What’s Wrong with Waffles?: The Gist of Going Gluten-Free and Confusion in Aisle Three
First it was the fat content we were told to reduce, then it was carbs. Preservatives and colourings have been villainized (quite understandably) and sugar is definitely a no-no. But what about gluten? And gluten sensitivity? There is much debate in the medical community over whether non-coeliac gluten sensitivity exists. I am no expert, I am not a gastroenterologist nor a nutritionist or dietician, however I have a sneaking suspiscion that there is something to this gluten-free business.
But the gluten-free ‘craze’ that has swept the globe has also been the subject of much controversy. For one, there is much confusion amongst consumers in the supermarket aisle. Gluten-free products are a major money making enterprise, just like other wellness products are. But are people spending money on gluten-free products when they don’t in fact have gluten sensitivity? Thanks to clever savy marketing and celebrity influence, there is gluten free everything. While some prices of GF goods are equalizing, they are still twice the price of other non-GF products or more. Furthermore, nutritionally, many GF goods are not all that healthy. Many gluten-free baked goods are made with refined flours that are low in fiber and do not contain iron, folic acid and other nutrients that are routinely added to wheat flour. Furthermore, they can be high in fat and high in sugar too. And GF is being put on food that never contained gluten in the first place, as a marketing strategy. Furthermore, some products that are labelled gluten-free are not scientifically speaking, purely gluten-free.
But first things first, what the heck is gluten? Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. A good discussion of glutenology can be found in this video here: http://www.glutenfreesociety.org/video-tutorial/gluten-sensitivity-what-is-it/. Glutenfreesociety.org is a website aimed at educating both doctors and patients and has some interesting articles written by medical professionals. But in a nutshell, this protein is being blamed for many health problems, from migraines and chronic fatigue, to infertility and behavioural disorders. In fact there are over two hundred medical conditions that have been linked to gluten sensitivity. It is possible that gluten sensitivity may be a contributing factor in the development of these health problems. The jury just isn’t in yet, as there simply isn’t enough evidence at this stage in most instances.
Interestingly gut problems are one of the most common symptom groups that the population has. But there is a distinction between coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity. Only around 1 percent of the population has coeliac disease, an autoimmune disease that is narrowly defined as an inflammatory reaction when exposed to gluten, although it is estimated that 95% of people with coeliacs remain undiagnosed. Coeliac Disease remains undiagnosed because the symptoms are often vague. For coeliac sufferers, their condition is serious. Just one taste of a gluten containing food can cause serious gastrointestinal symptoms and prolonged exposure can be linked to lymphoma and bowel cancer.
Diagnosing coeliac disease can be problematic. An individual must consume gluten every day for at least a couple of months or even up to a year before getting tested. As such, some people are wrongly informed that they don’t have the disease. Others refuse to start eating gluten again so they can be tested accurately, and I don’t blame them—they feel their personal experiment is evidence enough of a gluten problem. Doctors will order blood tests and bowel biopsies to screen for coeliac disease, but some experts also recommend asking your doctor for genetic testing for coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity also.
But those who do not receive a definitive diagnosis from their doctors and haven’t undergone genetic testing may self-diagnose themselves as being gluten sensitive or gluten intolerant. These individuals say that they simply feel better when they avoid refined flour and other gluten containing foods. This is no easy feat as gluten is in many foods. It’s not just avoiding bread and pasta. Gluten is often hidden in sauces, marinades, canned soups and other processed foods. Reading labels can also be problematic as gluten can be written in latin.
Often, people perceive an improvement in their symptoms, and attribute their improvement to the avoidance of gluten. But for those who don’t have coeliac disease, is it avoidance of gluten that makes one feel better or jis it ust the fact that one is eating better generally? (ie, relying less on processed foods and sugary refined grains and consuming more fruits and vegetables). So little is understood about gluten sensitivity but from my reading I have learned that bread and other products seem to contain more gluten today than they have in the past. And I know that there are differences between wheat and gluten, but is wheat a ‘frankengrain’? It may be, I don’t know. The author of the influential book Wheat Belly, American cardiologist William Davis, believes that wheat is “a perfectly crafted Frankengrain” that “has exerted more harm than any foreign terrorist group can inflict on us.’ He also asserts that there have been problems in the way that wheat has been grown, and altered through hybridizations over the last several decades, which he believes is harmful to human health. “If we view wheat as nothing more than a vehicle for gluten we are not going to understand all the issues that are important about modern wheat.”
But I recently decided to give this gluten free thing a try. I had often noticed that I felt fatigued after eating bread or pasta, and put it down to the high carbohydrate content. I love to bake, but I didn’t feel so great if I ate the scones, scotch pancakes or waffles that I made. The only symptoms I noticed were fatigue and ‘brain fog’. I do think that I feel better with a gluten-free diet (or a reduced gluten diet). I have more energy and feel less foggy in the head. A placebo perhaps? It is quite possible. The good old placebo is a powerful phenomenon.
It isn’t easy to give up gluten, it is darn inconvenient at times, but on the whole it isn’t as difficult as I thought, something that I discovered when a coeliac friend came to stay for a week. But because I am not a coeliac sufferer (well as far as I know but I haven’t been tested) sometimes I do get lazy and can just eat whatever. And when we go to a friend’s house or out for a meal I am also able to eat whatever. But if I am at home I aim to keep my gluten load to a minimum. And I’ve aimed to reduce the gluten load in my family’s diet too. My son turned his nose up at a gluten free sandwich that I put in his lunchbox (and I don’t really blame him as even the nice GF bread from the supermarket is a bit like cardboard and seems to be more palatable when toasted). And while gluten free pasta is also nothing to write home about, the avaiilability of GF lasagne sheets mean that we can still enjoy lasagne occasionally. GF bread is expensive, but I have made my own GF bread using the healtheries gluten and wheat free bread mix. The addition of protein such as a egg to the mixture greatly improves the qality of the bread. While the bread doesn’t last as long as normal bread, it was surprisingly nice. I also frequently add olives and cheese to this bread to make a pull apart loaf.
In conclusion, for the large number of folks who suspect that they may suffer from gluten sensitivity, what is wrong with cutting out gluten as long as your diet is nutritionally complete? If one feels better, who can argue with that, even if there isn’t the scientific proof as to why it is helpful? And is there anything wrong with waffles? While I’m certainly not advocating that anyone go on a gluten-free diet without having a conversation with their doctor first, I have a sneaking suspiscion that refined flour and other gluten containing foods may not be the best thing for us. But it really is each to their own at the end of the day. I aim to stick with my gluten-free eating plan, and one thing I am confident of is this – if one aims to eat as natural a diet as possible with more whole foods such as fruits and vegetables, and less processed foods (not easy in our fast paced world), this does seem to have significant benefits for our overall health and well-being. That, my friends, is not rocket science.