A hard-working professional and mother of a toddler struggles to get through her busy day, suffering aching joints and constant pain. A baby is slow to gain weight and exhibits unusual behaviors that concern his parents. A businesswoman hides her itchy rash beneath silky blouses, but her discomfort is apparent. A first-grader struggles to keep up with her friends and activities, sidelined by constant ear infections.
What do these seemingly different individuals have in common? An immune response or intolerance to gluten. Gluten is actually several related proteins found in such grains as wheat, barley, and rye. Anything made from these grains contains gluten.
In many people of northern European descent, gluten cannot be digested properly, and eating it triggers an auto-immune response characterized by pain, inflammation, itching, skin rashes, bloating, gastrointestinal distress, and malabsorption of nutrients, as well as the development of any number of autoimmune disorders, including thyroid disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and diabetes.
It’s also possible to have a true food allergy to wheat or its relatives, with rapid physiological responses including hives and airway constriction. Neurological symptoms ranging from mild mental fogginess to numbness, tingling, and muscle weakness may affect others. Children with developmental disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADD/ADHD also sometimes react negatively to gluten.
In researching my own health issues, I learned that gluten intolerance can affect the lining of the sinuses, mouth, esophagus, gut, and bladder, as well as the skin, joints, immune system, and even the brain. We learn more each month about how our bodies react to gluten, and none of it is good.
These are serious consequences, the dark side of the old adage “You are what you eat.”
Some people are also sensitive to oats, which contain proteins similar to gluten. (In addition, oats are often cross-contaminated with gluten in agricultural or milling operations.) Other grains that contain gluten include the wheat relatives spelt, farro, kamut, and triticale. Together, these gluten-containing grains cover a lot of ground in the food world, making it quite a challenge to avoid eating gluten.
That reality is rapidly changing, though, with gluten-free foods recently identified as the fastest-growing segment of the new-foods market, surpassing the low-carbohydrate trend of the last decade.
Although previously thought to affect only 1 in 133 people, gluten intolerance is on the rise, perhaps dramatically so. Some increase can be accounted for by better diagnosis, but that’s not the whole story. A better question might be, “What has changed about wheat?”
Because of its long history as a staple food and its genetic makeup, wheat has been tinkered with by agriculturalists for centuries. Its long-chain proteins have grown ever more complex and difficult to digest. As people who love to cook and bake discovered its unique binding properties, the gluten content of wheat has increased dramatically over time.
Another factor is that our exposure to gluten has become constant due to its prevalence in manufactured foods. Gluten in some form is used as an additive, filler, binder, extender, flavoring agent, and coating in a huge array of foods. We are overloading our digestive systems beyond their capacity to function, with an inherently difficult-to-digest protein.
The good news is that there are many wonderful, alternative grains that do not contain gluten. We can choose from many varieties of rice, wild rice, sorghum, amaranth, millet, quinoa, teff, nut flours, ground flaxseeds, even coconut flour.
Unlike wheat, which has a neutral taste, each of these grains and flours has a unique flavor that you can use to advantage when coming up with new recipes. Creating savory meals and delicate baked goods with new ingredients is challenging and fun.
A diet based on vegetables, fruits, legumes, alternative whole grains, and a small amount of animal protein contains an abundance of flavor, color, texture, and complete nutrition — all without gluten.
In future posts, I will be introducing gluten-free cooking and baking techniques, as well as more tasty recipes. Stay tuned!
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