Gluten, Free At Last

by Sue Halpern

Sometime before my toddlerhood I became a failure to thrive baby. Food was going right through me; I wasn’t gaining weight. And so my parents took me to the doctor, and tests were done, and I was diagnosed with celiac disease. Certain foods were eliminated from my diet. Others were offered up almost non-stop. If there was ever a good case for sibling jealousy, it was watching my older brother eat apple pie while I got mashed bananas. Again.

Celiac doesn’t go away, but there came a time when I stopped abiding by the rules. What’s a little (or a lot of ) stomach distress when a buttered, toasted bagel is in the offing. Or blueberry pie. Or waffles. It was the celiac’s equivalent of Amish youth’s Rumspringa, and it was great! But having gotten sick once too often, I went back to my old ways, and when I did, I found that the sense memories of what I’d eaten stayed intact. Even now, years later, I can conjure up the taste of that bagel, or pie, or waffles. And because I have been able to do that, I’ve hardly felt deprived.

For the longest time, being wheat-free or gluten-free was an anomaly. But in the past five years or so, as you no doubt know–how could you not?–it has become a thing. Everyone is doing it! Celebrities. Athletes. Regular folk. The word on the street has been that eliminating wheat, or gluten, gives you more energy. That it makes you lose weight. That humans didn’t evolve to eat this stuff, so we can’t fully digest it. And the more it has become a thing, the more products are showing up on the supermarket shelf with the “gluten-free” label, even foods like Cheddar cheese and popcorn and, probably, steak. Which is to say nothing about the specialty products– the gluten-free oatmeals and almond flours and beers.

While none of these appeal to me–I’d rather have my sense-memory of  Toll House cookies not be distorted by some weak imitation–I completely understand why it might seem like a godsend to others, especially parents with celiac children. But to be honest, I’ve felt a little silly recently saying that I can’t eat that pasta or pizza, like I’m part of a cult I never meant to join.

But now begins the backlash. And not from people who are ready to go back to sourdough and cupcakes, but from science. As Luisa Dillner reports in The Guardian, for the past two years, gastroenterologists have been diagnosing people with something called non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), whose symptoms include “bloatedness and diarrhoea but also fatigue, ‘foggy brain’ and pain and numbness in the arms and legs.” But, she writes,

The research on NCGS is inconclusive and the most recent studies show that carbohydrates called Fodmaps, rather than gluten, may be the cause of symptoms. Fodmaps are fermentable oligo-, di- and mono-saccharides, and polyols – and one of them, fructan, is increasingly implicated in irritating the gut, causing flatulence, diarrhoea and bloatedness. Wheat has Fodmaps but so do other foods such as garlic, artichokes, yoghurt and fruit.

And an editorial in the academic journal Gastroenterology suggests that NCGS may not even exist.

Potentially phantom illnesses aside (and let’s hear it for the placebo effect in any case!), a warning issued by a Kansas State University food safety specialist brings a more serious worry: a popular gluten substitute, lupin “has the same protein that causes allergic reactions to peanuts and soybeans.” Because, until now, lupin has not been used much here in the States, the fear is that people with nut allergies will be unsuspecting consumers, with disastrous results.

But do not expect the recently gluten-free to break out the Mint Milanos any time soon. According to an article in The New York Times:

The portion of households reporting purchases of gluten-free food products to Nielsen hit 11 percent last year, rising from 5 percent in 2010. In dollars and cents, sales of gluten-free products were expected to total $10.5 billion last year, according to Mintel, a market research company, which estimates the category will produce more than $15 billion in annual sales in 2016.

Childhood Memories

by Sue Halpern

Last week, Dr. David Sulzer’s lab at Columbia Medical School reported that researchers were able to reverse the symptoms of autism in mice by administering a drug that prunes synapses. Though scientists have known of the connection between synaptic overload and autism, this was the first time that they have been able to show that pruning synapses is palliative. What might seem counterintuitive that the human brain needs to shed neurons to develop normally, that, in fact, is what needs to happen between birth and puberty. Think of it as clearing out the attic so you can make clear pathways to what you’ve got stored up there. (When you read Bill’s post, One Perfect Thing, you will understand why this analogy seems especially apt to me today.) More to the point, many of the 100 billion neurons we are born with are not yet connected. As neurons are shed, there is more and more room for connections to be made. According to one source I read, at birth, each neuron has about 2500 synaptic connections and by three that number has grown to about 15,000, and continues to increase exponentially.  According to another,

At birth the baby has 50 trillion connections or synapses

In the first three months of life, the synapses multiply more than 20 times

At one year the brain has 1,000 trillion synapses.

The takeaway, here, numbers aside, is that as neurons are shed, connections are made.

So I was particularly interested in Ferris Jabr’s explanation for why we forget childhood memories, which in the end may turn out to be a very good thing:

Studies have shown that people can retrieve at least some childhood memories by responding to specific prompts—dredging up the earliest recollection associated with the word “milk,” for example—or by imagining a house, school, or specific location tied to a certain age and allowing the relevant memories to bubble up on their own.

But even if we manage to untangle a few distinct memories that survive the tumultuous cycles of growth and decay in the infant brain, we can never fully trust them; some of them might be partly or entirely fabricated. Through her pioneering research, Elizabeth Loftus of the University of California, Irvine has demonstrated that our earliest memories in particular are often insoluble blends of genuine recollections, narratives we sponged up from others, and imaginary scenes dreamt up by the subconscious.

In one set of groundbreaking experiments conducted in 1995, Loftus and her colleagues presented volunteers with short stories about their childhood provided by relatives. Unbeknownst to the study participants, one of these stories—about being lost in a mall at age 5—was mostly fiction. Yet a quarter of the volunteers said they had a memory of the experience. And even when they were told that one of the stories they had read was invented, some participants failed to realize it was the lost-in-a-mall story.


by Sue Halpern

Last night our twelve-year-old dog got into the trash. We came home from dinner out and the trash can had been tipped over and a week’s detritus was strewn across the kitchen. Pransky, the offender in question, had her tail firmly between her legs and was looking nervous and, possibly, guilty. If I had taken a picture, she now might be featured on the wonderfully inculpatory Dog Shaming blog. Instead, she is sleeping on the couch, all trespasses forgiven.

Wild Pigs A Growing Problem In BerlinThe question of whether dogs feel guilty, or just look guilty, has been long debated, and the jury remains out. Still, as Professor Marc Bekoff has written “there’s not reason why dogs cannot. And there’s solid, biological/evolutionary reasons to assume dogs can and do.” Of course, there are solid, biological/evolutionary reasons for dogs to raid the trash, too. So much of what we, humans, consider to be “bad” behavior in dogs, is behavior that comes with strong instinctive ties. The term “house breaking” offers a good clue to the power dynamic of domestication. Think about those collars that emit “ultrasonic sounds” to dogs that bark. Or the ones that zap them with a jolt of electricity if they jump. A barking dog! Can you imagine that?

There must be a better way.

Enter, pigs. Or, more accurately, the pig pheromone androstenone, which is secreted by male pigs when female pigs are in heat. Apparently, what turns on female pigs, turns off dogs of either sex. By chance, Texas Tech professor John McGlone happened to have some in his house, a house that also happened to be home to a yappy Cairn Terrier. And then, magic!

So, he gave one little spritz to his dog, Toto, and immediately the dog stopped barking. Right on the spot. ‘It was completely serendipitous,” said McGlone, who works in the Animal and Food Sciences department of the College of Agriculture and Natural Sciences. “One of the most difficult problems is that dogs bark a lot, and it’s one of the top reasons they are given back to shelters or pounds.”

Suddenly, an idea was born. After extensive testing and publishing of the results, and with funding help from Sergeant’s pet care products, Stop That was developed and hit store shelves under the Sentry pet products name about a year ago. It has been met with tremendous success by pet owners who were on their last legs in trying to curtail bad behavior in dogs.

“My dogs were instantly focused and silenced with one spritz,” said one product reviewer on “It’s changed my life.”

With that, a new term was coined, interone, which McGlone and his colleagues define as a product that is a “pheromone in one species and has a behavioral effect in another species, but we do not know if it is a pheromone (naturally produced) in the other species.”

And what if that other species is…us? According to The Long Term Ecological Network website, humans are also susceptible to the charms of androstenone, which in the UK has been marketed as a porcine aphrodisiac called Boar Mate since 1972.

At Guy’s Hospital in London scientists sprayed chairs in the visiting room randomly with Boar Mate, and when women arrived for treatment they chose those chairs over others. The active ingredient in the pig perfume is androstenone, and other British tests show that men with high levels of this chemical (measured in urine samples) tend to be married, father more children and occupy positions of power in industry. (Aggressive young criminals also have an excess of androstenone.)

Bad dogs to bad boys, and it gives new meaning to “male chauvinist pig,” too.

(Photo of a wild boar from Getty)

And So We Begin

by Sue Halpern

Greetings, People of the Dish. My name is Sue Halpern and I have been one of you for at least a decade, having followed this blog from independence to Time to the Atlantic to the Daily Beast and back to independence. When The New York Review of Books, my spiritual and intellectual home, was in the beginning stages of designing its own blog, I suggested to my friends there that that they take a page or two out of Andrew’s playbook because The Dish, it seemed to me then, as it does to me now, manages to combine the serious and the playful, skips the mean part (no comments, thank you very much), all the while trading on serendipity and engagement. That’s what drew me in as a reader, even though my own unrepentant liberal politics stood at a sharp angle from Andrew’s studied conservatism. But over time there has been an unlikely convergence and the angle has largely collapsed. Not completely, but more often than not.

Pransky At Work
Pransky At Work

Over those same years, though, I’ve found that my “belief” in politics, has diminished. If, before, I thought that electoral politics mattered—and I did; I was the one going door-to-door in swing states—now I have a hard time holding on to that belief. If I thought that government, our government, because it is of and by and for the people—that is, because it is us—existed to make our lives together more tenable, well, let’s just say that with my tax dollars going to support Gitmo, the militarization of the police, subsidies to oil companies, and on and on, I’ve become much more cynical. Wouldn’t it be nice if, when we paid our taxes we could tell the government where we wanted our money to go—to the National Parks, say, and not to those oil companies—but of course that’s not the nature of democracy. If faith is the belief in things unseen, then I guess I will continue to have faith in “we the people,” but it is, and will be, a faith sorely tried by doubt.

Did I say that I have a doctorate in political theory from Oxford? Or that I’m married to a man who has been manically trying to bring together people from all over the world into a concerted movement to redirect the trajectory of climate change? Or that I live in Vermont, where neighborliness is a good part of our politics? Scale, it turns out, matters. Scale things up and no one knows anyone, and decisions are made using algorithms and rubrics. Am I suspicious of big government? I guess by now I am. Are most Americans with me? Not as much as you might imagine. A few weeks ago I wrote a piece for the New York Review of Books about Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and the NSA, in which I noted that when George W. Bush was in office, the majority of Democrats were opposed to indiscriminate government surveillance and the majority of Republicans were fine with it, while that under Obama, those responses flipped, and Democrats were cool with government spying. To my mind, we maintain a naïve understanding of the power of bureaucracy to direct government when we think it’s okay for one party to do something that we revile if the other party were to do the same.

I’ve been writing about privacy issues, and technology, for a long time, and not always in tandem. I appreciate technology—I am a sucker for the latest Indiegogo gadgetry and know more about the iPhone 6 than I care to admit—but I also appreciate the vigilance it should, but rarely does, inspire in us. Meanwhile privacy, which I have taken as a social good, and as a right, and as a part of my DNA and yours, no longer seems a given. Instinctively I think that’s bad, but I’m willing to consider the opposite.

So let’s talk about dogs. My most recent book, “A Dog Walks Into A Nursing Home,” is about the work my canine partner, Pransky, and I do, as a therapy team at our local public nursing home. (I did an “Ask Anything” about it when the book came out last year.) I am thrilled to be writing for a publication that has a baying beagle as its mascot, so be prepared, over the next seven days, to help me ponder the essential bond we have with our dogs.

I am thrilled, too, to be sharing this virtual space with the man with whom I share real, physical, tangible space. After decades of what the child psychologists call “parallel play,” career-wise, we have spent the past year collaborating on a series of pieces for Smithsonian that combine our passion for ethnic food with our interest in the immigration, and have found that we really like working together. So thank you Andrew and crew for this opportunity to double-team the Dish. And here we go.