Gluten Free or Gluten Fad?
The catch phrase of “gluten-free” is everywhere today. It seems as though gluten is the next villain in our society that is terrorizing our bodies by the masses. Is there any truth to the statements made about gluten? That ridding it from the diet can improve autoimmune diseases, depression, irritable bowel disease, and even cancer? Or, is the gluten-free slogan just the newest way for powerful food corporations to make a pretty penny?
Marketing is a powerful tool that can revolutionize the way we picture health. The majority of people do not take the time necessary to really understand what foods they are putting into their bodies. They just read a label that says “low fat, or low cholesterol!” and believe that it is a healthier decision. Marketing has allowed food fads to reach historic levels in our society today. Margarine, Jell-O, twinkies, and oat bran have been popular fads in our nations history. Little did we know that many of these fads are capable of increasing the risk of cancer, obesity, and even diabetes. It is essential that we analyze the gluten-free facts. Our society cannot afford their pocket books to be taken advantage of while their health is put at risk.
In order to better understand gluten—we need to start at phase one. What is it and where did it come from? Gluten is a universal term for a family of storage proteins found in barley, rye, oats, and wheat (B.R.O.W.)
The history of gluten begins approximately ten thousand years ago when grains first began being cultivated in Asia. Grains slowly but surely began to become more widespread and cultivated around the world. However, grains took a lot of work and preparation in order to be processed and cooked and were not widely popular. The industrial revolution changed the face of gluten more than any other time in history. The transportation systems improved and the processing of gluten became a much more efficient. The great depression and World War II also led to an increase in gluten containing products as they were toted as being cheap alternatives to meat and dairy.
Gluten continued to grow in strength throughout the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and then in the 1990’s when the USDA placed wheat products as the foundation of the food pyramid and instructed Americans to base their diets around grains and foods like pasta. Today, wheat is the most widely grown crop in the world.
Grains are not the same grains today, as they were ten thousand years ago. Norman Brolaug won the Nobel Prize in 1970 for his hybrid high yield dwarf plant. Borlaug is known as the man “who saved a billion lives,” because this new hybrid plant of his was able to grow in harsher conditions. In order to produce a hybrid plant, chromosomes are added to the original structure altering its genetic make-up. The problem with hybrid plants is that they can also cause an increase in intolerances and allergies because our bodies do not recognize the new food being consumed. It is theorized that it takes three to four generations for out bodies to recognize a new genetically modified food. This is the massive problem with Borlaug’s wheat. It contained fourteen new strains of gluten. This new dwarf wheat now comprises ninety-nine percent of our wheat supplies today.
I mentioned earlier that marketing plays a huge role in the foods that we eat. Exactly how much money is being made on the gluten-free fad? 4.2 billion to be exact— and expected to grow to 6 billion within the next five years. Companies are taking notice of this up and coming trend of going gluten free and they certainly want their slice of the 6 billion dollar industry. It seems that at the moment, consumers will pay almost anything for gluten-free products. A recent Canadian study found that the average cost of gluten-free products compared to a similar product with gluten was on average 42% more expensive. The world is willing to pay for gluten-free products. Is it worth it?
Studies continue to support the fact that gluten wreaks havoc on the immune system and the gut. In the intestines of every single person there are areas known as tight junctions. These tight junctions keep a tight seal on the contents of the intestine so that they do not escape out into the body. When a person—sensitive or not—consumes gluten, it breaks these tight junctions down allowing protein and other materials to leak out of the gut and into the body. This is where the term “leaky gut” comes from. When leaky gut does occur, the body must mount an immune response against the escaped proteins. This decreases the overall function of the immune system allowing other pathogens to invade the body and possibly cause illness and infection.
Celiac disease is a genetic disorder where the human body is so intolerant to gluten that it actually launches an immune response against it when consumed. This can cause mass destruction in the form of diarrhea, bloating, malnutrition, and neurological disorders—just to name a few. Gluten causes the villi in the small intestine to lay flat instead of being upright and ready to absorb food. This is what causes malabsorption in the body and can lead to many devastating effects on the body. It is also thought that celiac disease may be due to the fact that the human body does not containing the appropriate enzymes and bacteria to completely break down the gluten protein.
A panel of celiac experts convened in 2011 to discuss the fact that many people were having gluten issues without being a celiac. They came up with a condition “non- celiac gluten sensitivity.” Food sensitivities occur when the body has a negative reaction to a food without mounting an immune response against it. It is estimated that as many as 1 in 3 people may be sensitive to gluten. The problem with being sensitive to gluten is that it can have some of the same devastating effects as celiac disease but is subtler and takes a longer amount of time to occur.
What are some of the effects of non-celiac gluten sensitivity? The main bulk of research on gluten sensitivity is still on the way. However, some of the research that has been done has shown dramatic correlations between major health issues and gluten. A recent study done by the “Journal of the American Medical Association” found that people with gluten sensitivity had a higher risk of death—mainly attributed to heart disease and cancer. Of the 30,000 patients studied from 1969 to 2008. They found a “39% percent increased risk of death in those with celiac disease, 72% increased risk in those with gut inflammation related to gluten, and 35% increased risk in those with gluten sensitivity.” A review paper in the “New England Journal of Medicine” listed fifty-five “diseases” that can be attributed to a gluten containing diet. These diseases included osteoporosis, irritable bowel disease, cancer, arthritis, depression, autoimmune disease, psychiatric and neurological disorders, and even autism.
If it says gluten-free on the label does that mean that it is healthy? Absolutely not. Many, if not most foods in the grocery store do not contain gluten. This does not mean that they are healthy. Many gluten free items contain loads of sugar and genetically modified ingredients in them. Sugar has been linked to devastating effects in the body and can even lead to inflammatory conditions. The other problem with new products labeled “gluten-free,” is that there is no regulation on what “gluten-free” really means. Many products can still have trace amounts of gluten in them but are legally allowed to put “gluten-free” on the label. Consumers must still be aware of marketing stunts when it comes to gluten-free items because in the end, companies are still out to make money.
In conclusion, it seems pretty clear that being gluten-free isn’t just the new fad. The discovery of gluten sensitivities and celiac disease has allowed the public to become more aware of what might be contributing to some major illnesses in our population today. The fact that gluten has the ability to lead to a 39% increase in death should be enough to scare the daylights out of anyone. Gluten is having life-threatening effects on people today that should cause an uprising. We cannot afford to be blind to the statistics. Going gluten-free needs to be the new way of life and not just a temporary fad.
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