Gluten – what is the secret?

Every ten years there is a new tendency in the world of diet and food. The recent trend, which is as controversial as all trends usually are, is all about one little evil thing that is hiding in food all around us – gluten.

Gluten-free diet has almost become a panacea to cure all the diseases and illnesses. There are hundreds of webpages floating around describing fascinating and breathtaking stories about people giving up the gluten, the most evil devil, and suddenly they become enlightened, healthy, their medical problems disappear and they feel much happier than ever before.

Is gluten really making all of us susceptible to multiple diseases, making us all fat and miserable? Let’s look at some most over-looked facts around gluten and biggest myths about gluten-free diet.

Fact 1: Gluten

What is gluten?

Gluten – is the elastic protein found in wheat, rye, and barley (including durum, einkorn, graham, semolina, bulgur wheat, spelt, farro, kamut, and triticale). Commercial oats may also contain gluten due to cross contamination in processing.

So gluten is just a little protein, that is predominantly found in wheat, rye and barley, because they belong to one tribe and they even look very similar.

Fact 2: Coeliac disease

Coeliac disease is an immune disease in which people can’t eat gluten or use items with gluten in them.

If you have the disease, then there is a battle in your gut between your immune system and the gluten, which it considers an enemy. When gluten is detected inside you, your immune system decides that the war has been declared and send its white little warriors on a mission to kill. As a result, they are damaging the small, fingerlike projections called villi that line the gut. They are rather cute and look like a hairy rug.

villi-vs-rug

Under normal circumstances, the villi expand the surface area of the small intestine and allow it to absorb nutrients. But  if you look closely at the small intestine of someone with Coeliac disease, you will find that many of the villi have atrophied and flattened. The damage prevents proper absorption of nutrients, causes a variety of problems throughout the body and, left untreated, can lead to cancers in the intestine, so everybody will die. That is providing only if you have the disease.

For the purpose of this article it is fundamentally important to make things very clear about what is Coeliac disease, so let’s summarise:

Coeliac disease is an immune disease in which people can’t eat gluten or use items with gluten in them.

Coeliac disease harms the small intestine.

People with untreated celiac disease can’t get needed nutrients.

Without treatment, people with celiac disease can develop other health problems.

Coeliac disease is diagnosed by blood tests and a biopsy of the small intestine (it must be both, you can’t establish it based on blood test alone).

The only treatment for celiac disease is to avoid gluten.

Today, experts concur that people with Coeliac disease carry at least two genes (the HLA-DQ genes) that predispose their small intestines to greet incoming gluten as an alien invader, not a nutrient. However, it is important to emphasise that the condition is  autoimmune in nature, which means gluten doesn’t cause the damage directly; instead, your immune system’s reaction to the gluten protein spurs your white blood cells to mistakenly attack your small intestinal lining. Coeliac disease is also associated with other autoimmune conditions, including autoimmune thyroid disease and type 1 diabetes.

Coeliac disease is a relatively common condition that affects approximately 1 in every 100 people in the UK. However, it’s not that much of a problem, as, for example, in England in 2010, there were approximately 3.1 million people aged 16 or over with diabetes (both diagnosed and undiagnosed), that is out of 62.3 million in 2010. Simple maths whispers that it equals to 4.98%, which is enough, bearing in mind the absolute majority of it is type 2 diabetes, which is essentially a man-made disease.

There has been a suggestion that new, genetically modified “dwarf” wheat, which brought its inventors Noble Prize, developed in the past 40 years may also have played a part in making people more intolerant. It obviously hasn’t made us having faulty genes, but it might have exacerbated the digestion process if you already have the genes that predispose you to be intolerant, as the new wheat has got different DNA structure and people with the HLA-DQ genes might find it harder to recognise and digest. Apparently, we used to grow wheat that was over 6ft tall, that was higher in nutrients and also contained a much smaller variety of gluten proteins than the dwarf varieties. However, it does not mean that the new wheat we tend to eat is killing us for two reasons: 1) no evidence suggests that new wheat is causing damage to people with no gluten-intolerance and 2) you will be killed by other factors long before gluten will ever has its say, it’s a fact.

Fact 3: People are obsessed with gluten-free diet

It’s been suggested that one in five of us is buying gluten-free products. Yet only one in 100 has got the disease. What is the secret?

According to the Food Standards Agency, the British gluten-free market is worth £238 million annually and grew by more than 15 per cent last year. In the US, it’s worth around $2.6 billion, a growth of 36 per cent since 2006, with predictions it may double in size in the next two years. Across Europe, demand is soaring – with even carb-loving citizens of countries like Italy now demanding gluten-free pasta and pizza. India with its growing middle class is also seen as a potential huge market.

Obviously, the new ubiquity of gluten-free products certainly makes life much easier for sufferers of Coeliac disease, or something called gluten intolerance. Gluten intolerance means that you cannot digest gluten for some reason, but it does not destroy your little cute villi in your gut. Which is good news, as you stay intact, yet it still means that a lion portion of food available on the market is a massive no-no for you, as it causes bloating, fatigue and pains.

So why would someone suddenly decide that gluten containing products are the biggest evil and create such a huge market for it? Let’s face it, nobody would make even one tiny pack of gluten-free cakes available  to buy in your normal store just to make Coeliac disease sufferers life easier. This is not how the big real corporate world works and if you think it does, then you need a reality check. (If you still need a bit more persuasion, then think of Coca-Cola. Company’s income in 2013 was $8.584 billion. Everyone should know by now that soft drinks cause weight gain and insulin spike, which eventually will get you sick and will give you diabetes type 2, yet everyone is still cool with it. It will never change, just get over it.)

As far as I am concerned, there are 3 reasons reasons for this new epidemic. Human nature, word of mouth and money. Why human nature?

Human species are notoriously lazy. Gluten-free diet offers this amazing utopia – you need to exclude just one ingredient from your diet, and all your problems will disappear. It will cure you, you will lose weight and you will be feeling like you are 25 again. It’s a magic pill, just in a different packaging. No need to plan your meals, or exercise daily, or cook every day. All you need to do is to exclude one little disgusting protein called gluten and it will all be sorted automatically. The word gets spread across, as everyone heard of that one story, when the whole family went gluten free and in a year time, they lost 200 pounds in total as a family and became the best looking family in town.

All this magic beautifully transforms into a brand new niche for the market. Gluten-free diet! Now you can make all products in a shop gluten-free and raise the price, because food-makers clearly had to go through fire and hell to make those gluten-free cookies, so their efforts must be appreciated. Moreover, the market is growing 15% annually, yet there has been no sudden spike in gluten-intolerant people. Isn’t that a little bit suspicious?

Myth no 1: Gluten causes weight gain, so gluten-free diet helps losing weight

What is gluten-free diet? Gluten is found not only in bread, as one might think. Gluten is hidden almost everywhere. If you suffer from wheat intolerance, then you can have zero gluten. To get the symptoms, you need just 1g of gluten. A slice of bread tend to have 4-7g of gluten, depending on the type. So no gluten at all.

Let’s draw up a list of things where cheeky little gluten can be hiding:

  • All wheat flour products (breads, cakes, crackers, cookies, rolls, wraps, pies, tarts, batter – onion rings, calamari, bagels, croissants, granola, cereals, pancakes).
  • Semolina, durum, spelt and whole wheat pasta, including cous cous, ramen noodles, and some soba noodles, are not gluten-free.
  • Beer, ale and lager are not gluten-free. Foods cooked in beer- such as brats, meats and sausage, etc- are not gluten-free.
  • Malt vinegar, malt flavourings and barley malt are not gluten-free.
  • Hidden gluten can be found in soy sauce, tamari style stir-fry sauces, marinades, gravy, broth and bouillon, cooking sauces and instant soups, salad dressings, cured meats, sausage, hot dogs, vegan hot dogs and “fake” meat, sausages and burgers, flavoured and herb cheeses.
  • It can also be found in canned and prepared soups, tomato paste, sweeteners, confectioner’s powdered sugar and brown sugar, prepared beverages, flavoured and instant coffees, herbal teas (watch for barley), roasted, flavoured or spiced nuts, jerky, flavoured yogurts, puddings and ice creams, chocolate and chocolate chips, cocoa powder and instant cocoa mixes, flavoured vinegars, cooking wines, flavoured liqueur and liquor, wine coolers (malt).
  • It can even be found in French fries and fried foods as it can be fried in the same oil with glutenous breaded foods (fried onion rings, batter coated fish, veggies, meat and chicken).

That list incorporates about 90% of products that are usually eaten by an average Joe in the 21st century. Yet there are claims all over the internet, that if only you give up gluten, then miraculously we will all be healed, regardless of whether you are having the faulty HLA-DQ gene or not.

If you look at the list close enough, then you the truth might suddenly struck one very observant reader. Wait a second, isn’t that a list of mainly highly processed food?!

So if someone is ditching all the highly processed foods, that contain gluten, and go for a more natural, much healthier diet, including being more health conscious and having more fresh vegetables, fruits and legumes eaten on a regular basis, then surely it must be one little protein to be the reason of weight loss. It must be the gluten hiding in all these foods to cause the weight gain, what else can it possible be?

Not like one is completely changing their diet, have a complete overhaul of their life style, become more health conscious by ditching all the harmful processed foods, which are over-saturated with excessive fats, sugars and additives! No, it can’t be it. It’s the gluten! Wait a second, but it doesn’t make any logical sense, why would anyone think that?

Because human species like their little dreams of small little things ruining their lives. Once the little devil is gone, your life is thriving again. That’s human nature for you.

Myth no 2: All gluten-free diet is healthy

Following the brilliant idea of some gluten-free diet fanatics, everyone who has got gluten-intolerance and who are adhering to a very strict gluten-free diet, must be a thriving example of immaculate health and well-being. They don’t eat the gluten, so the main enemy is eliminated, so you should thrive! Not so fast.

What are gluten-free alternatives? Apart from obvious vegetables and fruits, that don’t have gluten in the first place, you can have some made gluten-free products.

Gluten-free products are frequently more adulterated and significantly higher in fat than their “normal” equivalents. Gluten helps breads and bakery products retain their shape and softness as they cook, so to make up for its absence, manufacturers often use additives like xanthan gum and hydroxypropyl methyl cellulose or corn starch. Extra sugar and fat are often also added to make products tastier, as we all know that we want food to be palatable.

Gluten-free label equates to a large mark up and even though manufacturers argue that this is a result of higher production costs, there could be something else behind it. May be, just another way to get money out of people who are very gullible?

Let’s do some basic comparison and look at Warbuton’s produce.

bread-vs-gluten-free

Wholemeal bread, 800g, is £1.85 and has got the following key nutrients per 100g: 10.2 g of protein, 39.6g of carbs, 3.8 sugars, 2.5 fat, 6.5 fibre

vs

Gluten-free bread is £3 per 600g with the following nutrients: 5.7g protein, 35.4g of carbs, 2.8g sugars, 10.9g fats, of which 4.2g is polyunsaturated, fibre is 6.8g

So nutritionally it has got twice less protein and 2.5 times more fat, yet it costs twice more. What justifies the price, bearing in mind it is produced on a massive industrial scale? The label, is the answer.

From one side, the nutritional profile isn’t amazing in both products, but that’s because both are made by a massive company that wants you dead sooner than later, or ideally poorly and addicted to their produce. There is no need to add that much fat to either products and all the additives that makes it live long on the shelf, yet adds to your insulin resistance.

Let’s look at the mainstream cookies as another example. Good old shortbread. Both made by Tesco, but with different labels.

shortbread-mlk

Tesco shortbread, 160 g for £0.89: 6.9 protein, 57.2g of carbs, of which 18.6 is sugar, 28.6g fat, fibre 2.4g

vs

Tesco gluten-free shortbread, 200g for £1.50: 5.1 protein, 62.9g of carbs, of which 25.6g of sugar, 27.7g of fat, fibre 0.1

It’s more expensive, yet nutritionally it’s even worse than the original version. The point is simple: both products are rubbish from nutritional point of view, yet gluten-free is even worse as it has even more sugar.

Finally, if you still have doubts that it’s all about the marketing and fooling us, ordinary customers, I decided to check almond milk range. Almond milk is probably the most popular milk alternative (or soy) and some basic observation brings up some interesting facts. 

free-from-vs-almond-milk

Tesco Free-From Almond milk, which is £1.50 per pack, is full of these amazing ingredients:

Water, White Sugar, Almonds (1.5%), Tricalcium Phosphate, Sea Salt, Stabilisers (Locust Bean Gum, Gellan Gum), Emulsifier (Sunflower Lecithin)

In case you don’t know how all the nuts milk are made, it’s very basic. You need water and then you need some nuts. You usually blend nuts with water and then strain it. Voila! You have nut milk, could be almond, coconut, macadamia, etc.

So what happened with good old recipe with just two ingredients? May be it’s impossible to make that milk on a big scale? Let’s check another brand.

Rude Health Almond Milk has got the following ingredients:

Natural Spring Water, Organic Rice, Organic Italian Almonds (1%), Organic Cold-Pressed Sunflower Oil, Sea Salt, Contains Natural Sugars from Rice & Almonds

Ouch, so it is possible to make good product, which is just £2 per pack, yet it still hasn’t got a list of ingredients that you cannot pronounce. What could be the possible explanation for such a difference?

Obviously, if you are one savvy health conscious person, you would read the label and make the obvious choice. But the reality is, that, unfortunately, people will fall for what says on the front of the package. It says it’s Free From and it must be better for me. Well, it’s not.

Finally, if gluten in your diet was the main cause of all the problems, then all people who are gluten-intolerant would be of exemplary health. Yet it just doesn’t happen in the cruel real world, where people with autoimmune diseases still have problems, which are greatly reduced by the appropriate diet, but never completely cured and tend to have aches and pains.

The only way gluten-free diet can cause weight loss is if you ditch completely all the products with gluten, forget about all the alternatives free-from and eat fruits, vegetables, legumes, lean meats and dairy in moderation. There is no other magic way.

Myth no 3: Gluten is addictive like heroin

It has even been suggested that gluten is addicted and once it hooks you up, there is no come back.

Without going into too much details, it’s enough to say that coffee and sugar is no doubt addictive. Obviously, not as bad as some heavy drugs, but it does cause addiction and you do experience withdrawal symptoms once it’s gone.

However, claiming that gluten is addictive is just exacerbating the truth just a little bit too much. If you ditch the gluten products, you won’t get withdrawal symptoms. You might miss your cookies and have cravings, but that’s due to sugar and not due to gluten. It’s just a misleading statement, don’t believe everything that you hear.

The only problem with gluten is this – people these days tend to over-eat. We eat too much, including gluten. That’s all.

Myth no 4: Gluten is the cause of obesity and all other modern health problems

This relatively popular upload of some alleged doctor of unknown origin is talking about gluten causing all the modern problems on planet Earth. He suggests that gluten-free diet is not a fad and removing gluten to cure yourself from auto-immune disease, guts problems, obesity, joint pain, mental health, anorexia, etc.  You name it!

The commentators go crazy and tell all sorts of stories of how much better they feel after giving up gluten products, they are losing weight, have more energy, their inflammation and depression is gone. I especially like inflammation and depression, as how exactly they established that these two are gone, and not hiding underneath your new stress hormones spike when you are bringing a shock to the system by following a new diet?

This is called wishful thinking. Our bodies are incredible machines and you will get some short-term results if you follow any diet on this planet, especially such a drastic one as gluten-free diet, which involves changing your eating habits upside down. Because it’s a novelty, your body will start adjusting and, of course, placebo effect must be taken into consideration. Wishful thinking can do wonders.

I stopped completely taking the above mentioned so-called doctor seriously after he said that a slice of bread has two tablespoons of sugar, because that’s what our body converts carbohydrates into, into simple sugars (it does, but it’s not the same as the table sugar).  Diabetes is the problem? Blame gluten! This is just plainly wrong and no sane person would ever make such a statement, especially in public. He also said that gluten is so bad and everyone is so aware of it  because it’s the universal truth since even the Times’ bestseller nowadays is a book called “Wheat belly”.

Even ignoring the fact that no respectable doctor who possesses any knowledge of any significant value can ever back up his facts by such a ridiculous statement, I checked the book. It’s Atkins diet, i.e. low-carb diet, in a new package. Very, very old news.

atkins-diet-MLK

Myth no 5: Scientific research proves gluten is the cause of multiple diseases

There has been some very interesting report that gluten-free diet cures schizophrenia. Can it be true?

This article mentions that some subset of schizophrenics have an unusual immune response to gluten and other various wheat proteins, and in a small number, going wheat-free has been extremely helpful. It then goes on and says that in a case report of the resolution of schizophrenic symptoms on a Ketogenic diet (which is a diet in high fat, low carb and low protein diet, this very low in wheat) shows that there has been the remission of psychotic symptoms in a single case report.

So unless you are a gluten-free fanatic who is more than happy to twist the facts, this study and the article proves only one point. In a very small number of cases, going gluten-free might help some patients. Since schizophrenia can be controlled, but not cured, going gluten-free is worth the risk as it might help. But it might not and it probably won’t, as in majority of cases it did nothing. It proves nothing in terms of gluten playing any role in damaging your health whatsoever. It’s just a fact.

Likewise Ketogenic diet is not the same as gluten-free. There was no direct study as to whether it was the omission of gluten which caused the remission, it’s low in protein and all carbs, why gluten is suddenly the cornerstone of everything? Anyone who thinks otherwise is guilty of wishful thinking.

One very pro gluten-free diet article was referring to another  horror study showing that mental health seizures were reduced significantly after being given a gluten-free diet, so gluten is bad for everyone. The only thing they forgot to mention is that all four people had Coeliac disease in the study. Don’t you think it’s a little bit important and it would make more sense to quote studies not taken out of the context?

The same article is saying that multiple studies show strong statistical associations between gluten consumption, gluten sensitivity and cerebellar ataxia. There has even been  a controlled trial showing that ataxia patients improve significantly on a gluten-free diet. Fair enough, but how is this anything to do with gluten causing all this?

If you have gluten-related condition, then it’s a no brainer. But trying to make a point that gluten is bad just because certain people have a disease if they consume gluten is just beyond any logic. It’s like saying that everyone must stop eating parsley as some people have such a severe allergic reaction to it that they will die if consume just a couple of leaves.

This article talks about gluten ataxia and is saying that there are some cases of ataxia where it’s unknown what’s causing it and it might as well be gluten, but the findings are rather new, so it’s hard to say who is affected, but they predict gluten ataxia affects 8.4 people out of 100,000 in the USA. Not exactly problem on a massive scale, is it?

Another study found out that their findings indicate that excessive gluten intake can induce changes in the jejunal mucosal architecture in susceptible individuals who do not have overt Coeliac disease. Key words to pay attention to are excessive gluten (normal diet contains roughly 10-40g of gluten) and susceptible individuals – susceptible is someone who has got the lucky one of two types of the HLA-DQ  gene. If you have it, it doesn’t mean you are guaranteed to have the Coeliac disease, but you can’t have the disease without the genes.

I haven’t found a single study which shows direct link between gluten and actual damage caused to people who do not have the genes that make them prone to develop gluten-intolerance.

What I did find is the opinion of experts from University of California’s Coeliac Centre that declare in plain English that there is no benefit of gluten-free diet for people who have no HLA-DQ genes. Even though it is a very popular trend these days to slag off conventional medicine and doctors, it is fair to at least consider the opinion of people who are specialists in the area. Enough said.

Conclusion

The more I looked into gluten-free epidemic, the more I thought that it reminded me of a religion, than little silly diet. Gluten-free fanatics will twist any facts in front of them to make their point more valid, much to the delight of food corporations that are dying for a new market to sell you their rubbish product, but now at a higher price with worse ingredients.

If you do not have the gluten-intolerance and do not have any symptoms or relatives with the Coeliac disease, please leave your poor mind and body alone. Your body and mind is under enough pressure and stress in the 21st century, that it simply does not need another fad diet that will bring you more misery, than joy.

Free from gluten pre-made products  sold in your local shop are simply inferior food, it’s just a fact. Unless you are willing to read every single label and spend hours of planning and making your meals a week ahead, you will be better off sticking to the original products than free-from range.

But even if you are reading the labels and choosing the gluten-free diet lifestyle, it has no proven benefits, but on the opposite, more likely to make you deficient in number of nutrients and lower your fibre consumption, which is not something you want to do if you want to fight the excessive weight off.

If you still feel like you need some more drama in your life and you desperately need some change in your life, start with making fresh protein based breakfast every morning and be 100% committed to your new routine. You will feel better in no time.

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