October 7, 2013

The Gluten-Free Fad

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We’ve all seen it: the new gluten-free options on menus, labels on food proclaiming that this hummus is “gluten-free!” (well, duh, it’s hummus) and the aisles — yes aisles — of gluten-free products created in Wegmans as of late. What is with this newest food fad that denies Americans some of their most loved foods, and is it even beneficial?

According to William Davis, MD, author of the New York Times bestselling book, Wheat Belly, it most certainly is. Davis blames wheat for the obesity epidemic, rise of diabetes, heart disease, dementia, arthritis, acne, exacerbation of the aging process and disruption of the pH homeostasis in the body. Davis portrays wheat to be the root of all of America’s health woes and essentially, the devil.

However, wheat has not always been the bad grain. As with many foods in modern production, the advent of genetic modification has led to wheat gone wrong. Production of wheat in the last century has increased ten-fold, and such marked increases in yield have only been possible with gene hybridization. Davis claims that the wheat ingested by our ancestors, and even by our grandparents, is not the same wheat on the market today. Davis does not blame out-of-control portions or sedentary lifestyles on the obesity epidemic, but instead uses the genetic variation of wheat as the scapegoat for the expansion of the American waistline.

So, where does gluten and the gluten-free trend come into play with all of these wheat woes lamented by Dr. Davis? Davis uses the terms gluten and wheat rather interchangeably, which, from a nutrition standpoint, is incorrect. Gluten is the main source of protein found in most grain products, not just wheat. Wheat is the source that the average American obtains the majority of gluten from, and is thus Davis’ rationale for using the terms interchangeably. Yet, gluten is the main source of protein found in various grain products outside of wheat, including hearty and filling grains such as barley, rye and bulgar. And if it is the genetic modification of wheat in particular that relays the smorgasbord of adverse health effects, should other grain products be eliminated, too?

Here is the comical kicker for me. If you look at all of the gluten-free pastas, breads and other products, what do you often find as the replacement product for wheat? Corn flour. Talk about genetic modification; corn is the king of it! If you replace one evil with another highly publicized and fought against evil, are you really doing your health a favor? My answer is no.

Though it may seem like I am laughing at the gluten-free fad, I am mostly gluten-free myself. My parents have been gluten-free for a couple years and my sister has been for almost five years. Davis is right in many ways in rallying for a wheat-free diet, considering the nature of the wheat products Americans typically consume: a bagel for breakfast, a big sandwich on Italian bread for lunch and pizza for dinner. The bulk of these foods contain processed, refined, simple carbs that offer little nutritional value. I don’t eat much gluten, because it a rare occasion that I will eat the aforementioned foods, and care more about nutrition content than label. However, I won’t deny myself an amazing-looking piece of pre-dinner bread if I’m out to eat, and I still find it necessary to celebrate a friend’s birthday with a piece of cake.

Gluten has certainly gotten an undeserved bad wrap (or should I say sandwich?) in the past few years. Though I agree with Davis on many levels that the gluttonous gluten intake of processed and simple carbohydrates containing little nutritional value should be minimized, I do not think having a vegetable barley stew that contains — gasp! — gluten will increase the obesity epidemic of the nation. Take one look at the ingredient list of products proudly boasting “Gluten-Free!” on the label and realize that they may be no better, and sometimes even worse, than the real thing itself. You know what they say: you are what you wheat, so make it wheat that’s worthwhile eating.