Gluten Free Fact or Fiction?

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Stonehouse Bread I
Andrew McFarlane via Compfight

You have no doubt heard a lot about going gluten free. Seems you can’t walk down an aisle of the supermarket, or pick up a menu at a restaurant without the words “Gluten Free” jumping proudly out at you.

In 2010 sales of “gluten-free” products topped $2.5 billion, and are expected to hit over $5 billion by 2015. So with gluten-free products popping up all over the place, I figured it was long passed time for the hound to do a little investigating, to separate some of the facts from fiction. Are we really suddenly facing a gluten sensitivity epidemic in America, of just falling victims to the latest marketing craze?

Exactly what is Gluten in the first place? Glad you asked. Gluten is a protein found in grains, specifically wheat, rye, and barley. People who suffer from celiac disease are well familiar with Gluten. Celiac disease is a long known proven medical condition in which the body’s immune system sees gluten not as a nutrient, but as an invader, and attacks it, resulting in cramping, bloating, and varying other degrees of gastrointestinal distress. Though seemingly becoming more common, true celiac disease is still relatively rare, effecting about 1 in 100 people.

Psuedo-Celiac

What has sparked the recent rise in the glut of gluten-free products flooding the market is not a corresponding spike in the number of people actually being diagnosed with celiac disease, but rather another condition, a kind of pseudo–celiac that in medical circles is being called “Nonceliac Gluten Sensitivity.” But is it for real, or just something hawkers of fad diets and food-marketing pros have latched on to?  Ah, that is the big question that a study just published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, titled Nonceliac Gluten Sensitivity: Sense or Sensibility? attempts to answer.

The researchers set out to study the gluten –free phenomena in deep detail. The researchers acknowledge “recent studies support the existence of the new condition, “noncoeliac gluten sensitivity”, but they concluded that gluten may not be the real problem in a good many of the patients claiming such sensitivity. They pointed out that there are other ingredients in the wheat products, especially overly processed wheat products that could be the culprits.

That point “overly processed” seems to be the key. Gluten has always been in the human diet, but advocates of a gluten free life style, say that our guts were able to deal with the small amount of gluten in the “wild grains” our ancestors fed on. The selective breeding of the wheat in processed wheat flours and the processing itself has lead to increases in the amount of gluten to sensitive levels for just about anybody – and to toxic levels in those that are sensitive. The doctors in the Internal Medicine study admit, “…on the whole we do tolerate gluten, but it’s increasingly recognized that there is a subset of the population that doesn’t. What we don’t know is just how prevalent this segment is — it still needs more research.”

 Go Gluten Free?

So what’s the verdict, gluten or gluten free? First of all, longtime readers of The Hound know how I feel about processed foods, anyone can benefit by removing them from your diet. As far as gluten specifically goes, Doctor Alessio Fasano, M.D., director of the Center for Celiac ­Research at the University of Maryland in Baltimore puts it this way, “Intolerance to gluten should be thought of as a spectrum. At one end are people who can eat gluten and have no reaction; those with ­celiac are at the other end. In the middle are the gluten-sensitive folks, roughly 7 percent of the population, though there’s no consensus on diagnosis.”

Fasano says if you do believe gluten is causing you digestive problems, he does not think going gluten-free is a bad idea, but emphasizes that you do so under the supervision of a dietitian or doctor, to rule out celiac disease, and to ensure you take in proper nutrients once you eliminate gluten. 

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