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.