What Is Gluten & Why You Should Care About It

Fields of Wheat

It’s been a couple weeks since my last exam released me from it’s chokehold, and since then I’ve been doing a mix of panicking about what I’m going to do with my life now that I’m finished my undergrad and doing some reading that I’ve been putting off on the huge topic of gluten. It’s been a good mixture in my opinion, only made better with the company of this guy around the house:

Chase!

(By the way, if you’re not already following elevensesfood on Instagram – you’re missing out. It’s a glorious stream of delicious things we’re working on in the Elevenses test kitchen.)

Anyways, let’s get cracking on this fascinating topic!

What is Gluten?

This is an excellent question to start off with, as many people could tell you that it’s vaguely something “bad” (or at least “trendy to think it’s bad”) in bread – but couldn’t really tell you much besides that. 

Gluten, from the latin word for “glue”, is actually something of a misnomer for two of the main proteins in things like wheat, barley, and rye, called Gliadin and Glutenin. These break down still further into other compounds that scientists are still exploring everyday, but we’ll not discuss that here as most of this research is way over my head and the rest could make for several posts in and of themselves. For readability’s sake however, I’ll just refer to this complex of proteins as “gluten” for the remainder of this post.

Uh oh.  Here she comes…..the baker in the family.

Hey Jac!  Mom here! This information is fantastic.  The odd thing is, even now as I bake gluten free, as a baker I’m always striving to duplicate the properties of gluten.   with modified, allergen-free baking methods.  Whether I’m baking a gluten-free or grain- free baking, the production of a glutenous structure is vital to create a product that many of us would consider successful.  So, in going against the grain (oooooo bad pun!) I wanted to chime in about why and how I seek out gluten while others avoid it like the plague….

The production of a glutenous effect is necessary, even while baking “gluten free,”  as gluten is what gives raw dough it’s stretchy quality and baked products that chewy mouth feel we’ve all come to adore.  From this culinary perspective, I am always seeking ways to reproduce that glorious, glutenous effect that naturally occurs when flour (usually wheat) is combined with a liquid and strategically agitated in order to produce strands of proteins, otherwise known as gluten.

Dough Stretch

This is necessary in order for dough to become stretchy and, later on, to help baked products rise when in the presence of dry heat.  For gluten free bakers, we need to do a few things to ensure this occurs.  In a nutshell, we (1) combine various gluten free flours and starches (rice, tapioca, almond, etc) to mimic the properties of wheat flour as closely as we can, as one alternative flour variety rarely produces “wheaty” the texture we have been socialized to appreciate in baked goods, and (2) rely on the addition of gums to gluten free flours, such as Xanthan and guar gum, which essentially act as binders and provides additional structure that is lacking in many wheat flour alternatives.  For gluten-sensitive, baking addicts like us, these techniques are pivotal in ensuring our carb addictions are satiated and our hearts are full.  Stay tuned for more gluten-free Elevenses test kitchen recipes to come, folks!  Whether you’re avoiding gluten or not, we promise our culinary journey will be a delicious one worth sharing.

Some other useful definitions:

Gluten intolerance:  Also called gluten sensitivity, gluten intolerance is the umbrella term for a spectrum of disorders including celiac disease in which has an adverse effect on the body
Celiac Disease: An autoimmune disorder of the small intestine that is genetically predetermined.
Wheat allergy:  Not to be confused with Celiac Disease or Gluten Intolerance/Sensitivity, this is a rare allergy which involves immunoglobulin E and mast cell response.

Humans have been eating products containing gluten in varying amounts since the beginning of agriculture, dating back to the days of the invention of agriculture as we know it today in the “fertile crescent” about 20,000 years ago.

The Fertile Crescent Photo by Dr. Dowling

 

Okay, if we’ve been eating it so long, what’s the problem now?

This is the golden question, and is one that has sparked a lot of conversation over the last 10 years or so and increasingly in the last 2 or 3. It’s uncanny to note the rise in interest in the last few years in this compound that has seemingly been innocuous for the last several thousand years. 

Search Volume for Gluten

At this point, there is unfortunately no definitive answer as to why our generation has this problem with the dominant proteins in what has enabled civilization to proliferate like it has. The good news is there are a few pretty good hypotheses: The Paleo Argument, the Mutation Argument, and the Immune/Gut Argument (my personal favourite). And of course there are many others – I would encourage doing a search or two on PubMed to read about these.

 

But First: The Confounders

Before I outline these arguments, I think it’s important to touch on some of the confounding factors that make evaluating this concept tricky:

  1. Testing: One of the biggest problems when we’re talking about increasing or decreasing instances of gluten sensitivities, intolerance, and even full-blown celiac disease is an issue of the improvement of screening tests over time. I have no doubt that a sizeable portion of the “celiac epidemic” of the last few years is due to better understanding of the disease by doctors and improved, inexpensive panels for conclusive diagnosis. This improvement is actually continuing as we speak, as the other parts of the gluten complex are being understood and tests are being developed for them now – and many suggest will skyrocket diagnosed gluten sensitivities in the coming years.
  2. Popular Culture: It has to be said: being gluten-free is trendy right now. This means that while many many people do report relief from chronic health issues after being off gluten for a while, it’s the Miley Cyrus’ of the world telling everyone to go gluten free, and hipster cafes with gluten free menus that has people jumping on the bandwagon in droves. In short, a gluten-intolerance is like a pair of Ray Bans.
    Natalie here! I’ve never been able to afford Ray Bans before so my body has totally done me a solid. I know very little in terms of physiology and the effects of things like the two main proteins in wheat on the body, but what I do know and what I trust most is that dropping gluten from my diet has been one of the most important things I could have done for my own mental health and well being. I’m a different person than I was when my go-to meal was a ham sandwich with cheese and onion crisps (oh snap, I mean chips!). To quote the aforementioned Dr. Borkin: “You’ve achieved a lot of what you have through your diet”.
  3. Healthy Person Bias: This is one of my favourite confounding factors in health related studies where there is non-randomized sorting into experimental/observational groups (translation: people sign up to take part in the study and choose which experimental condition they’d like to go through, or simply that they agree to be observed doing what they already do). The healthy person bias is that people that are health conscious try to do healthy things in general (health conscious people make an effort to exercise, eat well, and get enough rest moreso than people who aren’t health conscious), or that perceived healthy behaviours beget other healthy behaviours (like people who are asked to exercise regularly for a study start to adopt other healthy behaviours unconsciously like sleeping more). In this way it is difficult to separate the health improvements of specific behavioural/health changes from others. 

 

The Paleo Argument:

Photo by Grand Canyon National ParkPhoto by Grand Canyon National Park

The Paleo diet is pretty well based on arguing exactly where bread and other grain products fit into our diet (hint: they don’t) among other “non-Paleo” foods like vegetable oils, sugar, etc. 

The big believers in Paleo answer the question of why we’re having such a difficult time with wheat-like products with an evolutionary story that goes something like this: 

  • Humans evolved primarily without products from our present age of agriculture, 
  • We started to eat them as often as we have for economic and societal-growth reasons very recently (on an evolutionary scale)
  • Our biology hasn’t had time to catch up to this “new” food, so we are naturally sensitive to it. We should be eating foods that we ate for the majority of our evolution, not grains – and if we did we should be preparing them as our ancestors did with soaking and fermenting before consumption.

Main strength of this model:

It’s generally agreed upon that humans have been anatomically modern for 200,000 years or so. This means that even for those first agriculturalists (a small subset of the total human population at the time), they began cultivating grains for large-scale consumption for only 10% of their anatomically modern age, and no notable anatomical adaptations have taken hold since that time. 

Main weakness of this model:

Many cultures have been eating grain-based products containing gluten for generations prior to this one, with not even close to the same amount of health-ills that some of us are experiencing now. Even more interesting to me are the people who do eat gluten on a regular basis today and have no adverse reactions to it (these people do exist, and I am extremely jealous of them). So, if indeed this is a lack-of-adaptations-causal problem, why are subsets of the population affected by it in varying degrees (like women, who are affected more than men by a ratio of 2.3:1)? 

My take:

I personally hail from families from Eastern Europe and the Indigenous peoples of northern Alberta here in Canada. For me, there is evidence that the agriculture began for my Mom’s Eastern European side long after agriculture got big in Turkey, and then on my Dad’s side grain-based agriculture never was a thing. So for me, I do credit some of my natural sensitivity to gluten (and the gluten sensitivity of my grandparents and great-grandparents) to ancestry. That being said, I don’t see this argument as being air tight due to the people who do fine on grains and gluten (think of that friend you have who has great-grandparents that have lived to 110 on oatmeal and perogies), and don’t gain much from eliminating it from their diets.

In other words, I see ancestry as a determinant of how likely you are to be sensitive, but not something that determines whether or not you ultimately end up with a sensitivity, intolerance, or allergy. 

 

The Mutation Argument:

GeneticsPhoto by epSos.de

The mutation argument is SUCH a cool one (can you tell I just finished a genetics specialty in bioscience?). This story goes like this:

  • 20,000 years ago humans began to cultivate grains.
  • Since way back then we have been selecting for desirable traits in these grains like higher yield, climate hardiness, and other things like taste and texture – and this has massively sped up in recent years due to advances in genetics and genetic engineering.
  • An unintended consequence (remember, Nutrition as a bonafide science has only been around for about a century) of selecting for certain desirable traits has resulted in very different nutritional compounds in our modern grains as compared to those ancient grains.

Main strength of this model: 

The wheat varieties that make up the average loaf of bread or package of pasta are definitely far different from the wheat ancient grain gatherers ate, and still very different from the ones that some of our grandparents ate. This is important because this tinkering has resulted in far higher amounts of Glia-α9 in our modern wheat, which is coincidentally the most “reactive” compound in gluten for Celiacs

From the Healthy Home Economist

Main weakness of this model:

The only trouble with this model is a lack of research at this point because these studies are still fairly new and few!

My take:

As I just mentioned, this research is still in it’s baby-phase (how exciting right?!), so I hesitate to make too many wild claims based only on the existing material. That being said, I do personally think that this mutation argument is a key piece in understanding the gluten problem.

 

Immune/Gut Argument:

Human T-CellPhoto by NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, this argument is my absolute favourite. Why you ask? Well, primarily because this argument really ties together a couple of my favourite systems (the gut and the gut biome) and suggests a possible mechanism for the differing reactions to gluten across current populations and over generations. The immune/gut story goes something like this:

  • Human beings are outnumbered by the microbes in our guts at about a 10:1 ratio, so really when we’re talking about human evolution and adaptation we should be including them big time.
  • Some good citizen science from the awesome people over at the American Gut Project showed that the populations in your gut can change hugely over even a 2-3 week period – meaning that while our anatomy might not have changed since the stone age, our gut microbes most definitely have been shifting around.
  • People with an unhealthy gut biome due to overuse of antibiotics or under-consuming foods that feed their microbes, eventually have opportunistic bacterial overgrowths that eat away at the gut mucosa and gut wall. This permeable gut lets gluten and other food products into the blood stream, forcing the immune system to fight these invaders with antibodies, eventually leading to food sensitivities, allergies,  autoimmune problems, and a host of other health conditions (read my other article on the gut here).  
  • Those people who haven’t experienced troubles with gluten likely have a healthy gut biome and thus a strong mucosal barrier and gut wall that have the ability to deal with these products. 

Main strength of this model:

The existence of the mediating variable of gut health (food sensitivities, intolerances, allergies, and even certain diseases don’t happen unless the gut is permeable) in this model is extremely important in order to bring home the most cool/frustrating thing about human health: it tends to be complex, cyclical, and involve the entire body. 

Main weakness of this model:

The centrality of the gut and gut biome on human health is still a very new area of study, and in fact the entire notion of “intestinal permeability” was seen as a new-age quack diagnosis until even a couple years ago. There will be an explosion of new research within the next year to add to our arsenal, but until then it’s important to note that this argument is based on research-backed separate parts, but is hypothetical as a whole.

My take:

Since I stumbled upon Richard Nikoley’s writings on Resistant Starch I’ve been a huge gut biome nerd, so perhaps I’m a bit biased, but I think this understanding of the gut and it’s resident microbes was a huge missing piece in understanding the rise of gluten as a health concern. It answers why gluten is a growing issue for the modern population as a whole, why certain people have been unaffected, and why there are so many seemingly-unrelated health issues that occur alongside gluten intolerances, sensitivities, or celiac disease.

In stumbles a Hunter: I have to agree with Jacqui on this – the sheer complexity of “gluten” shouldn’t undermine the greater health issues as well. With this being more and more of a trendy thing to explore, there will be people calling out other people who “jump on the bandwagon”. However, this phenomena has always occurred – and the food movements, as I’ve seen, are a part of a cyclical response to people feeling alienated from their health and body. Just look at the Physical Culture movement that happened in Europe and the U.S. around 1900’s (this video does an excellent exploration of the subject – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_d6nV-HyadY). The fundamental ideas of “Physical Culture” over a hundred years ago parallel many of the ideas being discussed in contemporary health movements like paleo, primal, gluten-free and so on. People will always be examining ways to reclaim a part of their identity – through fitness, social media or diet. Personally, after being gluten free for two years, chronic symptoms of inflammation have disappeared and I feel awesome. And who knows what new testing and research on this will bring! 
  

Composition:

I use the word “composition” instead of “conclusion” in order to balance the critique style of the majority of my article. The purpose of this is to re-connect the different ways of knowing (particularly of science and anthropology) about health, food, and culture – as I firmly believe that the whole human food experience is far more than the sum of its parts.

So – now what? We have 3 hypotheses (among others) that help us to understand what exactly is going on with gluten these days, and they each bring some important things to the table:

  1. Paleo brings some perspective on how our lifestyles and eating habits today are very different from how they used to be, and suggests that the further away we have gotten from that way of living, the sicker we have become. 
  2. The way we’ve changed our food on a genetic and nutritional level helps us to understand that humans have the tendency to rush into things without considering what we don’t know we don’t know.
  3. Our gut biome and the way its balance or disbiosis affects our health shows that our scientific understanding of health is in its infancy, and that we truly have a lot to learn.

Where does this leave us in helping to understand the reason why the world has become plagued by gluten-related issues? It leaves us with the fact that it’s complicated. It’s complicated because the reason why gluten is affecting us on a biological level is so layered and multidimensional, and also because of the fact that our current social tendency is to demonize individual things instead of stepping back and taking in simple truths. 

The simple truth with gluten is that in the big picture, what we’re really suffering from has very little to do with it at all.

Why did I even bother writing about gluten if that’s the case? Because our modern reaction to gluten (both biologically and socially) is a perfect example of our crises of understanding human health and foodways, which is the overemphasis placed on symptoms.

Just as obesity isn’t the problem, high cholesterol isn’t the problem, and Gluten isn’t the problem. They are all symptoms of an ill-functioning total health system on the individual and political level, and chasing these symptoms around with the expectation that this practice is on the road to rebuilding that health is akin to bailing out a boat filling with water believing that the problem is the water.

The problem isn’t the water – the problem is the gaping hole in your boat.

The hole in our collective boat is our health, the water is disease, the bucket is our health care system, and our perfect hole-filling material is our food. I don’t mean to suggest at all that good food is the answer to everything, but my impression from the scientific literature, anthropological record, and my own experiences with seeing food as medicine is that it’s a fantastic start. 

A start to what? To being able to look up from bailing out a broken boat, and steering it wherever we want.

It’s been a couple weeks since my last exam released me from it’s chokehold, and since then I’ve been doing a mix of panicking about what I’m going to do with my life now that I’m finished my undergrad and doing some reading that I’ve been putting off on the huge topic of gluten. It’s been a good mixture in my opinion, only made better with the company of this guy around the house:

Chase!

(By the way, if you’re not already following elevensesfood on Instagram – you’re missing out. It’s a glorious stream of delicious things we’re working on in the Elevenses test kitchen.)

Anyways, let’s get cracking on this fascinating topic!

What is Gluten?

This is an excellent question to start off with, as many people could tell you that it’s vaguely something “bad” (or at least “trendy to think it’s bad”) in bread – but couldn’t really tell you much besides that. 

Gluten, from the latin word for “glue”, is actually something of a misnomer for two of the main proteins in things like wheat, barley, and rye, called Gliadin and Glutenin. These break down still further into other compounds that scientists are still exploring everyday, but we’ll not discuss that here as most of this research is way over my head and the rest could make for several posts in and of themselves. For readability’s sake however, I’ll just refer to this complex of proteins as “gluten” for the remainder of this post.

Uh oh.  Here she comes…..the baker in the family.

Hey Jac!  Mom here! This information is fantastic.  The odd thing is, even now as I bake gluten free, as a baker I’m always striving to duplicate the properties of gluten.   with modified, allergen-free baking methods.  Whether I’m baking a gluten-free or grain- free baking, the production of a glutenous structure is vital to create a product that many of us would consider successful.  So, in going against the grain (oooooo bad pun!) I wanted to chime in about why and how I seek out gluten while others avoid it like the plague….

The production of a glutenous effect is necessary, even while baking “gluten free,”  as gluten is what gives raw dough it’s stretchy quality and baked products that chewy mouth feel we’ve all come to adore.  From this culinary perspective, I am always seeking ways to reproduce that glorious, glutenous effect that naturally occurs when flour (usually wheat) is combined with a liquid and strategically agitated in order to produce strands of proteins, otherwise known as gluten.

Dough Stretch

This is necessary in order for dough to become stretchy and, later on, to help baked products rise when in the presence of dry heat.  For gluten free bakers, we need to do a few things to ensure this occurs.  In a nutshell, we (1) combine various gluten free flours and starches (rice, tapioca, almond, etc) to mimic the properties of wheat flour as closely as we can, as one alternative flour variety rarely produces “wheaty” the texture we have been socialized to appreciate in baked goods, and (2) rely on the addition of gums to gluten free flours, such as Xanthan and guar gum, which essentially act as binders and provides additional structure that is lacking in many wheat flour alternatives.  For gluten-sensitive, baking addicts like us, these techniques are pivotal in ensuring our carb addictions are satiated and our hearts are full.  Stay tuned for more gluten-free Elevenses test kitchen recipes to come, folks!  Whether you’re avoiding gluten or not, we promise our culinary journey will be a delicious one worth sharing.

Some other useful definitions:

Gluten intolerance:  Also called gluten sensitivity, gluten intolerance is the umbrella term for a spectrum of disorders including celiac disease in which has an adverse effect on the body
Celiac Disease: An autoimmune disorder of the small intestine that is genetically predetermined.
Wheat allergy:  Not to be confused with Celiac Disease or Gluten Intolerance/Sensitivity, this is a rare allergy which involves immunoglobulin E and mast cell response.

Humans have been eating products containing gluten in varying amounts since the beginning of agriculture, dating back to the days of the invention of agriculture as we know it today in the “fertile crescent” about 20,000 years ago.

The Fertile Crescent Photo by Dr. Dowling

 

Okay, if we’ve been eating it so long, what’s the problem now?

This is the golden question, and is one that has sparked a lot of conversation over the last 10 years or so and increasingly in the last 2 or 3. It’s uncanny to note the rise in interest in the last few years in this compound that has seemingly been innocuous for the last several thousand years. 

Search Volume for Gluten

At this point, there is unfortunately no definitive answer as to why our generation has this problem with the dominant proteins in what has enabled civilization to proliferate like it has. The good news is there are a few pretty good hypotheses: The Paleo Argument, the Mutation Argument, and the Immune/Gut Argument (my personal favourite). And of course there are many others – I would encourage doing a search or two on PubMed to read about these.

 

But First: The Confounders

Before I outline these arguments, I think it’s important to touch on some of the confounding factors that make evaluating this concept tricky:

  1. Testing: One of the biggest problems when we’re talking about increasing or decreasing instances of gluten sensitivities, intolerance, and even full-blown celiac disease is an issue of the improvement of screening tests over time. I have no doubt that a sizeable portion of the “celiac epidemic” of the last few years is due to better understanding of the disease by doctors and improved, inexpensive panels for conclusive diagnosis. This improvement is actually continuing as we speak, as the other parts of the gluten complex are being understood and tests are being developed for them now – and many suggest will skyrocket diagnosed gluten sensitivities in the coming years.
  2. Popular Culture: It has to be said: being gluten-free is trendy right now. This means that while many many people do report relief from chronic health issues after being off gluten for a while, it’s the Miley Cyrus’ of the world telling everyone to go gluten free, and hipster cafes with gluten free menus that has people jumping on the bandwagon in droves. In short, a gluten-intolerance is like a pair of Ray Bans.
    Natalie here! I’ve never been able to afford Ray Bans before so my body has totally done me a solid. I know very little in terms of physiology and the effects of things like the two main proteins in wheat on the body, but what I do know and what I trust most is that dropping gluten from my diet has been one of the most important things I could have done for my own mental health and well being. I’m a different person than I was when my go-to meal was a ham sandwich with cheese and onion crisps (oh snap, I mean chips!). To quote the aforementioned Dr. Borkin: “You’ve achieved a lot of what you have through your diet”.
  3. Healthy Person Bias: This is one of my favourite confounding factors in health related studies where there is non-randomized sorting into experimental/observational groups (translation: people sign up to take part in the study and choose which experimental condition they’d like to go through, or simply that they agree to be observed doing what they already do). The healthy person bias is that people that are health conscious try to do healthy things in general (health conscious people make an effort to exercise, eat well, and get enough rest moreso than people who aren’t health conscious), or that perceived healthy behaviours beget other healthy behaviours (like people who are asked to exercise regularly for a study start to adopt other healthy behaviours unconsciously like sleeping more). In this way it is difficult to separate the health improvements of specific behavioural/health changes from others. 

 

The Paleo Argument:

Photo by Grand Canyon National ParkPhoto by Grand Canyon National Park

The Paleo diet is pretty well based on arguing exactly where bread and other grain products fit into our diet (hint: they don’t) among other “non-Paleo” foods like vegetable oils, sugar, etc. 

The big believers in Paleo answer the question of why we’re having such a difficult time with wheat-like products with an evolutionary story that goes something like this: 

  • Humans evolved primarily without products from our present age of agriculture, 
  • We started to eat them as often as we have for economic and societal-growth reasons very recently (on an evolutionary scale)
  • Our biology hasn’t had time to catch up to this “new” food, so we are naturally sensitive to it. We should be eating foods that we ate for the majority of our evolution, not grains – and if we did we should be preparing them as our ancestors did with soaking and fermenting before consumption.

Main strength of this model:

It’s generally agreed upon that humans have been anatomically modern for 200,000 years or so. This means that even for those first agriculturalists (a small subset of the total human population at the time), they began cultivating grains for large-scale consumption for only 10% of their anatomically modern age, and no notable anatomical adaptations have taken hold since that time. 

Main weakness of this model:

Many cultures have been eating grain-based products containing gluten for generations prior to this one, with not even close to the same amount of health-ills that some of us are experiencing now. Even more interesting to me are the people who do eat gluten on a regular basis today and have no adverse reactions to it (these people do exist, and I am extremely jealous of them). So, if indeed this is a lack-of-adaptations-causal problem, why are subsets of the population affected by it in varying degrees (like women, who are affected more than men by a ratio of 2.3:1)? 

My take:

I personally hail from families from Eastern Europe and the Indigenous peoples of northern Alberta here in Canada. For me, there is evidence that the agriculture began for my Mom’s Eastern European side long after agriculture got big in Turkey, and then on my Dad’s side grain-based agriculture never was a thing. So for me, I do credit some of my natural sensitivity to gluten (and the gluten sensitivity of my grandparents and great-grandparents) to ancestry. That being said, I don’t see this argument as being air tight due to the people who do fine on grains and gluten (think of that friend you have who has great-grandparents that have lived to 110 on oatmeal and perogies), and don’t gain much from eliminating it from their diets.

In other words, I see ancestry as a determinant of how likely you are to be sensitive, but not something that determines whether or not you ultimately end up with a sensitivity, intolerance, or allergy. 

 

The Mutation Argument:

GeneticsPhoto by epSos.de

The mutation argument is SUCH a cool one (can you tell I just finished a genetics specialty in bioscience?). This story goes like this:

  • 20,000 years ago humans began to cultivate grains.
  • Since way back then we have been selecting for desirable traits in these grains like higher yield, climate hardiness, and other things like taste and texture – and this has massively sped up in recent years due to advances in genetics and genetic engineering.
  • An unintended consequence (remember, Nutrition as a bonafide science has only been around for about a century) of selecting for certain desirable traits has resulted in very different nutritional compounds in our modern grains as compared to those ancient grains.

Main strength of this model: 

The wheat varieties that make up the average loaf of bread or package of pasta are definitely far different from the wheat ancient grain gatherers ate, and still very different from the ones that some of our grandparents ate. This is important because this tinkering has resulted in far higher amounts of Glia-α9 in our modern wheat, which is coincidentally the most “reactive” compound in gluten for Celiacs

From the Healthy Home Economist

Main weakness of this model:

The only trouble with this model is a lack of research at this point because these studies are still fairly new and few!

My take:

As I just mentioned, this research is still in it’s baby-phase (how exciting right?!), so I hesitate to make too many wild claims based only on the existing material. That being said, I do personally think that this mutation argument is a key piece in understanding the gluten problem.

 

Immune/Gut Argument:

Human T-CellPhoto by NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, this argument is my absolute favourite. Why you ask? Well, primarily because this argument really ties together a couple of my favourite systems (the gut and the gut biome) and suggests a possible mechanism for the differing reactions to gluten across current populations and over generations. The immune/gut story goes something like this:

  • Human beings are outnumbered by the microbes in our guts at about a 10:1 ratio, so really when we’re talking about human evolution and adaptation we should be including them big time.
  • Some good citizen science from the awesome people over at the American Gut Project showed that the populations in your gut can change hugely over even a 2-3 week period – meaning that while our anatomy might not have changed since the stone age, our gut microbes most definitely have been shifting around.
  • People with an unhealthy gut biome due to overuse of antibiotics or under-consuming foods that feed their microbes, eventually have opportunistic bacterial overgrowths that eat away at the gut mucosa and gut wall. This permeable gut lets gluten and other food products into the blood stream, forcing the immune system to fight these invaders with antibodies, eventually leading to food sensitivities, allergies,  autoimmune problems, and a host of other health conditions (read my other article on the gut here).  
  • Those people who haven’t experienced troubles with gluten likely have a healthy gut biome and thus a strong mucosal barrier and gut wall that have the ability to deal with these products. 

Main strength of this model:

The existence of the mediating variable of gut health (food sensitivities, intolerances, allergies, and even certain diseases don’t happen unless the gut is permeable) in this model is extremely important in order to bring home the most cool/frustrating thing about human health: it tends to be complex, cyclical, and involve the entire body. 

Main weakness of this model:

The centrality of the gut and gut biome on human health is still a very new area of study, and in fact the entire notion of “intestinal permeability” was seen as a new-age quack diagnosis until even a couple years ago. There will be an explosion of new research within the next year to add to our arsenal, but until then it’s important to note that this argument is based on research-backed separate parts, but is hypothetical as a whole.

My take:

Since I stumbled upon Richard Nikoley’s writings on Resistant Starch I’ve been a huge gut biome nerd, so perhaps I’m a bit biased, but I think this understanding of the gut and it’s resident microbes was a huge missing piece in understanding the rise of gluten as a health concern. It answers why gluten is a growing issue for the modern population as a whole, why certain people have been unaffected, and why there are so many seemingly-unrelated health issues that occur alongside gluten intolerances, sensitivities, or celiac disease.

In stumbles a Hunter: I have to agree with Jacqui on this – the sheer complexity of “gluten” shouldn’t undermine the greater health issues as well. With this being more and more of a trendy thing to explore, there will be people calling out other people who “jump on the bandwagon”. However, this phenomena has always occurred – and the food movements, as I’ve seen, are a part of a cyclical response to people feeling alienated from their health and body. Just look at the Physical Culture movement that happened in Europe and the U.S. around 1900’s (this video does an excellent exploration of the subject – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_d6nV-HyadY). The fundamental ideas of “Physical Culture” over a hundred years ago parallel many of the ideas being discussed in contemporary health movements like paleo, primal, gluten-free and so on. People will always be examining ways to reclaim a part of their identity – through fitness, social media or diet. Personally, after being gluten free for two years, chronic symptoms of inflammation have disappeared and I feel awesome. And who knows what new testing and research on this will bring! 
  

Composition:

I use the word “composition” instead of “conclusion” in order to balance the critique style of the majority of my article. The purpose of this is to re-connect the different ways of knowing (particularly of science and anthropology) about health, food, and culture – as I firmly believe that the whole human food experience is far more than the sum of its parts.

So – now what? We have 3 hypotheses (among others) that help us to understand what exactly is going on with gluten these days, and they each bring some important things to the table:

  1. Paleo brings some perspective on how our lifestyles and eating habits today are very different from how they used to be, and suggests that the further away we have gotten from that way of living, the sicker we have become. 
  2. The way we’ve changed our food on a genetic and nutritional level helps us to understand that humans have the tendency to rush into things without considering what we don’t know we don’t know.
  3. Our gut biome and the way its balance or disbiosis affects our health shows that our scientific understanding of health is in its infancy, and that we truly have a lot to learn.

Where does this leave us in helping to understand the reason why the world has become plagued by gluten-related issues? It leaves us with the fact that it’s complicated. It’s complicated because the reason why gluten is affecting us on a biological level is so layered and multidimensional, and also because of the fact that our current social tendency is to demonize individual things instead of stepping back and taking in simple truths. 

The simple truth with gluten is that in the big picture, what we’re really suffering from has very little to do with it at all.

Why did I even bother writing about gluten if that’s the case? Because our modern reaction to gluten (both biologically and socially) is a perfect example of our crises of understanding human health and foodways, which is the overemphasis placed on symptoms.

Just as obesity isn’t the problem, high cholesterol isn’t the problem, and Gluten isn’t the problem. They are all symptoms of an ill-functioning total health system on the individual and political level, and chasing these symptoms around with the expectation that this practice is on the road to rebuilding that health is akin to bailing out a boat filling with water believing that the problem is the water.

The problem isn’t the water – the problem is the gaping hole in your boat.

The hole in our collective boat is our health, the water is disease, the bucket is our health care system, and our perfect hole-filling material is our food. I don’t mean to suggest at all that good food is the answer to everything, but my impression from the scientific literature, anthropological record, and my own experiences with seeing food as medicine is that it’s a fantastic start. 

A start to what? To being able to look up from bailing out a broken boat, and steering it wherever we want.

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About the author

Jacqui

Jacqui Cardinal is a writer and eater at the elevenses blog with the rest of the Cardinal family. Her column is "Epistéme" and explores the relationships of biology, food, and culture. When she's not blogging and eating, she's finishing her Bio and Sociology degree at the University of Alberta, you can reach her on Google+.

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2 Comments on “What Is Gluten & Why You Should Care About It

  1. Kyle

    First off, this is a fantastic article; finally a piece about nutrition using information and not opinion (I too have a genetics degree). Having said that, there is one fatal flaw here, and really, it’s simply because I stand on the other side of the issue: you have assumed gluten is bad. In spire of your stating otherwise your arguments imply your stance.
    There are most certainly individuals whose bodies don’t process gluten effectively or at all, but this is not unlike everything we consume. Lactose was really the first and most important protein identified in the last century that has a wide spectrum of human tolerance. Some bodies digest lactose with ease, others with some difficulty and still others not at all. But this doesn’t make dairy an inappropriate food and nutrition source, just one that needs to be handled at the individual level. Gluten is certainly proving to be one of these proteins. And we can adjust our personal diets so we consume the foods that make our bodies happy.
    The ‘how our bodies feel’ diet, however, is a very slippery slope to live on. I’m sure no one deny the nutritional value of vegetables or beans but yet for many people consuming these foods cause gas buildup and extreme discomfort. If we just take one example of the drug Beano, they indicate their Alpha-galactosidase is effective for gas from: beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, corn, cucumbers, leeks, lettuce, onions, parsley, sweet peppers, black-eyed peas, bog beans, broad beans, chickpeas, lentils, lima beans, mung beans, peanuts and peanut butter, pinto beans, red kidney, seed flour (sesame, sunflower), soybeans and soy milk. Should we eradicate these foods from the global diet too?

    My hypothesis as to why gluten has become a public enemy is not one of biology but of vanity. We (as a people) have found cutting out these grains can make our bellies much slimmer with little additional efforts. A gluten-free friend of mine recently admitted her concern about continued weight loss in spite of consuming high fat foods.
    When you consider again the anthropological value of gluten-containing foods, the peoples with stable access to high-energy food were the most ‘successful’. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel, the author suggests that one of the reasons for the Eurasian civilizations’ dominance was because of this access.
    This theory lines up with our social understanding of gluten. As gluten-containing grains are high-density food sources they create stores of energy that are needed to sustain a population during shortages and during battle. So the better question now is whether or not we need these types of food in our diet given the extreme access and security of our current culture.

    But again, I thank you for beginning an intellectual dialog based on science.

    Reply
    1. Hey Kyle –

      YES! Another genetics person! Thanks for this amazing comment! I was super pleased to read this as I agree, there’s a massive hole in the public discourse regarding gluten that actually bases itself in some sort of scientific grounding. You touched on some really important things as well, many of them I considered writing about but ended up on the cutting room floor, and I’m really really glad you brought them up here.

      Firstly, you definitely picked up on my own bias with this article – and I really tried to make sure I was up front about that fact. Honestly the best/worst thing about trying to write science-based articles about health and nutrition is that we do it (eat, that is) every single day. For me, I’ve been on the search for answers to my own health ills and have found food to be a really big part of rebuilding it, so I tend to enter into conversations about specific foods or types of foods that I’ve personally tried with a bias. However, I do my very best to be careful with it and balance my n=1 experiences with skepticism and research.

      I think we agree on the fact that discussions about food and nutrition are far more complicated than a lot of people make them out to be, and the alpha-galactosidase enzyme you mentioned is a really excellent example. Beano helps break down the three major oligosaccharides (verbascose, stachyose and raffinose) into their sugar components of glucose, galactose, sucrose and fructose – which is good for people that are unable to break down those larger saccharide chains for one reason or another, but not really for anyone who doesn’t have this issue (and can even be harmful in the long term especially when you take into consideration that oligosaccharides are a major food source for the gut biome). All of a sudden, good nutrition recommendations become a series of, “it depends” instead of “don’t eat x” – and that’s hard to accept for the majority of the population who are used to, and want, the latter brand of advice. So definitely don’t get me wrong, I don’t think avoiding ANY food is a sustainable answer, and that extends to gluten. My conclusion really is that gluten is a symptom of a larger problem (spontaneous(?) near-global decline in health) to which I still have not personally found any rock-solid answers for.

      The biology/vanity hypothesis you mentioned is an interesting one. I do agree with the fact that many people seem to do better when they stop eating gluten, but for a variety of confounding reasons (is it that they are consuming less calories? Less junk calories? Are they changing to other “healthful” behaviours at the same time?) it’s hard to know what’s really happening there. I do see the danger in chalking it up to just “gluten” making that happen, but at the same time it’s hard to see the down side in people looking closely at what they eat and seeing that it has an effect on their bodies. It’s a small win in that way, I suppose. I guess that’s the frustrating line between public health and nutritional research.

      As for the correlation with “successful” societies having access to high-energy carbohydrate sources (that generally contain gluten except for the notable sources of potatoes and maize in the Americas), that’s a pretty easy connection to make and one that’s been around for a while. Personally I don’t think the pure calorie model really takes the convinces me of what our present problem is with our grain-based food supply (have you read The Calorie Myth by Jonathan Bailor?). I’m not saying thermodynamics is bull, but I am saying that the calorie model tends to really reduce biological systems to almost-mechanical models – and that’s an issue for a whole lot of reasons that will probably be an article in a couple months actually!

      Anyways! This is turning into a novel – but the last thing I want to say is that I really do think that the whole “gluten” problem (or “health” problem, or “fat” problem, or “food” problem) is probably a combination of some or all of the things that you and I have both touched on, but we just plain don’t know yet. The question then becomes what do we do until we do know? Unfortunately (fortunately?) it’s probably an issue of personal preference, and one that for me is testing things out for myself, and for others may be continuing what they’re doing until conclusive data comes out. I don’t think there’s much wrong with either decision as long as people know that there is no scientific consensus, just lots of hypotheses and still more questions, and anyone who claims to have any kind of conclusive answer is trying to sell you something.

      Thanks again for your comment, really great food for thought (ha)!

      Jacqui

      Reply

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