,
“Gluten-free food has become increasingly popular among people without the disease who perceive it as healthy, with global sales up 12.6 per cent last year, compared to four per cent for packaged foods overall.”
Scientists (remember them), have found that avoiding gluten long term can be damaging to those of us who are not Coeliac by nature.
Research based in New York and carried out by scientists from 13 prestigious universities, including Harvard and Columbia and reported in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) have found gluten free diets,
“…should not be recommended…” to those who do not need to be gluten free.
Sadly, they also found,
“Concern has arisen in the medical community and lay public that gluten may increase the risk of obesity, metabolic syndrome, neuropsychiatric symptoms, and cardiovascular risk among healthy people.”
If parts of the medical community have been misinformed, what hope is there for the rest of us?
I leave you with the findings of Professor Tim Spector, a distinguished professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London and author of The Diet Myth: The Real Science Behind What We Eat.
He found that people avoiding gluten when they didn’t need to initially lost weight and felt better. However, “[these people] do not realise that gluten free diets are unhealthy in the long term. Not only do gluten free products often cost significantly more, they are generally highly processed, containing greater levels of fats, sugars and added ingredients.”
He goes on to say,
“Studies have tentatively suggested higher rates of heart disease amongst people on gluten free diets.”
However, the greatest damage, Professor Spector suggests is to our Microbiome – a recently discovered organ that houses the 100 trillion microbes that live in our lower intestine. This community of microrobes controls our digestion, mood, appetite, hormones, vitamins and immune system.
The more diverse the Microbe community,
“…the healthier and stronger we and our immune system are. Microbes need fibre and a diverse diet to flourish. For most people in the UK who already have too little fibre, bread and grains are a key source.”
“Studies have shown that restricted gluten free diets reduce the diversity in our gut and so also harm our microbiome – sometimes permanently.”
So there you have it. Going gluten free could be causing you permanent damage. I’m not against celebrity authors selling books. But I am against irresponsible pseudo-science that could harm.
Do your research everyone and eat well.
Babu Basu is a Copywriter and Head Honcho at Creative Gluttony. To contact Babu, visit his website: http://www.creativegluttonyagency.weebly.com